Sasha Aslanian, much too happy for a radio reporter. (Photo by Christopher Polydoroff.)
“Take that bumper sticker off your car,” I was firmly told by a reporter friend many years ago. “It’s fine to have opinions. Just keep them to yourself.”
I remember replying: “Just because I do some reporting, doesn’t mean I have to give up my right to free speech. I’m still a citizen, ya know.” He shrugged.
Years later, I now offer his advice to students and others. My thinking has changed. I’m still a citizen. I still have opinions. But, when I show up to report a story, interviewees should believe I’m going to give them a fair shake. No bumper sticker (or button or t-shirt or statement or….) should cause them to think otherwise.
But, keeping a bumper sticker off a car is easy. What about fairness in the reporting itself? How does a reporter make sure the story they tell is balanced? Sasha Aslanian has some good answers.
Sasha is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio (and producer of a great documentary Divorced Kid.) Over the last couple of years, Sasha has reported extensively on the contentious issue of gay marriage in Minnesota. Balance was front and center for her while reporting that story.
On this HowSound, Sasha talks how she worked to achieve balance — from choices she made in the field, to writing, to voicing. We’ll also listen to a story she produced about how the gay marriage debate played out in Hibbing, Minnesota.
In addition to listening to this addition of HowSound, please read Sasha’s excellent speech (posted below) about balance and reporting on Minnesota’s gay marriage amendment. She delivered it to the “Best of the Midwest” conference sponsored Associated Collegiate Press in February of 2013. This might be my favorite quote from he speech:
“Here’s the thing. You are an anthropologist. You are dropped into two warring villages. You get to go behind enemy lines on both sides– something no one else gets to do. You try to figure out what language the people are speaking. What are they fighting over and why?
Shut up and listen. Listen to how they talk with each other when they (almost) forget you’re there.”
Please read on:
On my birthday, in May of 2011, the Minnesota legislature voted to put an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman on the November 2012 ballot. I guess they gave me a present as a journalist—a great story to cover. The next day I went into our news director’s office and said I wanted to be the reporter to cover it. I’m not a political reporter. I have a background in documentaries. He looked bemused by my moxie, raised his eyebrows and said “Okay…?” A few weeks later, my editor Laura McCallum suggested I cover it, and I jumped at it.
For those of you who haven’t breathlessly been following Minnesota politics, the amendment on last November’s ballot was a constitutional amendment that would have prevented same-sex marriage from being legalized in Minnesota. A vote YES would have added the man-woman definition to the state constitution. A NO vote would leave the constitution alone. Minnesota law already defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and that law would have remained on the books whether the amendment won or lost. (UPDATE: On 5/14/13, Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize gay marriage. The law goes into effect 8/1/13.)
So—why did I want to cover the fight over the marriage amendment? As I said, I’m not a political reporter. I’m a straight woman married to my college boyfriend.
Simple: I knew it would going to be one hell of a race. As a journalist, you want to find the best story you can possibly cover and this one had everything.
I see the debate over gay rights as one of the defining issues of our times. It’s one of our culture wars. If you buy into the idea that journalists write the first draft of history—and I do—then this would be a chance to write a chapter a lot of people might want to read.
I also had an approach I wanted to test out:
How many of you have heard of James Fallows? He’s national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and a regular commentator on NPR. In 1996, Fallows published a book called “Breaking the News.” It’s a critique of political journalism. It’s an old book, I probably read it a decade ago, but I think his critique remains true today. Journalists tend to cover the horse race—who’s winning, who stands to gain politically on an issue. That style of journalism is fast, relatively easy—it’s fish in a barrel to go record the dueling news conferences or talk shows– it’s filled with conflict, which journalists love, and you feel like you’re in the game.
But Fallows argues that this horse-race style coverage, with its shouting matches, candidate X said this, candidate Y said that and no real sense of where the facts lie, turns people off. Voters throw up their hands and say, “they’re all a bunch of lying thieves.” So we do a disservice to our democracy.
It takes a lot more work to dig into the issues, test candidates’ words against their records and show readers or listeners what’s at stake.
The marriage amendment was a chance for me to test out Fallows’ prescription for doing it better. What was at stake in the marriage battle? Why do people care so profoundly about this issue? (I think every story we did on the marriage amendment got the top web traffic that day.) And what’s the history of this issue that’s led us to where we are today?
My editor assigned me to cover the marriage amendment more than a year before the election. We had a long lead time, and none of our competitors were doing much on the issue. This turned out to be a big advantage.
