minority reports

Loaded language of gay marriage

Reporters need to be mindful of using loaded terminology
January 4, 2013

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

At the intersection of gay rights and religious freedom is one thing: complexity. On the one side are those who say that secular marriage for gay and lesbian couples, with its accompanying rights and responsibilities, is a step toward equality and fairness. On the other side are conservative religious groups who feel that even secular marriage for gay couples interferes with their freedom to practice religion as they choose, and in addition will fundamentally harm marriage and society at large.

When claims of rights on both sides (and strong emotions) clash in this way, it can be difficult for journalists to figure out how to tell an objective story.

A recent issue illustrates this nicely. On New Year’s Day, Chicago’s Cardinal, Francis George, and his bishops issued a letter opposing gay marriage in Illinois, a bill that is expected to be taken up shortly by the state legislature (in fact, the process may have started even as you read this).

Both local dailies, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote thoughtful news stories on the letter. These were no hack jobs—they added context, gave background, reached out to both sides of the issue. Yet they could have been even better. Let’s look at how.

The Tribune story, by religion writer Manya A. Brachear, does a nice job conveying the facts about the letter and the impending bill. She chooses the right person to ask for a quote opposing George: the local president of Dignity Chicago, an activist group working for LGBT equality within the Catholic Church.

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Yet gay rights stories are tricky, because the language is so loaded—and Brachear slips, using words and making choices that cause her piece to tilt slightly right. She uses “traditional marriage advocates” to refer to people against same-sex marriage and “gay marriage” to name the issue. “Gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” are neutral terms. But “traditional marriage” is not. It’s a phrase used by conservatives to imply that marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm forever, despite research showing this is not the case. (Liberals would prefer that the term “marriage equality” be used instead, but that’s loaded in its own way; some conservatives, like Cardinal George, define marriage as consummated by heterosexual intercourse, making gay marriage an impossibility akin to advocating for sparrow marriage.)

Second, Brachear publishes an empty quote from a Catholic pastor who—surprise, surprise—seems to support the cardinal (or at least “understands where he is coming from.”) Priests are basically employees of the cardinal and can’t be expected to speak objectively. Better would have been to go to a church as Mass was letting out, talk with a couple parishioners, and get the (wo)man-on-the-street take.

The reporter does do a heroic job of trying to add context to George’s argument—instead of relying on scripture, the Cardinal uses Natural Law, which usually means using reason to deduce universal moral behaviors. But she doesn’t mention that George’s particular flavor of Natural Law is a religious argument based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas, not a secular one. And she never offers a counterpoint to the content of his argument. Instead, she uses the Dignity Chicago president to simply comment on the release of the letter itself, saying that to him it signifies that the Catholic Church will continue to fight gay marriage. We knew that already.

More importantly, Brachear doesn’t make the distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage. Though that difference may be obvious to those who follow the issue closely, readers often conflate the two. Too many may come away from the article with the impression the law would force the Church to officiate at the marriage of gay and lesbian couples, and that is not the case.

The Sun-Times piece, strongly written by staff reporter Kara Spak, is careful to make that civil-religious distinction through the voice of longtime gay activist and Catholic Rick Garcia. He has been a go-to source for many gay rights stories for years—usually it’s better to find someone with a fresher perspective, but in this case, Garcia’s quote suits perfectly, responding to George’s letter and laying out the gay rights perspective in three brisk sentences.

Spak fairly summarizes the cardinal’s argument and notes his mention of a Catholic organization, sanctioned by the church, that welcomes gays and lesbians and invites them to lead chaste lives. I wish she had also mentioned, as Brachear does, that shortly before George’s letter was issued, 260 Illinois clergy released a separate letter supporting gay marriage legislation. That would have been a welcome addition, since media coverage often gives the impression that religious figures and denominations universally oppose gay marriage and gay rights, which is far from the case.

Spak also adds some startling background that was new to me: “In 2011, during a television interview, George compared the gay rights movement to the Klu Klux Klan.” She explains the cardinal was protesting the new route of the annual Gay Pride parade, scheduled to pass a Catholic Church during Mass. Later, he apologized.

This is important information, because it shows that George is perhaps not as warm toward the gay community as he claims in his letter (“Does this mean that the Church is anti-gay? No, for the Church welcomes everyone, respects each one personally and gives to each the spiritual means necessary to convert to God’s ways . . . .”). However, I wish the revelation wasn’t placed at the end of Spak’s story without a response. It packs a punch there, but it also makes the piece feel like it is leaning left. Why? Because it seems like the writer is trying to make a point: George is homophobic. That sort of claim certainly deserves a response from George or at least the church. I’d rather have seen that information earlier, as a direct counterpoint to George’s claim that the church reaches out to gay people, so that it doesn’t come across as opinion.

The gay movement is advancing rapidly—sometimes so rapidly that it’s tough for reporters who don’t follow it closely not to get caught up in the snarls of language and mired in the subtleties of both sides’ arguments. Those complexities mean that the Tribune story conveys a slight anti-gay stance that it may not mean and that the Sun-Times seems more pro-gay marriage than perhaps is its intent. It may be impossible to ever be completely objective, but if we pay attention to pitfalls regularly associated with these stories, we can get closer.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network’s LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women’s issues ran for 15 years.