Research ››› ››› DAYANITA RAMESH
Media figures criticized Fox News host Megyn Kelly for her “fluff” interview with Donald Trump during her Fox Broadcasting special, Megyn Kelly Presents.
Media figures criticized Fox News host Megyn Kelly for her “fluff” interview with Donald Trump during her Fox Broadcasting special, Megyn Kelly Presents.
Media are decrying Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ obstruction of Eric Fanning’s nomination to be Army Secretary as “unreasonable intransigence” and “part of larger inaction” by Congress to undermine President Obama’s federal nominations.
Newspaper editorials roundly urged Senate Republicans to stop obstructing the nomination process of Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court vacancy. The editorials chastised "obstructionist" senators for their "stupendous show of political malfeasance" and warned that the obstruction is "out of sync with the nation's best interests," among other criticisms.
Fifty Years Later, The "White Perspective" Still Dominates Media Coverage Of Race, Racism, And Violence
In 1967, responding to a number of riots in black neighborhoods of cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago, President Lyndon Johnson convened an investigatory commission to figure out how and why the riots had occurred.
Seven months later, the commission published the informally named Kerner Report, spotlighting how institutional and explicit anti-black racism, police brutality, concentrated poverty, and political disenfranchisement had come together to spark the riots.
The report also strongly criticized major media's shoddy coverage of the riots, warning that a "significant imbalance" between reality and news reports of the riots was exacerbating the schism between the country's "two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." The report concluded:
Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now. They must make a reality of integration--in both their product and personnel. They must insist on the highest standards of accuracy--not only reporting single events with care and skepticism, but placing each event into meaningful perspective. They must report the travail of our cities with compassion and depth.
Fifty years later, mainstream media continues to be defined by the "white perspective" that the Kerner Report hoped to challenge. And the media circus that surrounded the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014 and Baltimore, MD, in April 2015 shows how little has changed in the broken way the mainstream media talks about race, violence, and systemic inequality.
The Kerner Report criticized media coverage of the 1967 riots for exaggerating the "scope and intensity of the disorders," which created "an impression at odds with the overall reality of events":
... there were instances of gross flaws in presenting news of the 1967 riots. Some newspapers printed scare headlines unsupported by the mild stories that followed. All media reported rumors that had no basis in fact.
This is not "just another story." It should not be treated like one. ... Reporters and editors must be sure that descriptions and pictures of violence, and emotional or inflammatory sequences or articles, even though "true" in isolation, are really representative and do not convey an impression at odds with the overall reality of events.
Following Michael Brown's high-profile death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, and Freddie Gray's death while in the custody of Baltimore's police department, protests over the use of excessive police force and racial discrimination erupted. Though protesters clashed with police at times, the demonstrations largely consisted of civil rights leaders, activists, politicians, and residents coming together to mourn the injustices and raise awareness of the circumstances.
TV and print media flooded their coverage of the Baltimore and Ferguson unrest with incendiary imagery, misleadingly casting the demonstration sites as war zones. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News rolled videos on loop of Baltimore buildings ablaze, police cars destroyed, and protesters in gas masks. Print newspapers led their front-page coverage with "fiery images of angry protesters attacking police vehicles, looting and burning buildings ... police in riot gear and tense moments between law enforcement and demonstrators," according to American Journalism Review. Online publications continuously posted incendiary pictures showing lawlessness and destruction.
(Photo courtesy of American Journalism Review)
But the sensationalized images that dominated cable and print media coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson painted a misleading picture of the crises there. As many commentators noted, the scenes in Baltimore and Ferguson were significantly calmer and less sensational than media watchers would likely have realized. ColorOfChange.org warned reporters covering Ferguson that "stories coming out of many major media outlets [painting] a picture of total lawlessness ... could not be further from the truth." The Daily Show also mocked the breathless media coverage of disorder in Baltimore.
Baltimore resident Danielle Williams also called out this type of selective reporting during an on-the-street interview with MSNBC's Thomas Roberts, saying "when we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we've burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us."
Media also often printed exaggerated headlines that were unsubstantiated by the article body. An April 2015 Economist article describing the Baltimore protests was headlined "It's Chaos" and said the demonstrations were "best described not as a riot but as anarchy."
But the article noted that "few protesters or people [were] fighting the police or hurling stones" and that "people standing around [were] mostly taking photos on their phones." What was first labeled as "anarchy" was then chronicled as "groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies ... staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars."