I got busy introducing myself to the players in the two campaigns as they began to build from the ground up. Minnesotans United for All Families was the vote NO side formed by two gay rights organizations: OutFront Minnesota, and Project 515, which stands for the 515 laws that treat gay and lesbian families differently.
Minnesota for Marriage was the vote YES side. Minnesota for Marriage was formed by the MN Catholic Conference, the Minnesota Family Council, which is an evangelical Christian values group, and the National Organization for Marriage. Sure I’d cover the tactics, the ads, and the money race. But I wanted to take my coverage beyond the campaigns. I wanted to hear from quote—”real people.” This was a local story in every community. Every community has gay and lesbian people, or people related to them, and every community in Minnesota has a Catholic Church. (It’s the single largest religious denomination in the state.)
I was particularly interested in what made people feel so passionate about this issue. On the one side, we had LGBT people and their allies who believe in their bones that giving gays and lesbians the right to marry is a matter of fairness and equality. For the other side, the pro-amendment side, there are people who believe just as deeply that marriage is designed by God as only between a man and a woman. They believe it’s tradition, and what makes society strongest—children raised by a mom and a dad. They feel their very belief system is threatened by efforts to open up marriage to people of the same gender.
Here’s something I pulled together from some of my early reporting. Here are 14 voices, they pretty much alternate between the two sides, although there are a couple of married couples who speak on the same side of the issue…
I was interested in the contours of this debate. How was the marriage debate playing in families, workplaces, churches, political parties, whole towns? The demographics interested me—older, conservative men in greater (rural) MN were most likely to vote for the amendment. Younger, urban, liberal and female voters were likely to vote against it. It cut across party lines, and had strange bedfellows— stuff that I love.
My editor and I drafted a list of enterprise stories that I would work on in and around my other coverage as a metro reporter. I wouldn’t go fulltime on the beat until a few months before the election. There would be no shortage of angles. I knew I wanted to get up to Hibbing, a socially conservative Democratic town on the Iron Range. I figured the struggle could be really wrenching in a place like that. I knew I wanted to go down to Iowa. Right across the border, we can see what same sex marriage looks like & what’s changed since the Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2009.
I wanted to know how the marriage debate was playing out in ethnic communities. The Latino community was fascinating—predominantly Catholic, but Hispanics are also the fastest growing segment of the evangelical church. Catholics and Evangelicals made up the backbone of the vote YES coalition. But the vote NO side–Minnesotans United for All Families–wasn’t ceding an inch of ground. They had hired a Latino organizer, had young Latinos volunteering to do bilingual phone banks. The largest Spanish-language media company in the state had taken a stance against the amendment, and its owner said the company hadn’t heard a peep from the audience since producing a gay pride edition of their newspaper a few years ago. And Spanish language media was changing. A popular Mexican soap opera now includes a gay grandpa character. Argentina has legalized gay marriage. There were lots of surprises in covering that story. We also spent time in the Hmong community, and with leaders of black churches for other stories.
MPR went broad geographically. I’m a metro reporter, but I was really conscious that the metro area, with all its orange vote NO lawn signs didn’t represent the rest of the state. We teamed up with the local NBC affiliate, KARE11 and visited five Minnesota cities to report stories for television and radio about how different communities were wrestling with the marriage amendment.
We also went deep in telling small stories, like how the amendment was playing in one family. Our Public Insight Network sent out a query asking people how they’d vote on the marriage amendment. Eileen Scallen, a 50-something law professor in Minneapolis wrote to say she’d be voting NO. She’s a lesbian who’s been with her partner, Marianne Norris, for more than a decade, and Marianne was accepted as a member of the family, but Scallen didn’t know how her staunchly Catholic siblings were going to vote on the marriage question. She wrote to us, “maybe you want to ask them?”
Of course I did. I wanted to hear from people who had a lot at stake: these are people whose Catholic faith is core to their identity and they have a beloved sister, who’s a lesbian who wants to marry her partner. Four out of her five siblings agreed to talk. And the one who didn’t, it wasn’t for the reason I thought. When I sat down with each one, I had absolutely no idea what they would say. As a reporter, my favorite thing is to be surprised. And every one of them had something different to say. We aired the story right before Christmas in 2011 when we thought lots of families might be having these sorts of uncomfortable conversations around the holiday table, or leaving it unspoken.
Scallen said the story ended up being really helpful in her family because we raised the discussion she found too painful to bring up on her own. She couldn’t bear the thought of learning that her siblings might vote against the most important relationships in her life. Her story hit home with our audience, and I got lots of notes from people describing it as a “driveway moment.” You really couldn’t get out of the car until you heard how this woman’s siblings were going to vote! Spoiler, one voted NO (so with his sister), one was going to leave it blank as protest vote, which also counts as a NO, two weren’t sure, one of whom won’t say to this day, how he voted.
