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Same-sex marriage: How much coverage is too much?

June 20, 2008 |  5:47 pm

Married_jeff_and_gregCoverage in Wednesday's Times of the first full day of same-sex marriage in California was too much, said some two dozen readers whose calls or notes came to the readers' representative office. Some cited liberal bias as the reason behind what one called "exaggerated" coverage as measured both by the number of stories and the use of photos.

Carolyn Sherley of Cedar Glen thought that coverage made it seem as if "gay marriages supersede everything else": "So gay marriages are legal. Now do we have to look at continual pictures of women kissing women and men kissing men? Straight marriages never got this much publicity (unless it was a celebrity, of course)." Sherley added up Wednesday's online coverage: two stories and a picture of two men kissing on the California/Local page, three articles on the OC page, one on the Inland Empire page. "This means that in three pages there are a total of seven articles. I think that is excessive, don't you?"

Of the print version, Alexandra Lafkas of Sierra Madre said: "I can't believe you people gave almost four pages to these weddings. We know about the weddings. One page or one article would have been enough. Four pages is ridiculous." In a follow-up call, she added, "This is not world news; we have other things to think about."

The lead story that day on the front page, written by three reporters, reflected an overview of the day in which more than 2,300 marriage licenses were issued statewide. It included political reaction from groups gearing up for the November ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, but the focus of the story was on couples who got married. A photo on A1 showed two brides holding a baby and kissing at the altar; another shot showed a close-up of hands exchanging wedding rings.

The story continued inside, where it was part of three pages that included vignettes from around the state (links below); a report on Palm Springs' marketing itself as a destination for gay marriages; a look at Virginia, where gay marriage was outlawed in 2004; and a story about media coverage of the day's events. Other than the front page, there were a total of 13 news pages in the main section that day: four devoted to international news, eight to national stories (of which the three-page marriage package was a part) and the index.

As California Editor David Lauter wrote in an e-mail responding to the readers' objections: "Whether one thinks yesterday's events were a landmark of civil rights or the definitive sign of the decline of Western civilization, either way, it was a big deal. We covered it as such. Wednesday was the opening of a huge social change in the nation's largest state -- the state that also happens to be our home. It's the sort of event that generates strong emotions on both sides and almost certainly will be written about, debated and discussed by historians, sociologists and political partisans of all stripes for years to come. More immediately, it's the subject of what seems likely to be a very heated campaign over a ballot measure this fall. All that's pretty much the definition of news."

Executive Editor John Arthur, who oversees the front-page story selection, said in an e-mail, "We tried to not devote excessive space to the event for fear of being seen as partisan -- of endorsing gay marriage." Acknowledging that some coverage wasn't in the package he oversaw in the main section (Steve Lopez wrote in the California section about the subject in his column that day, and the Orange County Edition placed its own story in its local section), Arthur said, "In the end we had a bit more space devoted to it than we intended." But overall, to the readers who named other topics that they thought were slighted in the Wednesday paper: "While wars, floods, gangs and the political campaign are all important, on this particular day this was by far the biggest news event in California and one of the major events nationally. It also attracted much international attention. The paper comes out every day and reflects the news of the day. On that day, gay marriage was The News."

Photos brought objections, too, from some. Of The Times' print edition on Wednesday, Bill Greene of Northridge left a phone message to say, "I don't think gays getting married is the biggest story in the world. But since you have to do it, I don't think you have to flaunt two lesbians kissing on their wedding day. Leave the two women off the front page. My children look at this paper, and I don't think it's appropriate for them to see this. I think you need to think about the people who are going to look at the paper, not just the adults but the children, so leave the photos off or put them deeper in the paper."

James Cannon of Sherman Oaks commented on Tuesday's online coverage: "I couldn't be happier that gay people are finally permitted to marry. But why The Times chose the particular pictures I am seeing online is curious at best. Necessary to show two couples kissing? This smacks of showing the most outrageous revelers at the Gay Pride Parade -- anything to possibly offend, frighten or incite."

David Lauter says simply: "As for couples kissing: If you're covering a lot of marriages, that's really what the story's about, isn't it? What other visual image would better capture the gist of the subject?"

Colin Crawford, deputy managing editor for visual journalism, quantified it: "We ran one kissing photo out of nine images in the paper. To cover a story about weddings and not run a kissing photo would seem like we were going out of our way not to cover the story."

Arthur's thinking on the photos summarizes the editors' thinking on the coverage as a whole: "We are aware that plenty of people are uncomfortable with same-sex folks kissing, but I agree with David: If not today, when?"

The coverage in print and online:

A DAY OF VOWS AND HISTORY: Vignettes from weddings around California.

1) GETTING MARRIED, GETTING ON WITH LIFE
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-scene-hollywood18-2008jun18,0,1130396.story
2) CLERK ALL DRESSED UP WITH NO ONE TO WED
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-scene-colusa18-2008jun18,0,1971920.story
3) HAPPINESS PREVAILS DESPITE A CIVIC OBSTACLE
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-scene-bakersfield18-2008jun18,0,4885411.story
4) HOPING THE THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-scene-shorts18-2008jun18,0,5497089.story

MAIN LINK:
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-marriage18-2008jun18,0,6701919.story
Articles
• Joy blooms on California's first day of legal gay marriages
• Opponents of gay marriage stay mostly quiet -- for now
• After 11 years, 'We finally got it done,' O.C. men say
• Gay couples are emphasizing low-key weddings
• California's county clerks' policies vary on same-sex marriages
• Sandy Banks: Teens have mixed feelings
• Dana Parsons: Breaking marriage barriers
• For one same-sex couple, marriage was always the goal
• Gay marriage reaction? It's all over the map
• Honeymoon spots for gay marriages

LINKS TO VIDEOS:
http://www.latimes.com/video/?slug=la-me-marriage-player

READERS Q&A:
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-marriageqa,0,6089180.story

PHOTOS:
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-gayweddings-pg,0,5597152.photogallery

Photo above by Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times, shows Jeff Van Hooser and Greg McCollum at the Old Courthouse in Santa Ana on Tuesday. They were joined by their children, Kate and Lucas.

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