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THE OMBUDSMAN

A bias in favor of gay marriage?

IN THE MONTH since the Supreme Judicial Court's historic ruling in favor of same-sex civil marriage, the Globe has published more than five dozen stories and columns on the topic, and a score of letters to the editor. Even some fans say it's too much. But it's not the complaint about quantity that worries me. It's the suggestion that the Globe is piling on in support of the ruling, failing to reflect the honest ambivalence of people who may support equal rights and civil unions but stop short of backing same-sex marriage.

 

"There is . . . a `bandwagon effect' emerging in some of the Globe's coverage, especially in its columns and editorials on the issue of gay marriage. . . ," wrote Steven Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, in a critique of Globe coverage. While praising the paper for its "thorough and exhaustive news report on an important story" he pointed to a recent poll on acceptance of same-sex marriage and added: "That 50 percent opposed or uncertain contains serious people who should be taken seriously." (The Globe/WBZ-TV poll on the ruling found 50 percent in favor, 38 percent opposed, and 11 percent with no opinion.)

Other readers offered a less sweeping critique, but contributed to the same point -- from the caller who asked why the Globe devoted an entire story to former Governor Bill Weld's (supportive) views on the decision, to those who felt the presentation of a Globe poll overstated support for same-sex marriage. (At least one critic identified himself as gay.)

This is a tricky matter to write about. I don't for a minute want to be seen as second-guessing the court's decision (I was among those who in 2002 urged the Globe to put same-sex unions on the wedding page), and as a Bay Stater I am proud to see the Massachusetts high court establishing a legal milestone for the rest of the country.

But as a journalist, I want to make sure that the Globe is covering the full story. That means recognizing what the justices themselves called "the deep-seated religious, moral, and ethical convictions" that make it hard for some people to accept such a dramatic redefinition of an institution so central to their lives. As Burgard succinctly put it, "It is not a slam dunk, as the justices made clear in their opinion."

It's not just bigots or haters who are unsettled by the decision. Some portion of the 38 percent who oppose civil same-sex marriage do so out of a sincere belief that the institution is at risk. One need not agree with them to think that their views need to be reflected, probed, and understood as part of the essential coverage of this historic shift.

News stories have duly noted the opposition of the Catholic church, and the political fallout. But beyond such institutional responses lie the personal stories of genuine unease at the center of this issue. Those voices need to be heard, whether in column, interview, or profile form.

Metro editor Carolyn Ryan says stories "that aim to capture the texture and complexity" of views on gay marriage are in the works for February, when lawmakers will vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. "I think it's important that we explore the deeper, personal, sometimes-conflicting feelings held by many people about same-sex marriage, especially those people who are not a part of the public political battle over the subject," she said.

Readers have also taken issue with two headlines that, with hindsight, may have contributed to a "bandwagon" impression. The Globe-WBZ-TV poll inside headline read: "In Bay State poll, support is solid for SJC decision." But, some asked, can 50 percent support really be considered "solid?" A week later the headline "Poll shows lawmakers resist gay marriage ban," appeared in some editions over a story on whether a constitutional ban has Beacon Hill support. In other editions it read, "In lawmaker poll, few back limiting marriage." Some readers felt that the headline overstated the situation given that the number of lawmakers who failed to respond (106) was greater than the number who did (94).

Globe Editor Martin Baron rejects criticism of the headlines, as well as the broader suggestion of an emerging "bandwagon" effect. "We published a number of stories on the reaction of Massachusetts residents to the court decision. Those stories, as well as the stories on poll results, included a full and fair representation of the views on both sides of the issue," he said.

"The columnists on our news pages agree on some issues and disagree on others. On this issue, they happened to agree. We don't change news-page columnists so that every point of view is reflected on every issue. The op-ed page, however, does invite opinion pieces that reflect a wide variety of views, as it should."

He adds: "On the whole, should we have columnists with a wide variety of opinions? Yes."

The Globe's editorial pages have, in keeping with the paper's overall editorial policy, strongly supported the decision, while including dissenting views in letters to the editor and from two regular columnists.

Indeed, it's diversity of perspective, says Burgard, that is needed on this "explosive social and cultural topic."

"Other than from its two `go to' conservative columnists, Jeff Jacoby and Cathy Young, I have seen no opinion writing in the city's leading newspaper to the effect that reasonable people can believe on religious grounds that marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman," noted Burgard. "Responsible people," he noted, may say yes to civil unions but no to marriage.

That is precisely where the next chapter of the debate takes us, as the state Senate asks the high court whether a civil unions bill -- offering benefits and obligations of marriage without the name -- will suffice. It is the complexity behind that question that full reporting must capture.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com.

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