Readers' Representative Journal

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Proposition 8: We get e-mails...

November 13, 2008 |  3:05 pm

Readers have homed in on three facets of coverage when it comes to Proposition 8:

  • Before the election there was an ad that popped out, literally, at readers as they perused the editorial board's stands online.
  • Just after the election there were complaints that the newsroom called the vote too soon, and wasn't giving adequate coverage to those who were protesting the results of the vote.
  • In the days since have come complaints that the coverage is trying to make Yes on 8 voters look bad.

The ad

On Nov. 3, editorial writer Karin Klein was monitoring comments on the Proposition 8 editorial -- more than 600 had come in -- and she noted that one topic came up repeatedly: "Readers noted that although the editorial was very anti-Proposition 8, it ran on a web page with both a Yes on 8 banner head and an  ad to the side that would expand out to cover part of the editorial. Several people questioned our ethics for allowing such ads; others simply wondered about it."

Reader James Conine was one such reader: "Doesn't The Times have a policy against this type of advertising so close to the election? Furthermore, I'm afraid that this could give the appearance that the L.A. Times supports Prop 8. I understand that the LAT accepts advertising from many groups, but there should be a limitation on when and where you will place certain ads."

Readers might be thinking that laws similar to those that ban electioneering near a polling places might apply. No, says Jerry Bluestein of The Times' advertising department. He fielded nearly 30 complaints about the online ad, which floated out to the middle of the reading pane for a few seconds before resuming its spot on the side of the webpage.

The Times' obligation to give voice to diverse points of view, says Bluestein, applies to advertising as well -- including advocacy ads that comment on election issues. His note back to readers says in part, "Even though some readers may personally object with the position of a particular ad, we cannot reject it solely on that basis, or because it voices an opinion contrary to the paper's editorial stance." Ultimately, he says, the function of a newspaper is to provide a marketplace of ideas, especially on controversial issues. 

The initial protest

On Nov. 6, Todd Flournoy of Pasadena was among some dozen readers who were surprised there wasn't a story devoted solely to what he called a "significant civil rights event gathering." Flournoy wrote to say that he "was sorely disappointed" with coverage of the march in West Hollywood Nov. 5. The references to the rally were included in a front-page article mostly examining the strategy used by proponents of the initiative. The story was accompanied by a photo whose caption reported that thousands gathered in West Hollywood "to voice anger over passage of Proposition 8."

The past week has seen daily coverage of the rise in protests over passage of the initiative. (Some headlines: "Prop. 8: Backers on Southside and Eastside overcame foes on Westside"; "More groups ask California Supreme Court to overturn Proposition 8"; "Angrier response to Prop. 8 steps up.") But before the recent increase in protests and coverage, when California Editor David Lauter responded, he addressed the reasoning behind the Nov. 6 coverage. "Because there are so many, we generally set the bar very high for stories in the printed paper that deal simply with a protest. Instead, we try to do two things: report on protests on our website while they are happening and then, in print, deal with them in the context of a larger story about the issue that's involved." That's why at there were live updates, an extensive photo gallery and video of the news as it was breaking. The Nov. 6 news story provided larger context -- a sense of the reaction people had to the passage of the marriage ban and some explanation of why the campaign for the proposition succeeded.

The days since have given rise to the most recent criticism of coverage.

"Constant attempts to vilify"

Matt Clark of Alta Loma was among almost two dozen who contacted The Times to say coverage of Proposition 8 since Election Day has been biased: "Your constant attempts to vilify the proponents of Proposition 8 as bigoted/homophobic/backward, etc., to ignore the words and behavior of its opponents, however destructive and/or bigoted they may be themselves, and to simply parrot the lines and accusations of the opponents has been appalling."

Since Nov. 5, 16 stories have been published from the California desk about the initiative on changing the state Constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The day after the election, some were angry that The Times was reporting, despite some uncounted ballots, that the proposition had passed (an editorial judgment that was fully explained in a Sunday story).

A Nov. 7 story headlined "Mormons' Prop. 8 aid protested" brought complaints from Mormons, many of whom said they hadn't given money and the characterization was unfair.

A Nov. 8 article headlined "Why gays, blacks are divided on Prop. 8" brought charges that the paper was injecting race unfairly. Protest stories ran Nov. 8 and Nov. 9, the one on Sunday headlined "Throngs protest across the state: In Silver Lake, San Diego and other sites, demonstrators vent their anger over the ban on gay marriage."

In particular, a Nov. 9 news story about a lesbian couple who live in southwest Riverside County, which the story called "a bastion of social conservatism," brought notes of frustration. KC Blake of Los Angeles wrote, "In a state dominated by the Democratic Party, wouldn't it be more interesting to do a story about the constant ridicule and social injustices suffered by conservatives living in Los Angeles County?  Where is the story about the gay activists that were taking pictures of every car that entered the Mormon Temple today in an effort to intimidate patrons?... Instead of traveling 100 miles to find a single couple that have been discriminated against in one of the few areas of California that still has a conservative majority, why not focus on the real victims of this vote -- those who exercised their constitutional right to support traditional marriage."

Some of the criticism comes down to cherry-picking stories, says Lauter. "Coverage of all news, especially stories of high interest, takes place over days and weeks," and some pieces will highlight the views of one side while others will highlight the opposite side.

"On Proposition 8, in the weeks before the election, we ran several stories that highlighted the supporters, including, for example, a Column One about a group of people who were fasting and praying for the measure's passage." Coverage has moved with the news, which includes more protests -- but the stories about the supporters are within those stories and were the lead story in Tuesday's California section.