Likewise, a Wall Street Journal article was headlined "Arrests in Baltimore as Freddie Gray Protests Turn Violent." But the piece mostly hyped what was otherwise non-violent protesting, including an "impromptu 'die-in'" and "a small group [throwing] cans and plastic bottles in the direction of police officers."
Newsrooms covering Baltimore and Ferguson also disseminated misinformation that often originated from local city and police department officials. On April 27, 2015, The Baltimore Sun reported that a mass police presence had been pre-emptively convened near a Baltimore mall because of a "flier that circulated widely" among students online advocating a "purge," referencing the 2013 movie The Purge that dramatized a night of lawlessness and anarchy.
After Baltimore students finished school and headed toward the mall, they were greeted by police in riot gear. Because of the purge rumors, the police allegedly shut down the subway and blocked buses from leaving, leaving hundreds of students on the streets unable to get home. A violent clash ensued. Baltimore Police Department Capt. Kowalczyk said the police would identify and arrest "lawless individuals with no regard" for safety.
But the purge rumor was immediately disputed. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) tried tracing The Baltimore Sun's account of the flier's distribution and said the evidence was "murky at best." FAIR noted how the Sun's shaky reporting ended up "creat[ing] a perception of actual danger that the proffered evidence doesn't substantiate." Mother Jones poked holes in the police's narrative that they responded to a "rumored plan" of students executing a purge, noting that "many of the kids, according to eyewitnesses, were stuck there because of police actions" -- not because they wanted to fight.
Such shoddy reporting does more than run counter to journalistic ethics and best practices. Back in 1968, the Kerner report said the commission was "deeply concerned that millions of Americans, who must rely on the mass media, ... formed incorrect impressions and judgments about what went on in many American cities."
The Kerner Commission also harangued media for failing to investigate how systemic and institutional racism contributed to the riots:
The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.
The media--especially television--also have failed to present and analyze to a sufficient extent the basic reasons for the disorders. ... [C]overage during the riot period itself gives far more emphasis to control of rioters and black-white confrontation than to the underlying causes of the disturbances.
In 2014, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation analyzed over a thousand national and local newspapers articles and cable television news transcripts to determine what percentage of race and racism coverage was "systemically aware" -- meaning it "mentions or highlights policies and/or practices that lead to racial disparities; describes the root causes of disparities including the history and compounding effects of institutions; and/or describes or challenges the aforementioned."
The study concluded that "most of the mainstream media's racism content is not 'systemically aware,'" finding that "about two out of three articles on race and racism failed to include a perspective with any insight on systemic-level racism." It also concluded that "very rarely" did media "feature prominent, robust coverage of racial justice advocacy or solutions."
Media coverage of the events in Baltimore and Ferguson similarly failed to investigate the role systemic inequality and institutional racism played in creating unrest, denying audiences the ability to understand those news events in context.
A second Race Forward analysis examined media's race coverage specific to the Ferguson protests, seeking to determine "how much attention [race is] actually getting in the coverage."
The study found that media overwhelmingly failed to contextualize the Ferguson protests in a broader discussion of racist policing practices. The Race Forward report found that although nearly half of the articles included "terms such as 'race,' 'racial,' 'racism,' 'racist,' and 'diversity,'" "only 34 of 994 articles analyzed led with a minimally systemically aware perspective."
During a contentious interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, explained how this kind of reporting skewed understandings of the protests in Baltimore:
ADAM JACKSON: The fundamental problem with the coverage of these stories is that it's mired with racist subterfuge, because to talk about the violence that's going on in Baltimore, and not talking about the systemic inequalities and racist policing practices that have led us to this point, it posits a situation where we're talking about either high violence in our communities or racist police when ... the task should be to fix both.
Following unrest in Ferguson after Darren Wilson was not indicted, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans noted that cable news coverage of Brown's death had largely avoided a broader discussion of systemic issues like "poverty, urban gangs, aggressive drug enforcement and more":
[T]ackling a difficult story about race in a panel debate format doesn't serve the issue and distracts from the serious questions at hand. It only serves television news networks' need for conflict among well-known opinionators.
Trying to talk about systemic racial issues during a crisis is always much harder.
The Kerner Commission also attributed media's distorted race coverage to a lack of diversity in the newsroom:
The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.
If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of cities and problems of the black man -- for the two are increasingly intertwined -- they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.
