About That Study

A lot of talk in the media today about the study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus in Social Science Research that questions the outcomes for children raised in same-sex relationships.  The study was rolled out to the press last Thursday and the first reports on the study in the mainstream press came from the conservative newspapers Washington Times and Deseret News.

Fortunately, the folks at Box Turtle Bulletin were all over the research and quickly provided important information about the study, including news that the study was funded by two conservative foundations that fund efforts opposed to same-sex marriage–the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation.  Like most of the work at BTB, the analysis is rational and even-handed.

The best mainstream coverage of the study came from the New York Times, which did a nice job explaining both the critiques of the study but also explaining the study’s strengths, including quotes from supporters of same-sex marriage who nonetheless believe the study is significant.

Other good coverage came from Slate, which featured both the study’s author as well as a fisking of the research by William Saletan.

Beyond that, most of the coverage is predictable based on who is doing the coverage.  The conservative world thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread in a bag and the progressive/LGBT media has taken the approach that it is deeply flawed research based on a clear conservative agenda.

There is nothing more difficult than writing about social science research, especially when it comes to the LGBT community where the research is often deeply flawed or deeply limited.  In fact, a companion analysis in Social Science Research looks at the problems in many of the “kids are alright” studies on LGBT families and notes the problems that exist in that research.

For journalists, our first job is to be accurate . . . and skeptical.  We must look at research and put it into context.  While lots of people are demagoguing the research, Regenerus is fairly upfront about the study’s limitation and encourages people not to use the data to make assumptions about LGBT families in 2012.  Of course, he says that knowing that’s exactly what people are going to do with the research.

But being skeptical of research is a two-way street and journalists need to be skeptical (and find out the agenda of the researchers and funders) whether the research undermines assumptions or confirms assumptions.  There’s a lot of flawed research out there, including research that is favorable to LGBT families.

As more coverage of the study emerges, it will be important to avoid the demagogues and seek out analysts who can speak to research design and to people who have actually read the study.  What are the strengths of the study?  What are the flaws?  Are the critiques fair?  Does it matter who pays for a study?  These are all questions journalists should be asking as the study moves beyond the ideological arena and into the mainstream.



Don’t Luv Ya Bunches, Moms

The story broke last fall, but it’s worth repeating now that Spring book fairs are nearly upon us.  Scholastic Books, publisher of the oft-banned Harry Potter series among other popular books for kids and young adults, was caught in a queer dilemma last October. School Library Journal and others reported that the company sent a letter to author Lauren Myracle’s agent, asking that she make some changes to her newest book, Luv Ya Bunches.  Seems that the folks at Scholastic were concerned about words like “crap,” “sucks” and “geez.”  But that’s not all. The fact that one of the main characters, Milla, has two moms was also worrisome.  Myracle agreed to change the language, but she drew the line at recasting Milla’s family, noted the School Library Journal.

“A child having same-sex parents is not offensive, in my mind, and shouldn’t be ‘cleaned up.'” says Myracle, adding that the book fair subsequently decided not to take on Luv Ya Bunches because they wanted to avoid letters of complaint from parents. “I find that appalling. I understand why they would want to avoid complaint letters—no one likes getting hated on—but shouldn’t they be willing to evaluate the quality of the complaint? What, exactly, are children being protected against here?”

The compromise?  Scholastic says it will include the book in its middle school book fairs this spring but not ones held at elementary schools.  But that’s a problem for the book’s target market.  Its characters are ten years old and in the fifth grade–at an elementary school.  Do middle school kids really want to read books meant for the elementary school crowd?  Plus, how are elementary school librarians made aware of this book, which is more appropriate for their libraries than those at middle schools?

In the end, it seems that Scholastic got its panties in a wad for just about nothing.  The book focuses on the children themselves; Milla’s moms are barely mentioned and her family structure doesn’t figure into the story at all.  Still, as far as I can tell, the company’s decisions stands.

And why should this matter?  A representative of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom sums it up:

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, acting director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, points out that Scholastic is free to market books as it likes because booksellers aren’t government agencies and therefore aren’t held to the same standards as public libraries and school libraries, which serve entire communities. At the same time, Caldwell-Stone says, asking Myracle to alter her book, does have a chilling effect.

“It discourages other authors from writing similar books that include same-sex parents or diverse characters, so it’s problematic,” says Caldwell-Stone.

Especially in a time when the publishing industry–newspapers, magazines and books–is under great duress.

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Introduction: Laura Laing

communicateNo one likes an argument, but according to my partner my passion for language makes me a real pain in the you-know-what.  I have this horrible tendency to pick apart her examples and comb through her word choices, searching for a moment to shout—with my index finger pointed to the sky—“Ah-hah!  You’re being inconsistent!”

Sadly, our daughter has the same gotcha love affair with language.  With the wisdom of her nine years and none of the brain clutter that her moms have accumulated over the last 40, she zooms in on unfair generalizations and imprecise statements of fact.

The truth? I’m as proud as can be of her.

What makes my partner roll her eyes during an argument makes me a pretty good journalist, I think.  And of course I’m not alone.  Newsrooms across the country are full of uppity language- and fact-hounds like me—no matter what the public likes to believe.  They worry over the one interview that didn’t go as planned.  They flip through stylebooks (or wind through style Web sites) looking for just the right word or phrase.  Say what you want about the state of journalism, but I believe that reporters and front-line editors are as dedicated as ever to reporting accurate and thought-provoking stories.

But because we’re human, we bring our own foibles to our work.  We can strive for objectivity, but it’s impossible for us to maintain a perfect balance.  (I don’t believe in balance anyway, but that’s a discussion for another day.)  There’s a limit to self-awareness, and even the most astute journalist misses the mark from time to time.  Thank goodness for editors and eagle-eyed readers.

And that’s why I decided to accept NLGJA’s invitation to blog here.  Over the years, I’ve e-mailed dozens of journalists who are covering the GLBT beat, congratulating them on a well-reported story or (hopefully) gently pointing them to a better way to tell the story.  I’ve almost always received positive feedback and thank yous for alerting them to a potentially insensitive term.

I believe that conversations about missteps or misunderstandings or mistakes are how we can achieve more accurate and sensitive reporting.   Without these conversations, GLBT stories won’t be good reflections of the individuals who make up our diverse community and the issues that we face.  This is as important to our craft as it is to our readers and the stories we tell.

So let’s get talking.