On Wednesday, CJR and the ACLU co-hosted a panel at Washington, DC’s Newseum on how journalists can better cover same-sex marriage. The panelists were: Chris Geidner, senior political and legal reporter at BuzzFeed; E.J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For? and columnist at The American Prospect; David Fontana, associate professor of law at George Washington University; and Steven Petrow, New York Times columnist and former president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. I moderated and was happy that it was a lively, interesting discussion.
Though we covered everything from how the Supreme Court might rule on pending DOMA and Proposition 8 cases to whether current coverage of the issue is too liberal, I thought I’d pull out a few tips and points that might be of interest to reporters about to cover the imminent decision. Watch the panel discussion here.
• Be careful with your language. The current standard term for the political issue is same-sex marriage (you’d pair it with “opposite-sex marriage,” not “traditional marriage,” if talking about both types). “Gay marriage,” though, is often used in headlines and in digital media and social media, to better surface the content. Some outlets, like BuzzFeed and the gay press, use “marriage equality.” I’ve written about these terms before. Though I was in the minority on this on the panel, I worry that “marriage equality” is too morally loaded of a phrase to be neutral, and I’m a woman who is married to a woman.
When talking about an individual’s marriage, of course, they are just “married,” not “same-sex married” or “opposite-sex married,” and they have a husband or a wife.
• The trouble with finding opposing views. The panel pointed out that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find moderate or thoughtful conservatives who feel comfortable expressing an antipathy to same-sex marriage. This doesn’t mean they don’t hold that opinion; just that they don’t want to hold it in public, so journalists have been pressed into quoting sources on the anti-gay marriage side who are more and more extreme. When quoting extremists, it is especially important to provide context and fact-checking. Better is to really hunt for those more thoughtful anti-gay marriage sources who can talk reasonably about the issue. The panel agreed that it remains important to air that side of the debate thoroughly.
• Not all religious figures are against gays and lesbians getting married. Reporters sometimes propagate this myth by including, without comment, anti-same-sex marriage quotes along the lines of, “The Bible says a man can’t marry another man,” without explaining that there are other interpretations of the Bible, or that different religious traditions and religious individuals hold differing views.
• Read the whole decision. It’s tempting to want to tweet out the result of the Supreme Court’s ruling right away. But take the time to at least skim the entire decision so that you understand what grounds the ruling is based on, what the opposing opinion is, and what the implications might be.
• Explain what will happen with civil unions and domestic partnerships. If the Supreme Court ruling overturns Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, as expected, then the federal government will need to decide whether civil unions and robust, statewide domestic partnerships can be recognized as well. Section 3 prohibits the government from recognizing gay marriages performed in states where they are legal. The best discussion of this complicated issue that I’ve seen is from Michael Dorf, a Cornell law professor.
There is one more thing that the panel didn’t get a chance to discuss, but that I’d like to weigh in on:
• Not every gay couple getting married is male or white. Stories about same-sex marriage battles tend to focus on white couples, usually male ones, usually middle-class or wealthier. This leads the media-consuming public to sometimes assume that same-sex marriage is a white, middle-class issue. But gay men and lesbians of other races and all income levels also get married, and reporters should make sure that this is reflected in their publications.