California became the second state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage in May. Your state is sure to face the same issue, if it hasn’t already. But how should journalists cover this controversial topic and remain faithful to SPJ’s Code of Ethics?
1. It’s critical to get the complexities of the law correct
Some stories about the California Supreme Court’s ruling reported that the court had created a new law. That is inaccurate.
The court simply found that having two, separate-but-equal sets of laws for heterosexuals (marriage) and same-sex partners (domestic partnerships) is unconstitutional. The court only ruled on “whether the differences in the official names of the relationships violates the state constitution.”
The ruling is an incredibly complex, 161-page opinion. The phrase “dignity and respect” is repeated often in the opinion. Providing “dignity and respect” to gay couples who marry is at the heart of this historic decision.
2. Understand the conflicts and explain them to your audience
One of the issues in this ruling was that many dissenters said the court should have followed the will of the people, who voted overwhelmingly on a statewide initiative in 2000 that declared marriage must be between a man and a woman. It said, in full: “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
The court said, however, that the right to marry “may not be eliminated or abrogated by the Legislature or by the electorate through the statutory initiative process.”
“The state’s current policies and conduct regarding homosexuality recognize that gay individuals are entitled to the same legal rights and the same respect and dignity afforded to all other individuals,” the court explained.
Translation: Because California already recognizes that gay individuals are entitled to the same legal rights, respect and dignity afforded to others, then the court shouldn’t have the right to deny their right to marry.
The ruling continued:
“Because a person’s sexual orientation is so integral an aspect of one’s identity, it is not appropriate to require a person to repudiate and change his or her sexual orientation in order to avoid discrimination,” the court added.
“While the retention of the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples is not needed to preserve the rights and benefits of opposite-sex couples, the exclusion of same-sex couples from the designation of marriage works a real and appreciable harm upon same-sex couples and their children,” the high court’s opinion reads.
Another conflict within this story is that some opponents argued that marriage is linked to procreation and therefore limited to heterosexuals. However, the court reasoned that the constitutional right to marry never has been tied to a couple’s ability or willingness to have children.
3. Cover proponents and opponents equally
Many stories covering gay civil rights issues will contain quotes from political and religious leaders who oppose them but often don’t include quotes from leaders of similar stature who support them. Instead, journalists often quote “real people” to get the other side, pitting the individual against the community. Although it’s important to include an individual’s perspective, it’s equally important to show when there are community leaders who support each side.
Journalists should also understand that no one person can speak authoritatively for all in the gay community.
Every profession has gay members, but you rarely read quotes from a gay lawyer, doctor or scientist in stories about gay civil rights.
Leo E. Laurence, J.D. is editor of the San Diego News Service, an independent agency covering its city for the media nationwide. He’s a member of SPJ’s San Diego Pro chapter, the CCNMA – Latino Journalists of California and the NLGJA. He serves on SPJ’s Diversity Committee and regularly writes for SPJ’s diversity blog: Who’s News. You can reach him at email@example.com
More Diversity Resources: Visit www.spj.org/diversityfor more resources on diversifying your news coverage.
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