The lack of newsroom diversity is just as germane and dire in 2015 as it was nearly 50 years ago. In 1967, "fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business" were black, according to the Kerner Report. In 2015, 4.74 percent of newspaper employees were black, according to the latest data from the American Society of News Editors. Since 2000, the number of black journalists in newspaper newsrooms -- including supervisors, copy editors, producers, reporters, and photographers -- has dropped 52.3 percent.
Some media leaders have sought to justify, or at least explain, these dismal numbers on newsroom diversity. Former Slate editor David Plotz said the recession caused newsrooms to go into "survival mode" and prioritize "saving ... jobs" over ensuring diversity. NYMag.com's Ben Williams said, "It's well-established that, in part due to economic reasons, not enough 'diverse' candidates enter journalism on the ground floor to begin with. So the biggest factor in improving newsroom diversity is getting more non-white male employees into the profession to begin with."
But these arguments and others that invoke a so-called pipeline problem are "hollow," in the words of the Kerner Report. "The number of minorities graduating from journalism programs and applying for jobs doesn't seem to be the problem after all," Alex Williams wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015. According to his study, non-white graduates who "specialized in print or broadcasting" were 17 percent less likely to be hired by print and broadcast journalism organizations than non-minorities. "The problem," he wrote, "is that these candidates are not being hired."
The Kerner Report determined that the sweeping failure of media's race coverage in the 1960s had fostered a far-reaching sentiment of "distrust" in the black community for the media:
[Persons interviewed] believe ... that the media are instruments of the white power structure. They think that these white interests guide the entire white community, from the journalists' friends and neighbors to city officials, police officers, and department store owners.
Fifty years later, similar distrust of mainstream news media persists. A September 2014 survey by the American Press Institute found that 75 percent of African-Americans thought the press accurately portrayed African-American people and issues "moderately," "slightly," or "not at all." The authors posited that the "news ecosystem itself" -- one where the black community has scant access to black-centered news sources -- "is uneven, potentially creating uneven perceptions."
Another survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that nearly 60 percent of African-Americans "say that news coverage of blacks is generally too negative." Conversely, 75 percent said coverage of whites was "too positive" or "generally fair." And a majority of African-Americans said the "amount of coverage news organizations give to race relations" is "too little."
The media's flawed race coverage has real consequences. The Kerner Report warned, "If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American." Today's flawed reporting continues to pose an obstacle to educating broader audiences about the realities of racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic inequality.
The media hasn't always provided such skewed coverage of race, racism, and violence. During the 1950s and 1960s, the press played a key role in bringing to light the systematic discrimination of black Americans, helping to galvanize widespread reform.
As detailed in Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's book The Race Beat, a history of reporting during the Civil Rights era, Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist sent by the Carnegie Corporation to the American South, reported in the 1940s that the plight of black Americans could be improved only if white Americans in the North became aware of their struggle. Consequently, Myrdal wrote in the book An American Dilemma, "the future of race relations ... rested largely in the hands of the American press" exposing these racial crises.
As the civil rights movement swept the nation, the press listened. Roberts and Klibanoff explained that the way the white press reported on race conspicuously improved over the next two decades, with newspapers opening new bureaus in the South, assigning full-time staff to cover the movement, and hiring black reporters. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a prominent civil rights leader during the time, told the authors, "If it hadn't been for the media -- the print media and television -- the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song."
But when the demonstrations turned violent in the latter half of the 1960s, the authors write, the improvements in coverage slipped away. Whereas "white journalists" reporting on civil rights in the South "were threatened by white mobs and found safety in black neighborhoods," the journalists investigating rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 "fled black mobs" and reported on the strife "from a distance, from outside the ghetto looking in." As the riots raged on, according to the book, black people saw the news "portray[ing] the militancy of black power" and "'simplistically' focusing on the violence and mayhem of the riots" without examining the underlying problems, leading to the problems detailed by the Kerner Commission and the way the media continues to report on race now.
Fifty years ago, the Kerner Report urged the American media to begin the "painful process" of fixing its racial justice reporting. The fact that its criticisms are still so pertinent, and the historical example of responsible reporting throughout the civil rights movement, point to the need for higher standards in accurate, appropriate, and inclusive race coverage.
Newspaper editorial boards are urging support for President Obama's executive actions to curb gun violence, calling them "an important step," and "the beginning of sensible reform."
Most of the largest newspapers in the Northeast corridor did not publish a single piece covering this winter's major snowstorms in the context of global warming, despite strong scientific evidence that climate change creates the conditions for heavier snowstorms. The major broadcast networks and cable news channels also provided scant mention of climate change in their discussions of the snowstorms, with the notable exception of MSNBC, which provided extensive coverage of the topic. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fox News, the Boston Herald and the Providence Journal featured content that used the snowstorms to deny climate science.
