Same-sex marriage: Covering the battles ahead

June 29, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

Now that the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage has had time to sink in, journalists should wake up to the fact that a complicated and contentious debate lies ahead. Just as Brown v. The Board of Education didn’t end discrimination in schools and Roe v. Wade did not end the abortion debate, Obergefell v. Hodges will not end the opposition to same-sex marriage. The next battles may be in churches, where the Court’s decision cannot interfere.

Catholics, Baptists, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons all “officially” oppose same-sex marriage. Others, including Methodists and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, do not allow ministers to perform same-sex weddings.

Pew Research compiled a list of where churches currently stand.

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 10.34.49 AM

I point to these charts to say journalists have more stories to write about this issue. Stories that involve deeply held religious beliefs. Whether you believe those beliefs are outdated or nonsensical should not shape your reporting when it comes to covering matters of faith. It is different than covering the political and social issues around same-sex marriage. The law allows churches and religions to ban women from serving in some positions. The law allows churches and church-run schools to insist that employees pledge their faith to get a job. The law allows churches to fire a pastor who acts immorally or forbid a priest from marrying. The Supreme Court decision last week will, no doubt, ignite great debates inside churches about how to comply with the law while adhering to the canons of their faith. You will be (or should be) covering this struggle.

That’s why it’s such a bad idea for journalists to be publicly celebrating the Court’s decision last week. But when journalists use trending hashtags that carry an editorial message, it may undercut their intentions to appear to be fair, accurate and open to many sides of the story.

#LoveWins trended on Twitter Friday after the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. By midmorning, Twitter started adding a little rainbow heart on the #LoveWins hashtag. Businesses from IBM to American Airlines and the San Francisco 49ers joined in the public display of support. And on Friday, Politico’s Dylan Byers asked “Should news outlets declare allegiances?”

It is not that journalists should not have feelings about the decision. But I suspect you also have feelings about gun control and Obamacare. But you find ways to report around your biases every day. A good measure for how to handle this would be whether you would use a hashtag or change your logo if the Court had decided differently. Would you use #HateWins or #LoveLoses? Would you have used the rainbow flag colors no matter what the decision? Celebratory trending logos and hashtags are no substitute for long-term thoughtful coverage of controversial issues.

Stick with #SCOTUS OR #samesex if you hashtag Twitter posts on the issue at all. For journalists, I would rather see you use your characters to link to your coverage with the text being a promise of your unique coverage. On huge hot topics like this decision, a hashtag could in fact be of dubious value anyway. A couple of years ago, Daniel Victor, writing for NeimanLab, made this point about a #SuperBowl hashtag on game day:

Though there were peaks and valleys, 3 million tweets over five hours comes out to an average of 167 tweets per second. To say that someone would have to search for “#SuperBowl” in the split-second you sent it would actually be a little generous; assuming they’ll notice your tweet if it’s in the most recent 10 tweets, users would have a window of 1/17 of a second to find you.

And earlier this month, AJ+’s Shadi Rahimi wrote about why her news organization is using hashtags less and less.

The rules and troubles of journalism are compounded in the breaking platform of social media. Reporters and editors have always battled to perfect the language to describe an event accurately and fairly. What is an “uprising”? What is a “riot”? Who determines that? How and why did we in U.S. media choose to call the events in the Arab world in 2011 an “uprising” or a “revolution”? Do we use those same determinations (if any) closer to home? Why not?

In short, hashtags probably have more power when they are used on smaller topics than when they are used on big ones. Those smaller topics can be magnified and focused in search groups.

It would be easy to believe, from the looks of such displays that when the Supreme Court rules, the country changes and embraces a new way of thinking. Pew’s latest polling shows four out of ten Americans still oppose same-sex marriage.

Screen shot, Pew Research Center

Screen shot, Pew Research Center

And Pew’s research shows black protestants rival white evangelicals in opposing same-sex marriage.

Screen shot, Pew Research Center

Screen shot, Pew Research Center

The Stories Ahead

In the days ahead, beware of businesses, politicians and public figures who prominently embrace the Court’s decision but have been silent or in opposition until now. Earnestly listen to those who have religious concerns. Get smarter about the religious principles that those who oppose the ruling cite. When they say the Bible or Koran forbid same-sex relationships, know enough about those teachings to question and challenge the claims, just as you would challenge a politician about health care, environmental safety or economic policy. ReligonLink is a good place to start. It is run by the Religion Newswriters Association.

Remember that within broad groups you will find many views. Reform Jews see same-sex marriage differently than Orthodox Jews. Not all Christian faiths reject or accept same-sex marriage. Even within a church, you will find members who disagree with their church’s official stance. Some churches have national or global conferences where they consider their official position on social issues. Those conferences will, increasingly, become newsworthy.

Seek out same-sex couples who have strong faith lives and listen to how they have fit the pieces together that make sense to them.

Look for public policy stories. The Court’s ruling will affect tax law and adoption laws. Could companies and governments that extended health care and benefits to unmarried same-sex couples now require those couples to marry to get the benefits? The Wall Street Journal explained:

Companies that offer partnership benefits just to gay couples may begin to phase them out, because now all their employees can legally marry. Offering domestic partnership benefits just to gay couples but not straight ones might make firms vulnerable to reverse discrimination lawsuits, lawyers say.

On the other hand, firms may choose to keep domestic partnership benefits to help protect gay employees from discrimination. The majority of U.S. states lack anti-discrimination protection for gay employees, so workers can be fired for their sexuality. Because marriage certificates are public, forcing employees to get married for spousal benefits may end up ‘outing’ an employee, while domestic partnerships are typically private matters, gay advocates say.

Just as you avoid stereotyping gays and lesbians in your reporting, avoid grouping those who oppose the ruling as nuts and zealots.
Don’t allow extreme views to pose as the view of all people of faith. Loud and angry should not be mistaken for powerful and representative. But people should not have to be out holding protest signs to be heard. The job of the journalist is to help your audience have an informed conversation with itself.

Only 15 years ago, no country allowed same-sex marriage. As Justice Scalia pointed out, until last week, the nation’s highest Court had failed to see the 14th Amendment as protecting same-sex marriage.

The Court settled the law. And yet the issue remains, for many, unsettled.

Correction: An earlier version of this story got the name of Reform Jews wrong. It has been corrected. Also, the word canons was misspelled. It has been corrected.