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Will State Media Outlets Hold Anti-Gay Groups Accountable This Election?

October 11, 2012 12:55 pm ET by Carlos Maza

In the few remaining weeks before November 6, local media outlets will be responsible for helping voters wade through the flood of anti-gay misinformation aimed at swaying their vote in state marriage equality battles.

In four states – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington – voters will head to the polls to decide the fate of their respective marriage initiatives.

Although polling indicates that the pro-equality position has a chance of succeeding in all four states, those numbers will shift as state anti-gay groups unleash waves of fear-based television and radio ads over the next few weeks.

These ads are likely to peddle classic anti-equality horror stories that have been debunked, including the myth that legalizing same-sex marriage would force children to learn about homosexuality in schools.

These misleading ads also have the potential to vaporize support for marriage equality. In California, for example, the “Yes On 8” campaign turned public opinion against marriage equality with its highly effective “Princess” ad. As MinnPost’s Beth Hawkins noted:

In California, the princess ad aired over and over, part of a saturation campaign that is credited with handing Yes on 8 a narrow upset victory. Of the 13.7 million votes cast, 52 percent favored the amendment opposing gay marriage.

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According to an exhaustive analysis later performed by LGBT-rights strategist David Fleischer, 500,000 of the 600,000 deciding voters were prepared to vote against the initiative until Yes on 8’s ads began airing.

Anti-gay groups in all four states are preparing to launch similar saturation campaigns this month, using the same ‘school indoctrination’ horror story that worked so well in California.

Given the impact that dishonest anti-gay ads can have on marriage ballot initiatives, state media outlets can play a major role in shaping the public debate over same-sex marriage in the crucial few weeks before the vote is cast in November.

Here’s how:

1. Fact Check Anti-Gay “Horror Stories.” Ballot initiatives – like ones for marriage equality -- are highly susceptible to voter misinformation. State and local media outlets should hold both sides of the campaign accountable by proactively fact-checking their popular talking points. The Baltimore Sun, for example, has debunked the “spurious arguments” being used by equality opponents in Maryland, while the Portland Press Herald put the claims of anti-equality group Protect Marriage Maine to its “Truth Test” (spoiler: Protect Marriage Maine failed).

2. Avoid “He Said, She-Said” Journalism. In debates over a public policy issues, media outlets tend to present both sides of an argument in an effort to be fair without resolving which side is actually telling the truth. This false equivalency helps journalists avoid accusations of bias, but it does little to provide voters with useful information about the issue being discussed. Studies show that readers end up feeling helpless and confused when news stories don’t resolve competing truth claims. Same-sex marriage has been legal for years in a number of states, and none of the right-wing horror stories about school ‘indoctrination’ and religious freedom have proven to be true. Failing to debunk these talking points isn’t a form of objectivity, it’s just lazy journalism.

3. Identify Your Sources. When talking to local media outlets, state anti-equality groups tend to tone down their homophobic rhetoric, preferring to depict themselves as tolerant, fair-minded supporters of “traditional” marriage. It’s a smart strategy for attracting moderate voters, but it’s extremely disingenuous. More often than not, these state groups have long histories of extreme anti-gay rhetoric, including calling homosexuality a “dangerous lifestyle choice” and a “very destructive immoral force.” Highlighting the biases and political motivations of anti-equality activists is critical to ensuring that voters can identify credible and reliable sources of information and make well-informed decisions  in the debate over same-sex marriage.

Previously:

Debunking The Four Most Commonly Cited Anti-Equality Horror Stories

Not So Nice: Meet The Group Behind Minnesota's "Low-Key" Anti-Equality Ads