Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Want Balance? Go to Bangor

I thought it would be interesting to see how well the national news media fared this morning in offering balanced reporting on the gay marriage issue in Maine – at least on their Web sites; I’m not analyzing the late-breaking news or morning blab shows on television). For sake of comparison, I also tossed into the mix the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, just to get a feel for how the local media handled the vote on Question 1.
I looked at the following news outlets, in addition to the Bangor Daily News:

The results?

If you want a truly balanced report, gotta go to Bangor.

Here are the rest of my rankings, from most balanced to least balanced:

Bangor Daily News
ABC News
(tie) Fox News, MSNBC
CBS News
USA Today
(tie) LA Times, NY Times, The Associated Press (various sources, the USA Today story seems closest to the AP copy I've seen)

I judged balance on three factors, two quantitative, the other qualitative.

First, I looked at the quoted sources in each story, noting the number of pro-Question 1 versus anti-Question 1 quoted by each news source. A balanced story, then, had a close to or equal number of sources from either side of the Question.

Second, I looked at the word counts in each story, separating content into three categories: Neutral, Pro-Question 1, and Anti-Question 1.

Third, I looked at word choices, story organization and other qualitative tells that reveal (few conceal) the writer’s or the news organization’s bias on Question 1. Putting both the quantitative and qualitative analysis together brings me to the final rankings.

I will disclose my biases forthwith. I have written on this blog in support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stance on gay marriage. I am a member of this church. However, after more than a year of contemplating the issue, I have to confess my opinion on the issue leans more towards allowing gay marriage, simply because I don’t regard such as a threat to heterosexual marriage and because I don’t wish to impinge on the free agency, or the ability to choose, of others.

But back to the rankings.

The Bangor Daily News does a bang-up job of reporting in a balanced fashion. Of the news organizations I analyzed, they quoted the most sources, with three in favor of Question 1, three opposed, and one (a state official commenting on voter turnout) as neutral, or at least neutral in the comments reported by the paper.

Their lede:

Voters on Tuesday repealed the state’s same sex marriage law after an emotionally charged campaign that drew large numbers to the polls and focused national attention on Maine.

With 87 percent of precincts reporting, the campaign to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law won with 53 percent of the vote vs. 47 percent opposed to Question 1, according to unofficial results compiled by the Bangor Daily News.
It’s neutral to the issue and reports the facts, making it the best lede of those I’ve read. The story, written by Kevin Miller and Judy Harrison, is just as balanced and admirable. A word count of quotes and supporting material on both the pro- and anti-Question 1 sides in this 1,086-word story shows a remarkable balance, with 375 words written in from the pro camp, with 410 written from the anti camp. The remaining 301 words are of a neutral nature, reporting on voter turnout and some background on the gay marriage issue in the state.

All of the news organizations in the middle seemed to have phoned in the results from Maine, relying primarily on reporting by the Associated Press. Each news outlet, obviously, played with the content of the AP’s story, most notably changing ledes as you’d expect from each organization. Fox went with this:

Maine voters dealt a severe blow to the gay rights movement by repealing a state law that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry.

The vote was close but nonetheless a huge defeat for gay activists in a corner of the country considered most sympathetic to their cause.
Not necessarily balanced from the qualitative point of view, but better than others, as you’ll see.

ABC News gives the story similar treatment, spinning slightly to the left as Fox spins slightly to the right:

The tide of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples -- which has swept across New England in recent months -- has stopped at Maine.

Voters rejected a state law Tuesday that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed. The repeal comes just six months after the measure was passed by the Maine legislature and signed by the Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.
What is telling is that these outlets in the middle managed to improve their scores mainly by trimming the AP story down, not through any original reporting of their own. Such copperplate reporting may be easy to do, but it doesn't serve readers well. I know. I've done plenty of such copperplate reporting and paid the price for it.

Those in the bottom tier clearly show their biases.

The New York Times leads with this:

They had far more money, volunteers and political support, and geography was on their side, given that New England has been more accepting of same-sex marriage than any other region of the country. Yet gay-rights advocates suffered a crushing loss in Maine when voters decided Tuesday to repeal the state’s new law allowing gays and lesbians to wed, setting back a movement that had made remarkable progress nationally this year.

Maine became the 31st state to block same-sex marriage through a public referendum, a result that will force supporters to rethink their national strategy at a crucial time for the movement. With 84 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday, the repeal proposal had 53 percent of the vote, even though polls had indicated the race was a dead heat.
USA Today chimes in thusly:

The stars seemed aligned for supporters of gay marriage. They had Maine's governor, legislative leaders and major newspapers on their side, plus a huge edge in campaign funding. So losing a landmark referendum was a devastating blow, for activists in Maine and nationwide.

In an election that had been billed for weeks as too close to call, Maine's often unpredictable voters repealed a state law Tuesday that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed. Gay marriage has now lost in all 31 states in which it has been put to a popular vote — a trend that the gay-rights movement had believed it could end in Maine.
Of these outlets, only the New York Times did original reporting; the rest simply ran an Associated Press story (which ranked pretty low on the scale), changing things here and there but otherwise leaving the AP stuff alone. (I do like the image of geography being “on their side,” which made me think of Terry Pratchett’s definition of geography: Physics slowed down with trees stuck in it.)

As the Bangor Daily News shows, truly balanced reporting isn’t hard, but it does take a conscious effort. Those who spin the story to the right or to the left – or to the far left – sell themselves short as reporters and do their readers a disservice, especially among newspapers, which are struggling to retain readership at the moment.

Am I a paragon of balanced reporting? Hardly. I know I can do better. Just as the news can do better as well.

This analysis is, of course, completely unscientific. I haven't documented all of my analyses. But this is a blog, not real news.

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