Did The Post 'celebrate' gay marriage in D.C.?

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Few issues stir passions more than same-sex marriage, and The Post's recent coverage has provoked loud cries of bias from opponents. Their ire centers on stories, columns and photos that ran in the days after the District began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on March 3.

Scores accused The Post of abandoning neutrality and engaging in a victory celebration.

"The Post's unabashed bias in favor of gay marriage, in its reporting, is blatant, obvious and, I believe, 100 percent intentional," e-mailed Doug Schrader of Crownsville, who opposes gay marriage but not necessarily gay civil unions.

Many readers protested a March 4 front page photo of two men kissing outside D.C. Superior Court, which had started issuing licenses.

And the conservative Culture and Media Institute said its review showed that in the week after March 3, The Post coverage totaled 543 column inches ("equal to nearly four full pages") and included 14 photos of "gay celebrations." Supporters of same-sex marriage were quoted 10 times more than opponents, the group said.

"As soon as this became law, it was basically The Washington Post standing up and saying 'Yay!' " Dan Gainor, the group's vice president, said in an interview. "It's news," he acknowledged, but the coverage was excessive and "one-sided." Conservatives see it as evidence that The Post is hopelessly liberal, he said.

The Post is not always sufficiently attuned to conservative perspectives. But with gay marriage coverage, the accusations of journalistic overkill are off base.

By any measure, the issuance of same-sex licenses was historic. And many among the District's large lesbian and gay population are directly affected. A study last October by the nonprofit Williams Institute at UCLA, whose Web site says it uses research to advance "sexual orientation law," estimated that roughly 3,500 same-sex couples live in the District. At about 14 per 1,000 households, the percentage is nearly three times the national average and ranks above all states.

Also, The Post's coverage should be viewed broadly to include the run-up to the D.C. Council's Dec. 15 final approval of same-sex marriage. That's when debate was most intense. During that period, The Post ran roughly 20 stories, many airing opponents' views.

In mid-November, the Style section featured a 2,200-word profile of Bishop Harry Jackson of Beltsville's Hope Christian Church, a national figure and local leader in the movement against same-sex marriage. Earlier, Style ran a lengthy profile of Brian Brown, executive director of the anti-gay-marriage National Organization for Marriage. The Brown and Jackson profiles drew protests from gay readers who felt their side wasn't given equal exposure.

My only complaint about the more recent coverage is that The Post should have offered a stand-alone story on the legal challenge to same-sex marriage. The D.C. Court of Appeals has yet to rule on an effort to put the issue to a citywide vote. The referendum has sizable support. A Post survey of 1,135 District residents in late January found 59 percent in favor; it also showed a solid majority (56 to 35 percent) in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

It's true that The Post's coverage after March 3 focused heavily on the victors in the same-sex battle. And why not? It was only natural that stories and photos would feature couples joyfully applying for marriage licenses or getting married. And it makes sense that many quotes would come from those benefiting from the new law. But far from a "celebration," coverage also informed same-sex couples that they would not be entitled to numerous federal benefits, that they still must file separate federal tax forms and that most states won't recognize their marriages. Another story reported on Williams Institute estimates that legalizing gay marriage would create 700 jobs and add more than $52 million to the local economy over three years. Yet another story dealt with Catholic Charities grappling with the same-sex issue.

A key question is whether the news coverage, over time, adequately exposed readers to varied views. Bishop Jackson agrees it did. In an interview, he accused Post reporter Tim Craig of intentionally underestimating the crowd size at an anti-gay-marriage rally; it's a serious charge that Craig and his editors deny. But beyond that, Jackson said, "the volume of coverage on us was fair."

The recent coverage has been largely shaped by the fact that same-sex marriage is, after prolonged debate, now legal in the District.

"Laws change," said Gainor. "Just because this battle is 'over' doesn't mean it's ended. And it doesn't mean that the other side is happy about it."

On that we can agree.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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