I also wanted to go deep into the history of the marriage issue. No story pops up unconnected to what’s come before. I was struck reading a book published in the 90s by the first gay lobbyist in the state, Steve Endean, how much the sides hadn’t changed over time. In fact, these two groups really began squaring off in the 1970s, over issues like the human rights ordinance that would have protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment.
In the U.S., we often think of the gay rights movement as something that happened in New York with the Stonewall riots in 1969 when police raided a gay bar and the gay community fought back. Or in San Francisco with the assassination of city alderman Harvey Milk. But flyover land has its history too.
The first gay couple in the United States who fought for the right to marry were from Minneapolis. In 1970, Jack Baker, a law student at the University of Minnesota, tried to marry his lover, Mike McConnell, a librarian at the University. At the time, Minnesota’s marriage laws didn’t specify gender because nobody imagined a gay couple would apply for a marriage license. It was a fringe idea even in the gay community. The Hennepin County Clerk said no. So did the district court. The MN Supreme Court’s Baker decision set the precendent against same sex marriage in Minnesota and still stands. Baker and McConnell appealed their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court but the highest court in the land declined to hear it “for want of a substantial federal question.” The court felt marriage was a matter for states to decide.
I think you’re probably all aware that this year, more than 40 years after declining to hear the Baker case, the US Supreme Court has decided to hear two cases that have to do with same sex marriage, so it will be an interesting year.
I tried like crazy to get Baker and McConnell to talk with me. I had a colleague hand-deliver a letter to their house. I sent my most charming emails. Heck, I even offered to record their whole oral history and GIVE it to them, but they declined. I did end up striking up a very nice correspondence with Mike McConnell –the now retired librarian–who explained that they were done talking with the media. Many journalists had gotten their story wrong over the years, they were done with our ilk. They are now writing their own book. I did end up quoting from some of McConnell’s emails where he explained how he and Jack saw what they were doing.
MPR has one big advantage over other media. We have a tape archive that goes back 45 years. We have the voices of people debating gay rights going back to the 70s in our vault. We have tape from 1970 when the DFL—the Democratic party in MN– endorsed gay marriage at its state convention. (That was something that embarrassed party leaders and led to some changes in how platform resolutions were approved!)
Mining our archives on the marriage issue was a chance to let listeners hear these voices…they could hear what’s changed– the rhetoric– and what hasn’t—the essential players are still the same. 40 years later, it’s still primarily the gay community versus Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders.
Two weeks before the election, we aired an hour long program called “The Deep Roots of the Marriage Debate”…
We got an incredible response from listeners after that program aired. One of the responses I didn’t expect was from gay and lesbian people who said they appreciated being reminded that it took Minnesota twenty years to pass human rights protections for LGBT people. It gave them comfort heading into the election they thought they’d lose, that even if the amendment prevailed, to quote Dr. King “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I heard less from the other side, but I was struck that no one had tried to put together a local history of how evangelical Christians had organized and become a political force in the 70s and 80s around moral issues, particularly gay rights and abortion. That story needed to be told too.
I want to say a word about balance.
This was a super-charged issue with strong emotions from all sides, including fellow journalists, people I go to church with, and people in my own life.
I got a lot of people asking “how could I stand to talk with blah-blah-blah.”
Here’s the thing. You are an anthropologist. You are dropped into two warring villages. You get to go behind enemy lines on both sides– something no one else gets to do. You try to figure out what language the people are speaking. What are they fighting over and why?
Shut up and listen. Listen to how they talk with each other when they (almost) forget you’re there.
I signed up for every email newsletter for every group affiliated with both sides. This is how they talk to their supporters. You can eavesdrop. One Christian radio station promoted an event for pastors to talk about the marriage amendment. I called up and asked if I could go. I was the only journalist there, and the surprise guest turned out to be Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Bachmann– fresh off her presidential campaign—was the original author of the marriage amendment back when she was in the Minnesota state senate in 2003. This was an intimate gathering of evangelical pastors and Republican lawmakers. These are people whom she trusts and who love her. The energy in that room was incredible. People where shouting out prayers from back row and she was calling back “Alleleuia!” At one point, she’s in this petite little tailored suit and she’s down on one knee testifying.
It was electrifying. And we got it on our air.
On the vote NO side, the access was much easier to come by. They were the underdogs (at least in polling, not when it came to dollars raised) and they wanted the use the media to get their message out. They let me in to record their volunteer training. They talked about what worked, and what didn’t work to convince voters.