The Baltimore Sun cut ties with their conservative blog after learning of the blog's potential unethical behavior, a Sun spokesperson said Monday.
"The Baltimore Sun's editorial independence is among our most fundamental values and we have a strict separation between advertising and the content we produce," Sun Director of Marketing Renee Mutchnik told Media Matters in a statement explaining the paper's separation from the bloggers.
Late last year the Sun inked a deal with the conservative blog Red Maryland to provide content for baltimoresun.com as well as a weekly op-ed page in the paper's print edition. In a November op-ed, Red Maryland's Mark Newgent explained that their blog was "the premiere source for conservative news and opinion in Maryland" and that he and his colleagues would now have "the opportunity to advance conservative, limited government ideas to a larger audience." While the bloggers would continue to operate their private blog, they would also write content for a Red Maryland blog on the Sun's website.
But questions over the bloggers' ethical behavior surfaced last week when a rival conservative blogger posted what he claimed was an email he received from friends outlining a pitch from Red Maryland urging Republican candidates to advertise on the bloggers' radio show to "get the message out to like-minded conservatives in your upcoming primary election." The email claimed that Red Maryland would use all "our platforms at BaltimoreSun.com, RedMaryland.com, and the Red Maryland network" to introduce candidates to the public, suggesting that candidates who paid for the ads could also expect favorable coverage from the bloggers in their roles as paid contributors to the Sun.
Red Maryland did not dispute the authenticity of the email but denied the conservative rival's pay-to-play accusation in a March 7 blog post on their original website, stating that they had provided platforms to candidates since the site's founding to give these candidates media attention and statewide audiences. However, Red Maryland also formally acknowledged that Newgent, who wrote for both Red Maryland's original site and in the Sun, has been paid by Larry Hogan, a Republican gubernatorial candidate Red Maryland has endorsed:
First, we've never claimed to be "objective." We wear our biases openly on our sleeve, always have. You've always known where Red Maryland was coming from. Newgent has repeatedly disclosed his work for Change Maryland and the Hogan for Governor Campaign. He has performed research work for both organizations. Hardly a "political favor."
The Baltimore Sun's conservative blog Red Maryland published a misguided defense of Texas' draconian anti-choice legislation, attacking Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis in the process.
The January 30 op-ed authored by Red Maryland's Brian Griffiths used recent comments from Maryland Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley about protecting of "the dignity of every Marylander" to not only defend harmful anti-choice laws passed in Texas earlier this year, but to also attack Davis' filibuster of the legislation last June:
In Texas, State Sen. Wendy Davis was made a national hero for unsuccessfully filibustering against greater regulations on abortions. While such standards don't meet the goal of eliminating abortions, these amendments to Texas law protected the rights of the unborn and ensured that women were not subject to unsanitary and unsafe medical conditions. Far from being extreme, the changes included prohibiting the killing an unborn child after 20 weeks, recognizing the concept of fetal pain, requiring abortion clinics to meet minimum surgical medical standards and requiring medical oversight for the use of abortion-causing drugs.
Ms. Davis' filibuster and vehement opposition, while completely unpopular in her home state, made her such a national hero that facts about her political resume were conveniently discarded. But what about Wendy Davis' opposition to this bill was heroic?
But the legislation in Texas doesn't protect women from "unsanitary and unsafe medical conditions." Rather, it seeks to accomplish what Griffiths calls the "goal of eliminating abortions." Texas' laws have made it increasingly more difficult for pregnant women to seek reproductive services with doctors at 34 of the state's women's health clinics failing to win admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles (as mandated by the law), forcing "at least 12 abortion clinics to stop providing abortions and other clinics to scale back their services," though three have since reopened. However, as the Dallas News explained, in 2011, not a single woman died of abortion-related causes in the state, but 116 died of pregnancy-related complications.
In the wake of the January 25 shooting at the Columbia Mall in Columbia, Maryland, that claimed the lives of two victims, the Baltimore Sun's recently acquired conservative political blog made a series of inaccurate statements on firearms and firearms laws to attack supporters of stronger gun laws, including recently enacted measures strengthening firearms laws in Maryland.
