Editor's views: Despite objections, media must reflect societal changes

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Two waves of change are rolling across America and making news.

I don’t believe either can be stopped.

One is same-sex marriage. Courts across the country have invalidated bans enacted by states. Wisconsin was the latest earlier this month when a judge’s ruling briefly opened the door for same-sex marriages.

The other is legalization of marijuana. Colorado and Washington are leading the way in recreational use, and Illinois is the latest state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

Societal changes of this magnitude put pressure on news organizations such as The Gazette.

How do we cover events and issues related to these momentous shifts? Is our coverage too much? Is it too little? How will history look back on the changes and our portrayal of them?

Wisconsin’s weeklong foray into same-sex marriage forced many decisions on The Gazette and other state news outlets. We featured the judge’s ruling at the top of the front page June 7, and we followed with front-page stories on five of the next seven days.

We attended the first same-sex wedding in Rock County, and we profiled all of the local couples who were married on the first day. Included in that coverage was a picture of two men kissing after they exchanged rings and vows at the courthouse.

Some readers thought our coverage was over the top. Many of them were offended by the picture of the same-sex kiss and told us that they didn’t want to see such a thing in their newspaper.

We discussed that photo before deciding to publish it, and I ultimately made the call. In my mind, we are entering a new era, and the fact that some people don’t like it doesn’t change that fact. For a time, same-sex marriage was legal in Wisconsin, and it likely will be legal and commonplace in the future. What’s more symbolic of marriage than a kiss to seal the deal at the end of the ceremony?

In my thoughts and our discussions, I harkened back to the civil rights battles of half a century ago and the stubborn resistance to many things that we now accept as fundamental rights. It’s hard to believe that so many in the generation before mine harbored and maintained such bigoted ideas and principles.

Will we view same-sex marriage in the same way 50 years from now? I suspect so. If that’s the case, our coverage was appropriate and perhaps even underplayed. It was history being made.

As for marijuana, it’s not a big issue in Wisconsin yet, but our time will come. As with same-sex marriage, polls show younger people overwhelmingly favor legalization, and those young people will set the policies of the future.

In Colorado, which this year became the first state to allow sales of recreational marijuana, the media geared up to cover what amounts to a cultural revolution. The idea of pot being sold legally would have seemed unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, but it’s reality now.

The Denver Post, the state’s biggest paper, has several workers devoted to covering the developments and issues. Late last year, it advertised for and named a marijuana editor, and it has hired a freelance pot critic and an advice columnist. Not surprisingly, the positions prompted jokes in the region and the news industry, but the coverage is legitimate and important.

Beyond the consumer aspects, legalization brings serious issues, ranging from health implications to effects on youth to the many angles involving costs and tax revenues.

No doubt, many people in the Denver area are upset with the state’s liberal law and are offended by the Post’s coverage. They are entitled, but newspapers must cover the way things are rather than the way some people wish they would be.

Based on trends and polls, it’s unlikely that the nation will pull back on same-sex marriage or marijuana. Rather, greater acceptance will take hold, and news coverage—including ours— will appropriately reflect those historic changes.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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