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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Media isn't doing the gay marriage debate right

Risking their lives?
Getting the news out fast is the most important thing, it seems. A few comments on TV during last night's Q and A on the ABC from the Sydney Anglican archbishop, Peter Jensen, led to a top-line story on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald this morning featuring his comments. The story is about 560 words long, but the journalistic view of Jensen's comments stops at about word 190, and the rest of the story takes up the issue of debate planned this week for Parliament, where a Bill is being introduced by four Labor senators aimed at changing marriage law in Australia. The Fairfax journalist, Dan Harrison, has pumped out a headline and enough story to justify it, but has left the main points raised by Jensen unanswered. This is what the archbishop said:
''As far as I can see … the lifespan of practising gays is significantly shorter than the ordinary so-called heterosexual man … what we need to do is to look at why this may be the case and we need to do it in a compassionate and objective way.''
As far as I know, these comments might be along the same lines as words used a week or so ago by the Australian Christian Lobby's Jim Wallace. Wallace is a notorious firebrand who polarises the community on the issue of gay marriage, so it's not surprising that - if he actually said something like this - the main message was lost in the ensuing public noise. Wallace is a bit of a blunt instrument in the public sphere, and intelligent and thoughtful people can be excused for ignoring just about anything he says because polarisation is his sole aim. Jensen is head honcho of a diocese that has traditional views on a lot of things, such as the place of women in society, and certainly does not, for example, support the ordination of women within the Church. So, again, it's not surprising that Harrison has taken Jensen's words at face value and run with them as-is. But the problem is he doesn't run very far at all. He's happy to fill up the bottom of his story with quotes from politicians on a completely separate issue - the planned parliamentary debate.

Nobody has come out to refute the claim made by Wallace and Jensen that gay men have shorter lives.

It may be true but I doubt it. The thing is that we need to talk about this seriously; it's the best way to shut up those who push an agenda and use cherry-picked statistics to further their aims. Dan Harrison didn't do this because he was writing in the dead of night and his editor wanted a headline for Tuesday morning, but at some point we need some journalist to do the work and find out the truth.

Beyond this point raised by Wallace and Jensen there is that other dread statistic; over 2000 young people, mostly male, kill themselves every year in Australia. What is the relative importance of legal discrimination within the context of this number, smart peeps should be asking. To what extent is the status quo, supported by supposedly humane individuals like Jensen, and by purportedly caring institutions like the Anglican church, working to crush the spirits of our youth, and what can be done about it?

Getting back to the original issue - that a gay lifestyle shortens your lifespan - where are these numbers coming from? If they are from some sort of Christian front group, then they can be discarded completely. But real numbers must be available. There will be informed individuals in academia or in the social sphere who can usefully comment on points like those Wallace and Jensen raise. It's not enough to just brush them under the carpet. Politicians like Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, who not so long ago agreed to allow a conscience vote in Parliament on the gay marriage issue, are sensitive to the views of such vocal proponents of the status quo as Wallace and Jensen. To defuse their words we need to do the debate right, and find out the truth. I raised some of the more important points about contemporary reporting, on this blog a few days ago and I talked about excellence in journalism at the end of last year. Just pushing out inflammatory headlines is not going to do the trick, and real reporting in depth is needed to show where the boundaries of untruth actually lie in today's Australia.

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