Last week, The Washington Post asked itself an interesting question in a headline: “Is The Post Pro-Gay?” Meaning, does it cover the issue of gay marriage fairly, or is it advocating for marriage equality in the guise of news?
The ombudsman, Patrick Pexton (today is his last day at the Post), wrote that during his tenure he’s received a “steady stream” of communications from readers saying that “the Post has a ‘pro-gay’ agenda and publishes too many ‘puffy’ stories about gay marriage and that it even allows too many same-sex couples to appear in the Date Lab feature in Sunday’s WP Magazine.”
The question is interesting because it is one often leveled at mainstream news organizations by social conservatives who believe that the major media, and the journalists who populate it, have a liberal bias. (Whether there is a liberal bias or not continues to be up for debate.) And it makes me wonder: Is it indeed possible to cover the LGBT struggle for civil rights, include gays and lesbians as full members of the community and readership, and also air the anguish of social conservatives who feel that gay marriage is destructive to one of society’s most foundational social institutions?
Pexton, unfortunately, doesn’t have a full answer. He lets an anonymous reporter (sigh) make a point about why journalists might be biased toward gay rights. Gay rights and gay marriage is a matter of social justice, and journalism is fundamentally about fairness, the reporter says. Pexton adds, “because our profession lives and dies on the First Amendment — one of the libertarian cornerstones of the Constitution — most journalists have a problem with religionists telling people what they can and cannot do.”
That is a strong word, “religionists,” because it means “a religious zealot” and is not, um, an unbiased term — and, of course, not everybody opposing gay marriage is one. Many, especially older Americans in less urban areas, are just struggling to understand what this change will mean for the country that they love. And many of them are scared of that kind of change. (That is not to say that bigots don’t exist. They clearly do.)
“Religionists” is an especially curious word, though, because after taking the time to explain why journalists are justified in being in favor of gay marriage, Pexton writes in his last line that “the Post should do a better job of understanding and conveying to readers, with detachment and objectivity, the beliefs and fears of social conservatives.”
So which is it? Are journalists justified in favoring gay marriage and ignoring religious zealots, or should they do more to air the social conservative point of view?
I, of course, have my own bias here. Most of my career has been spent writing for the gay press. I’m a lesbian myself, and married. Gay marriage is something that I’ve advocated for, and I cheer it on as it advances state by state. I think the Post should, in fact, feature gay people in its Date Lab section and in all sections — it is no longer illegal to be gay in the US (and in fact, in Washington DC and Maryland, two states that comprise a good part of the Posts’s primary coverage region, gay people can legally wed. Virginia has a state constitutional amendment prohibiting it.) Gay people are part of the American fabric. We contribute to society, and we deserve to be treated equally in all things. Is gay rights the civil rights issue of our time, as the reporter claims? I certainly think so.
Even so, it makes me uneasy that as gays and lesbians are more accepted and thus more likely to appear as sympathetic in the news or features sections, empathetic portrayals of social conservatives appear less — at least it seems that way from my own long-term observations. That doesn’t serve anyone.
The Proposition 8 trial, which tested the California ballot initiative taking away the gay right to marry, was instructive to me about this, because it was the first time I’ve seen multiple social conservatives queried, in a systematic way, about what they believe about gay marriage and the family and why they believe it. So far, their arguments haven’t been convincing to judges (the case comes before the Supreme Court in March), but it helped us all understand their concerns. And when we journalists help our readers better understand everyone’s concerns, good things can happen. For example, our legislators can better protect everyone’s equality as they craft legislation. After all, social conservatives are part of the American fabric, too.
So what should journalists do? We can’t expect that they will be personally against gay marriage, especially younger ones. They are growing up in a world where they know gay people and where more and more Americans support gay marriage — 49 percent do overall, and the statistic is 73 percent for Americans under 30. And we shouldn’t expect them to engage in “he-said-she-said” journalism, where every positive gay marriage story is interrupted by a sour-grapes social conservative saying that being gay is wrong or that gay marriage is wrong, especially since so many of those claims are unsupported by evidence.
Instead, we should give social conservatives room in our newspapers and websites to express their views through opinion pieces and reporting. We should write news stories about their organizations and features profiling them. We should let them explain who they are and what they believe and why they believe it in a full, comprehensive way. And we should be sure to include them in feature stories in other sections as a matter of course, just as we do with gays and lesbians. Why not include them as regularly as gays in the Post’s matchmaking section Date Lab? Social conservatives want to marry, too.