In a blog post on the Baltimore Sun's Red Maryland blog, Mark Newgent criticized a statement by Vinny DeMarco, the president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence and a supporter of a measure strengthening firearms laws in Maryland, who explained that without Maryland's new firearms law -- which banned assault weapons and limited the purchase of high-capacity ammunition magazines -- the shooting could have been worse. However, in his criticism of the release, Newgent got several points wrong:
The Baltimore Sun recently signed a deal with Maryland conservative blog Red Maryland to provide content for its website. But one of the site's editors, Mark Newgent, has worked for organizations that receive funding from fossil fuel companies to attack climate science.
Late last year, The Baltimore Sun inked a deal with conservative blog Red Maryland to provide content for a new blog and weekly column. But save one piece from Red Maryland's Mark Newgent, the paper has yet to explain this decision or how it plans to deal with potential issues with writers' conduct and conflicts of interest.
On November 19, Red Maryland's Mark Newgent published a piece in the Sun announcing that the paper "approached [Red Maryland] about providing quality conservative content for baltimoresun.com and The Sun's op-ed page in print," ending his post with "welcome to the resistance!" On their radio show, Red Maryland editors Brian Griffiths and Greg Kline further explained how the paper noticed conservatives in its comment section rebutting the opinion page and decided to approach Red Maryland with a partnership. Talks began in the summer of 2013, and the two reached an agreement in mid-November to begin publishing content on both a dedicated Red Maryland blog as well as a weekly column in the Friday edition of the Sun.
Red Maryland began as a political blog almost six years ago and boasts that it was named "one of Maryland's best political blogs by The Washington Post." Its staff also contributes to other conservative blogs such as Red State and WatchdogWire.com, the latter of which is run by the Franklin Center, a group known for its shadowy right-wing mega donor funding sources.
Hard-Right Ideology, Lack Of Experience Drives Reporters' Fear Of Koch Takeover
New reports that the politically conservative Koch brothers are interested in buying the Tribune Company's eight regional newspapers -- which include the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune -- are sparking concerns from newspaper staff members that attempts to influence the editorial process in favor of their far-right political views may follow.
Among those concerned is Clarence Page, a top Chicago Tribune columnist, who said he would oppose a takeover of the paper by David and Charles Koch because of "the fact that they seem to be coming in upfront with the idea of using a major news media as a vehicle for their political voice."
In addition to the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, the Kochs are reportedly seeking to buy The Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), and the Daily Press (Hampton Roads, VA).
The Kochs are major funders of the American conservative movement, funneling tens of millions of dollars every year to build a right-wing infrastructure geared toward reducing the size and impact of government. As the Times detailed, at a 2010 convention of like-minded political donors, the Kochs "laid out a three-pronged, 10-year strategy to shift the country toward a smaller government with less regulation and taxes." Part of the stratgy called for investing in the media.
And that has staffers at Tribune Company newspapers -- several of whom requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs -- nervous about the possibility that a Koch takeover could bring with it an ideological focus on the news that risks turning the papers into what one reporter calls a "conservative mouthpiece."
According to those staffers, such concerns are rampant at the papers. "Nobody I know in the newsroom would find it a happy event to have the Koch brothers owning the paper," said one longtime Chicago Tribune staffer, who suggested that the purpose of the takeover is so that the brothers can use the publications to "promulgate their political views."
"I haven't heard anyone here who has welcomed the idea of the Koch brothers... the Koch brothers, that scares people," added an LA Times scribe.
"I think we all have concerns when you think an owner might try to influence editorial content," explained Angela Kuhl, Newspaper Guild unit chair at The Baltimore Sun. "That is sort of contrary to what the newspapering business should be about, free press. You don't necessarily want owners and publishers dictating content."
It's the Kochs' explicit call for investing in the media to achieve their political end that has Kuhl worried. "I read the story that said they have a three-pronged approach to how to move the country in the way they think it should head, and one is to influence the media."
The most widely circulated papers in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington struggled to hold anti-gay groups accountable while reporting on their respective marriage equality battles, according to a new report from Equality Matters.
Though all four of the states' leading papers endorsed marriage equality in the weeks before Election Day, they all committed the same mistakes that plague mainstream media coverage of marriage equality debates.
By far, the most obvious deficiency in mainstream coverage of marriage equality battles has been the failure to accurately expose voters to the animus and hostility that motivates anti-gay groups.
The groups fighting against marriage equality in all four states each had long, extensive histories of extreme anti-gay rhetoric long before they began their 2012 campaigns:
All four groups toned down their anti-gay rhetoric once they began their public campaigns against marriage equality and instead and began trying to appeal to moderate voters. One Minnesota newspaper, for example, noted the "low-key" ads being run by opponents of marriage equality.
