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Mormon Media Observer: Coverage of family structure study spotty

Published: Tuesday, July 3 2012 10:25 a.m. MDT

The New Family Structure Study that suggested that children of gay and lesbian parents had difficult outcomes received uneven, sometimes disappointing, coverage in the media.

Lucy Pemoni, AP

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As was reported by Lois Collis in detail by this newspaper earlier this month, University of Texas scholar Mark Regnerus set off something of a firestore with a study comparing the lives of children of parents involved in same-sex relationships with the children of those from other family structures.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the study found, among other things:

"Young adults whose fathers had a same-sex relationship showed significant differences from their peers in intact families on 19 of the outcomes. For example, they were significantly more likely to have contemplated suicide, to have a sexually transmitted infection, or to have been forced to have sex against their will."

I've been spending some time evaluating the media coverage of this study, the New Family Structures Study, and I find much to be frustrated about, and some things about which it is worthwhile to feel encouraged.

In essence, for those willing to engage in more than one snap article about the study, a rich, detailed portrayal of this interesting study emerged.

More specifically:

First, I was pleased that most of the conservative news outlets I observed — places like the Heritage Foundation and the National Review — were circumspect in their reporting on the data, discussing its limitations. Most social scholarship has some limitations, and acknowledging those is a hallmark of good science. Kudos to these news outlets. (I thought this article in National Review excellent.)

Also, I may not be seen as a non-biased observer here, but the treatment of the study and its aftermath by the Deseret News met all standards of objectivity as I understand them. It is fair to say that its work ranked with the best on this study. Kudos to the always terrific work of my colleague Lois Collins and to the editorial staff.

As for the type of criticism, for example, Regnerus in his sample was unable to find many long-term relationships among the male same-sex parents of those he studied. Critics loudly pointed this and other things out. Some criticized the funding of the study. Fair enough. These types of limitations were covered well in the more conservative press and in the Deseret News.

Second, however, I found little willingness to write about this study in what is sometimes called the mainstream, national press. To be sure, I didn't search for the articles every possible way, but I found no mention of the study in either the Washington Post nor the Associated Press, for example. This is of a piece of what I have observed that national news often ignores issues relating to the American family.

The New York Times, for its part, buried its one newspaper article in the science section, but the article was fair-minded and informative — excellent journalism. (Again, assuming my search parameters picked up the full extent of the newspaper's coverage.) There was a blog post on the topic, as well.

I was most disappointed in the New Yorker magazine's online blog. The New Yorker, with its dedication to craft and its history of the best writing in the business, posted a blog on the topic that was too one-sided.

My biggest quibble with the coverage in the more mainstream press was the neglect of a companion study to the New Family Structures Study.

This second study by Dr. Loren Marks at LSU observed that previous research into the children of parents involved in same-sex relationships generally used convenience samples, and those studies generally concluded that the children of gay parents turn out as well as those from more traditional family structures.

These studies are intriguing, but convenience samples are, essentially, asking your friends, and perhaps their friends, to participate in a study. All such studies call into question how reliable and how generalizable they are to broader populations.

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