As a journalist, you’re after personal stories too. Those are what carry a narrative, and make a story memorable and compelling. Sometimes my editor and I struggled to make sure the storytelling we gathered from both sides was equally powerful. That could be hard to do. A gay man talking about the time he was in a coma and his partner was asked to leave his side in the hospital because they weren’t married is pretty intense. The vote YES side didn’t have quite the ready-made narrative so it took more work to go and listen deeply. What we heard were stories of deep faith, love for their families and a desire to safeguard their children in a world they mistrust.
Sometimes the battle over same sex marriage is compared to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. I wondered how those journalists covered it. I went back and read a book called “The Race Beat” that talked about how the white press, the black press, the northern press and the southern press covered the civil rights movement. It came as a surprise to me that it was considered innovative to talk with black people. The people at the very heart of the story weren’t always sought out for comment. I think one way to be balanced is to make sure you’re talking widely with as many people as you can for as many angles as you can. Then you can’t go too far wrong.
In covering the marriage amendment, I would read my scripts over and over to comb for subtle biases. My editor and I would make sure we switched off who got the last word in a story. We stuck with the kind of clunky language explaining what the amendment would do—define marriage as between one man and one woman– rather than doing what other media did—calling it an “anti-gay marriage” amendment. Your audience will decide for themselves whether it is or isn’t that.
Your reward for balance is the trust you build with sources and the audience. You’ll get continued access. I did have one press secretary email me, “great story, too bad you had to include the other side.” Smiley-face.
MPR has a news staff of about 70 people statewide. That compares to several hundred for each of the daily metro newspapers. There are about 27 of us who are reporters, either for radio or web. For MPR to take one reporter and commit to covering the marriage amendment was a gamble. That’s a lot of focus on one issue. I think we felt as a news organization we’d made the right call. As I mentioned, listener interest in the topic was intense. But also, because I’d been working the story for a long time, when things heated up I was really fluent in the players, the tactics, the money and the race on both sides.
Some of our competitors split their coverage between political reporters and religion reporters, and I never felt like they quite fit their arms around how the story cut across all the beats. It was politics, business (when companies like General Mills and Target got involved) it was a faith story on both sides, it was education and bullying, it was a greater MN and a metro story.
On election night, I truly didn’t know which side would win. The polls had been deadlocked for weeks. My editor sent me to the Vote NO side—Minnesotans United for All Families– and one of my other colleagues covered to vote YES side, Minnesota for Marriage.
On election night, about 1:45 in the morning, the vote NO ballroom was going to close down at 2:00 a.m.. The vote YES side had already packed up and gone home to reconvene the next day. I was sitting at the broadcast table and my engineer said, “There’s a lot of hugging going on on stage.” I looked up. They’d seen on their smartphones that AP had just called the race. The amendment had been defeated. The NO side won with 53% of the vote (very importantly, this includes those who left their ballots blank) and the YES side had lost with 47% of the vote.
It was a long shot that the NO side would win. 30 other states had passed these amendments. It was an unbroken string of victories. As journalists, you know if the rare thing happens, that’s news. We had gathered tape with Minnesotans United the week before the election just in case they won. It was a gamble to spend a day gathering tape you might never use, but we rolled on their last staff meeting, as they cheered the 12 million dollars they’d raised (this was the most expensive ballot campaign in state history. They raised more than twice what the other side raised), and talked about their army of get out of the vote volunteers who would canvas the state in the final 168 hours or whatever it was before the election.
After they won, I had a couple days to grab that tape and pull the highlights from 18 months of reporting to make a story about how they did it.
The Friday after the election, we aired a 23 minute special report called “18 Months to History.” We looked at how the amendment was defeated. The money involved. The omni-partisan approach, the role of the faith community, the research, the ads the messaging.
So, lessons to impart:
Pick a great story and own it. If you see something that has the marks of really engaging people, ask for the assignment and dive in.
People want to hear what’s at stake. Why does Eileen want to marry Marianne? Why do Allan and Patty feel so strongly that they shouldn’t? Talk to real people and not just officials. The lawmakers and campaign chairs have all been interviewed a million times. People who’ve never been interviewed are more likely to tell you what’s in their hearts. This isn’t just another political race to them.
Really listen. Expand yourself. Keep asking questions. Empathize. How would it feel to be in their shoes? This is where I’m probably giving you very different advice from the usual stay at arm’s length style of reporting, but if you can’t empathize how can your audience empathize when they read your stories?
The story you cover has roots. What’s come before? Who was involved? Where are they now? What’s happened in other places? What’s changed.
If you’re not bored, your audience won’t be either.