And in all four states, they largely got away with it.
Though spokespersons from these groups were quoted ad nauseum by local media outlets in the weeks before Election Day, a total of just three news items mentioned the groups' extreme anti-gay rhetoric across the four most widely circulated state newspapers.
To its credit, the Baltimore Sun also published an editorial condemning the pastor who argued that gay people are "worthy of death."
For the most part, though, readers were left unaware of the kind of fringe bigotry that motivated the groups behind the anti-equality ads that bombarded the airwaves.
The failure to report on the animus driving these state anti-gay groups significantly alters the public debate on same-sex marriage. Opponents of marriage equality insisted that "supporting marriage as the union of a man and a woman does not make you anti-gay but pro-marriage." The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) even released a video explaining that opposition to same-sex marriage is driven by "biology (not bigotry)."
These groups know that whitewashing their own anti-gay views is essential to swaying on-the-fence voters. By failing to hold these groups accountable, state media outlets deny their readers the information they need to determine which sources of information are credible and trustworthy.
The second major problem with the way state newspapers covered their marriage equality battles has to do with the way that these outlets resolve (or fail to resolve) factual disputes about the consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Anti-gay groups consistently rely on misleading horror stories in their ads to convince voters that same-sex marriage will be taught in schools, threaten religious liberty, etc. Each of these horror stories can be easily debunked, and even opponents of marriage equality have admitted that their ads are not "completely accurate."
When it comes to reporting on those ads, unfortunately, papers frequently shirk away from serious fact-checking, preferring instead to quote both sides of the argument and allow readers to decide for themselves. The Baltimore Sun's news coverage of an incident at Gallaudet University - in which the school suspended its Chief Diversity Officer after discovering she had signed a petition to put Maryland's marriage equality law up for a vote - clearly demonstrated this tendency, even as the editorial board confirmed that the incident had nothing to do marriage equality.
This form of "he said-she said" journalism does a disservice to voters and ends up lending credibility to completely baseless anti-gay talking points. Failing to resolve factual disputes leaves readers feeling confused and unable to separate truth from fiction.
The aversion to aggressively fact-checking anti-gay ads is understandable for print outlets that want to avoid looking like they're taking sides. But it isn't "bias" to debunk misinformation, even if that misinformation is only coming from one side of the debate. Public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage may be evenly divided, but the truth about same-sex marriage is not.
When it comes to important civil rights issues, "he said-she said" journalism does real damage to those who are targeted by right-wing misinformation. As Kate Riley, editor of the Seattle Times editorial page, said while discussing her paper's support for marriage equality:
"Going back to this idea of exceptional circumstance," Riley said, "I would hope we would have supported the emancipation proclamation. Women's suffrage. These are different. These deserve muscle power."
Pro-equality activists thankfully prevailed in all four states on Tuesday. Had they failed, they would have been justified in turning their ire towards the news outlets that allowed their opponents to get away with being depicted as credible and fair-minded. As LGBT equality continues to come before voters in more and more states, state media outlets should recognize that telling the truth about a major civil rights issue is more important than trying to seem "fair and balanced."
To see the full Equality Matters report, click here.
The most widely circulated papers in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington covered the debate over same-sex marriage in their state extensively in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Though all four publications endorsed marriage equality, their news coverage largely ignored the extremism of anti-equality groups and often devolved into "he said-she said" journalism that failed to correct anti-gay misinformation.
The Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik has been busy writing about the recent NPR controversy. Since the story of the James O'Keefe's attempted sting broke last week, seven of the last ten blog posts on Zurawik's newspaper blog have been about NPR.
The only problem? None of them have acknowledged that the O'Keefe tapes have been revealed to be highly edited and done so in an unethical way to make the comments from the NPR executives seem much more damning than originally believed.
What's ironic is that when the story first broke, Zurawik wrote a long item about the ethics of undercover stings and how it's crucial for those behind them to be honest and tell the truth. Zurawik was also highly critical of NPR executives, calling the comments captured on tape "troubling" and "disturbing." He denounced the NPR "stupidity" and arrogance" as presented by O'Keefe, while hyping the "bombshell" NPR sting, and suggesting O'Keefe was effective at getting "at the lies some people in the media tell us."
Missing from any of Zurawik's media analysis? The simple acknowledgement that the O'Keefe tapes have essentially been debunked.