Lindsay Tanner’s book “Sideshow” argues how the media has undermined the capacity for proper policy debate in our society. The media’s recent presentation of our Archbishop’s statement on the redefinition of marriage is a classic illustration of the point.
The homosexual community has called society into a debate about the nature of marriage. Through the influence of the Greens, the members of parliament are to inquire of the electorate about changing the law to allow same sex marriage. The Labor party is going to debate its policy on this issue at its national conference.
It would seem right and proper therefore, for any person to present a view on this matter, especially leaders of community groups who have a particular interest or concern to express their views.
As one such community within society, Christians have every right to hold a particular interest in the nature of marriage. We have had a long-term interest in marriage – our ministers are registered by the Government as authorised celebrants and about a third of the community turn to the church for their weddings. Furthermore, rightly or wrongly, we believe that our view is for the good of society as a whole.
This month our Archbishop wrote on the issue in the Diocesan magazine, Southern Cross. It’s good that the media referred to his article and his views, but it was a great shame that they presented them so poorly.
Typical of current journalistic practice, one newspaper summarized the article for the public and, lest they be accused of bias in publishing a Christian opinion, included some alternative views. But this is just the kind of journalistic practice that undermines public debate. The redefinition of marriage and family is a significant and important issue that requires careful analysis beyond slogans and sound-bites. Marriage, and its place in intergenerational family life, is one of the foundational building blocks of society. It changes and evolves over time, but deliberate legal redefinitions require genuine analysis and careful thought. Any single issue such as ‘same sex’ opens up much bigger questions of the meaning, nature, role and place of marriage within the lives of people and society. It is also a delicate matter to write responsibly upon, for few matters bring us more joy and pain than marriage and family life.
Summarizing and reordering quotable parts of an article rarely does justice to any author or his opinion. Matters that he may consider of central and key importance are omitted while others that he may consider minor are highlighted as central. The logical flow of the article is seriously altered and the carefully qualified nuances are removed. Using quotations is but an artifice of apparent authenticity but no guarantee of accuracy. Adding some opinions from an opposing viewpoint gives the air of apparent impartiality, but does not provide a genuine interchange of ideas or opportunity for either side of a debate to be heard.
But then comes the headline! This is the eye-catching idea designed to grab the attention of the reader. And in media that entertains instead of informs, the headline picks up the most controversial rather than the most important element of the article. It’s usually expressed in such a way as to arouse conflict – the essence of a good story – and to increase circulation. It doesn’t have to bear much relationship to the story, just enough to attract the reader or mention the article’s topic.
On this occasion the headline was “Same-sex Marriage will lead to Polygamy, says Jensen”. This is not true to what the Archbishop wrote. The article then commenced “Allowing same-sex couples to marry could lead to the acceptance of polygamy and incest, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, has warned.” This opening sentence has several problems. Firstly there is a considerable difference between the “will lead to polygamy” of the headline and the “could lead to the acceptance of polygamy” of the opening sentence. Secondly, this was not the central argument of the Archbishop’s article but turns a minor illustration into his opening gambit. Thirdly, it does not even reflect accurately what the Archbishop wrote about that matter for it omits the idea of the ‘right’ to marriage, which his article was addressing. Fourthly, it uses the emotive word ‘incest’, which he chose not to use.
As is the way of media debates, the headline came to be definitive. In subsequent days the letters column confirmed the misinterpretation and carried an even more sensationalist headline, “Jensen’s same-sex rant offensive and absurd”. The letters chosen for publication attacked, and humorously sent up, the Archbishop for saying that “homosexual activity can lead directly” to polygamy and incest. From his original minor point that the discussion of ‘rights’ could open up the way for other reforms, the Archbishop was accused of a rant about homosexual activity itself leading to polygamy and incest. No wonder one correspondent asked humorously if same sex marriage was ‘also’ causing global warming!