The Do's And Don'ts Of Covering The Supreme Court's Marriage Equality Decision

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in Obergefell v. Hodges this month, finally deciding whether state bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional. Whatever the decision, media outlets will inevitably ask anti-LGBT activists and groups for comment, which will be another opportunity for them to peddle baseless attacks on marriage equality.

Here are some guidelines for media outlets who want to avoid some of the most common mistakes made during media discussions about marriage equality:

DON'T Cite Debunked Horror Stories

In recent debates over marriage equality, anti-LGBT groups and activists have trotted out the same tired “horror stories” about the supposedly negative consequences of same-sex marriage on religious liberty, including that:

All these claims were thoroughly debunked years ago, but news outlets tend to cite them without checking the facts. Journalists should avoid lending credibility to anti-equality myths and hold commentators who push this kind of misinformation accountable.

DO Rely On Empirical Evidence

When discussing the potential impact of national marriage equality, journalists should cite empirical data from states where same-sex marriages have been legal for years.

Massachusetts, for example, has allowed same-sex couples to marry for over a decade. A recent report by the Associated Press examined Massachusetts' state marriage records to judge the results of what it called the “longest-running real-world test of what happens when gay couples are allowed to tie the knot.” The investigation found that Massachusetts has maintained one of “the lowest divorce rates of any state - both before and after gay marriage was legalized.” 

Vermont, which was the first state to introduce civil unions -- almost exactly 15 years ago -- and has allowed same-sex marriage since 2009, reports similar marriage and divorce data, with an annual 0.3 percent dissolution for same-sex couples versus an overall divorce rate of 3.8. In fact, a study by the National Institutes of Health shows that gay married couples actually report less conflict in their unions than heterosexual counterparts. 

Similar findings in other states suggest that legalizing same-sex marriage produces tangible benefits, including a bolstered economy. These positive effects of legalized gay marriage debunk much of the anti-gay speculation surrounding marriage equality.

DON'T Cite Flawed Social Science

Opponents of marriage equality frequently use flawed social science to produce so-called evidence of the harms of same-sex marriage. The majority of available evidence shows that there is no difference between the outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples and those raised by opposite-sex couples. Yet marriage equality opponents continue to push the myth that same-sex parenting is harmful to children by citing flawed research. Journalists should be prepared for opponents to reference an infamous paper authored by University of Texas Associate Professor Mark Regnerus - a widely discredited study frequently used by gay marriage opponents purporting to show that children raised by gay parents suffer negative consequences.

Arguments that gay marriage will lead to an increase in abortions or higher rates of divorce are based on similarly shoddy social science and media should be prepared to respond to bogus appeals to anti-LGBT research.

DO Accurately Identify Anti-LGBT Commentators

Mainstream media often fail to give their audiences relevant information about guests they ask to comment on marriage equality. If a guest represents an anti-LGBT hate group for example -- like the Family Research Council or American College of Pediatricians -- identifying the person as such is essential to providing audiences the context they need to assess that guest's point of view. On CBS' Face the Nation this past April, Bob Schieffer exemplified how the media should introduce such opponents when he accurately identified one of his guests as the president of an anti-gay hate group. Schieffer's decision to properly identify Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, infuriated anti-LGBT conservatives, who rely on softball media interviews to whitewash their extreme positions. Anti-LGBT groups also frequently use legal scholars and academics to advance their talking points without revealing the animus that motivates their work.

DON'T Pit Gay Rights Against Religious Beliefs

Pitting religious communities against proponents of marriage equality is a common practice in the media, but it ignores the fact that most religious people support legalizing same-sex marriage. Media outlets have historically had trouble separating anti-LGBT animus from sincere, mainstream religious belief, framing the debate instead as a "God vs. Gays" issue. A recent study found significant margins of people in major religious groups -- including 84 percent of Buddhists, 77 percent of Jews, 60 percent of Catholics, and 56 percent of Orthodox Christians -- support same-sex marriage. Among all religiously affiliated Americans, supporters are in the plurality, with 47 percent favoring same-sex marriage, compared to 45 percent who oppose it.

Aside from misrepresenting support for marriage equality among religious people, elevating the “God vs. Gays” myth reinforces the right-wing campaign for anti-LGBT “religious freedom” laws. Coverage of the marriage equality decision will offer media outlets an opportunity to accurately portray the support for same-sex marriage among religious groups, and dispel inaccurate tropes about religion and gay people.