Since President Barack Obama announced last week that he supported same sex marriage, scores of listeners have complained that NPR's coverage cheered the announcement. As Susan Reif of Fairfield, OH, wrote: "I am so curious as to what NPR's push is to have same sex marriage in America?....Please, please, quit pushing this stuff down all of our throats."
Pat Morley of Herriman, UT, was embarrassed by an All Things Considered segment covering the president's announcement. Andrew Sullivan, an eloquent public intellectual and advocate of same sex marriage, was interviewed at length on the show. Morley, an NPR fan, was driving home in his car and said he assured a dismayed passenger, "Just wait a minute, they'll interview someone with an opposing view." It didn't happen. That night, he found an article in NPR.org that more fully covered dissenters, but wrote of radio: "Please don't allow your usual high standard of excellent reporting to decay."
Meanwhile, advocates of gay rights, protested against an interview May 10 by White House correspondent Ari Shapiro with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, classifies the council as a "hate group." "Why did you not ask for the opinions of the Grand Dragon of the KKK when reporting on the Trayvon Martin case?," wrote Greg Korte of Long Beach, CA.
Gay rights, and particularly marriage rights, clearly provoke strong passions.
A review of all NPR's shows in the eight days after Vice President Joe Biden started the sudden national debate that led to President Obama's dramatic announcement finds that the coverage did indeed skew in favor of giving air time to the side that favors marriage equality. The review ran Sunday to Sunday, ending May 13, the day after Mitt Romney's own bold speech at Liberty University's graduation ceremony.
On its main news shows over that time, NPR aired 38 reports about the gay marriage debate. Every story included at least an acknowledgement of both sides of the issue, but a tally found 34 interviews with supporters of gay marriage versus 22 opposed and five uncommitted. The supporters, in other words, had a 3-2 edge over the opponents. Fourteen academics endorsed neither side, but provided analysis of polls and political trends. The review did not include the reports on hourly newscasts; no transcripts are kept of these short, usually straightforward bulletins.
NPR's own reporters and hosts were dispassionate and fair in what they said. But what of the balance of interviews? Deputy Managing Editor Stuart Seidel, who also is the standards editor, responded to a query from me:
I don't know that there is a measure of "how far" a news organization should go in reporting one or another "side" on any issue. Our objective is to report on what is happening in society and to give our audience a fair sampling of views without favor or prejudice. Beyond the president's statement about gay marriage, this was a politically and socially important moment and it was important to capture the way it was experienced by those it affected most.
The issue for journalists is not one of whether there is a bias in favor or against same-sex marriage or gay rights. It's very hard to find anybody in society who does not hold a personal opinion regarding those issues—or many other issues that come up daily in political and social coverage. The challenge regarding coverage of gay rights, as with so many other matters, is whether a journalist is successful in setting aside bias to hear and fairly report divergent views and perspectives. We do that.
It's fashionable in journalism to try to objectify objectivity, to try to determine that fairness is achieved by precisely divvying up the time allotted to one or another view on a subject or the number of words devoted to one view or another, or the number of individuals interviewed. But measuring the time devoted to one view or another—indeed, viewing an issue as having "two" sides—is to miss a core responsibility of journalism. In this sort of story, there is a core responsibility to seek a multiple of perspectives and to present them fairly, with the nuance and complexity that all these stories deserve. We strive to do that in every story we tell and have done that in our recent and past coverage of gay rights, and we will continue to do that in our future coverage.
I agree with Seidel that editors shouldn't be ruled by number counts. But numbers at times are useful as an indicator and a tool: to know what you're doing forces you to think about what you should be doing and whether to adjust. Last week's numbers suggest to me that in the future more opposition voices have to be brought into the coverage of an issue on which Americans are divided. The same would not be true for an issue about which there is no longer much debate: abolishing slavery, for example.
That said, I agree with Seidel that the focus last week should have been on the people most affected by the president's announcement, who are gay Americans. Most of us want to know their reaction first, and indeed, in the first five days last week, the coverage ran more than 2 to 1 in their favor. Opponents may be appalled by what they think gay marriage does to society, but as individuals they are less directly affected by what clearly was an historic announcement by an American president in support of same sex marriage.
In future columns, I hope to return to the subject of just what the balance and tone should be going forward, now that the dust of the president's announcement is settling. Seidel, like almost all editors in the mainstream news media, answered mostly in terms of journalistic process: set aside bias, seek multiple perspectives, present them fairly. Hewing to these standards of process have served American journalism well, but I am becoming ever more convinced that news organizations also have to make clear what their core values are. How gay rights fit into those values is a defining issue. I am struggling with where to draw the lines, however, and would love your input.
Here are two memos for your consideration. One is from my very capable assistant, Lori Grisham, who listened in detail to each of the 38 reports on same-sex marriage and led me through the highlights. Linked here is her summary of what NPR actually did in its coverage.
The second memo, linked here, is the full response from Seidel, an extremely thoughtful, diligent editor who in some ways is the heart of NPR. In his response, he notes that public opinion has shifted in favor of marriage equality. He stops short of saying that the polling numbers should be a guideline for the balance of voices in stories, but implies that they have some role in whether a side gets attention. But he also notes that there can be a problem of "false equivalence" when presenting multiple sides. Some sides, on some issues, in other words, are more valid than others.
Which ones? Seidel doesn't say, but the answer raises my question of values. Among the values I see for NPR and any news organization to address are ones of morality, religion, democracy, science and patriotism. You may see more.
Finally, on Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council: The Southern Poverty Law Center has done valiant work in defense of civil rights over the years, but it is an advocacy group like any other. Many Americans may feel that the center's heart is in the right place, but that doesn't mean that its classifications of "hate crimes" and "hate groups" should be taken as gospel. NPR and almost all the mainstream news media quote the Family Research Council and do not call it a hate group. Indeed, many other Americans feel the council's heart is in the right place.
I agree with Seidel when he wrote:
NPR avoids gratuitously using patently objectionable language for broadcast or publication. Of course, everybody has a different view of what is objectionable. We follow what might be called "broadly accepted social standards," but we also have an obligation to report on views held by many people—and supported by many organizations—that are viewed as objectionable by a large portion of the population. To pretend those views do not exist by not reporting them would deprive people in our audience an opportunity to responsibly draw their own conclusions about the world around them.
Lori Grisham contributed to this report.