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The Whole Story: Diversity Tips and Tools

November 6, 2006
What’s in a name? Reporting on the same-sex marriage debate

On Nov. 7, eight states voted on legislation to decide whether or not couples of the same sex could marry. In some states, voters created a statewide definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. In others, voters eliminated the possibility of civil unions and domestic partnership agreements. Seven states passed such amendments, with Arizona the first to turn down a ballot measure on the subject.

Public discussion about this issue is sure to continue. As we continue to cover the debate, the words we choose matter.

When writing or reporting on this issue, many journalists and news organizations have adopted the phrase “gay marriage.” But what does that communicate? Does it really address the issues being debated? Does it accurately describe what is at stake for everyone?

The phrase “gay marriage” implies that voters or legislators are deciding on a new set of legal and social benefits for same-sex couples. That’s not quite true. Legislators generally have debated whether to extend to same-sex couples the same rights as those already enjoyed by opposite-sex couples that have been granted a marriage license under state laws. In other words, the individuals for whom the rights are available might be changing, but the legal construction of the institution is not.

And what about this word, “gay”? This has become the standard modifier for same-sex issues like “gay adoption” and “gay families.” On its own, however, “gay” generally refers to gay men. So the phrase “gay marriage” leaves out a lot of people.

“Marriage for same-sex people” or “same-sex marriage” encompasses both male and female couples and more accurately describes how the law might be changed. Try it out and see how the meaning of your sentences becomes more concrete.

Here are some other points to consider when covering the debate of marriage for same-sex couples.

Repeat yourself. When writing about same-sex marriage, or any piece of legislation, don’t assume that your readers or viewers have been following the debate from the beginning. Don’t assume that they know about the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act or how that federal definition of marriage will continue to affect same-sex couples in your state. Summarize critical points that quickly bring your audience up to speed so you can provide them with new information.

Widen your source base. When reporting on same-sex marriage, avoid the stereotypes trap. Just because someone is LGBT does not mean he supports same-sex marriage. Just because someone represents a community of faith does not mean she is against same-sex marriage. Talk to the activists in your area and talk to the people next door. Go beyond your area and contact legislators from other states on various sides of the issue. What effects have they seen? What did they learn?

Be creative. Part of a journalist’s job is to make sure audiences have the facts they need to participate in the public discourse. This means giving them as many angles and perspectives as possible. Go beyond pro versus con. Don’t be afraid to dig into the gray areas and to ask fresh questions. Where might same-sex marriage laws have an effect outside of households — such as hospitals and public schools? What about the unobvious stories that aren’t yet part of the public discussion? Think about relationships in which one or both partners are transgender. If someone changes sex from male to female, whom can they legally marry? Courts have ruled both ways. What if one person changes sex after marriage?

Keep the playing field level. While you want to include as many perspectives and voices as possible, avoid mixing fact and opinion. Don’t pit an “expert” against an “everyman” interview. If you open your piece with a legal expert discussing the negative effects of extending marriage to same-sex couples in your community, for instance, don’t play it against a man-on-the-street quote on the benefits.

More information about terminology and resources for covering the LGBT community can be found at the newly redesigned nlgja.org, the Web site of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

Contributed by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association

A companion Diversity Toolbox provides a comprehensive set of links to journalism diversity resources and institutions. Accompanying essays offer principles and strategies for improving stories from conception on through to reporting and writing.

Your suggestions and comments welcome. Contact Sally Lehrman, your national diversity chair, at slehrman(at)bestwrit.com.

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