Mormon Media Observer: Coverage of family structure study spotty

Published: Tuesday, July 3 2012 10:00 a.m. MDT

To be sure, convenience samples are useful when no other means of research are available, but their limits are well established. In a media research class I teach to sophomore students, I usually forbid convenience samples.

Basically, many mainstream and more liberal writers said Dr. Regnerus's study had its limitations, but few of those (though certainly not all), mentioned that competing studies are also limited. It left an unbalanced impression -- even implying that the science was settled and the New Family Structures Study was an outlier.

Third, as I scanned the Internet, I found it easy to learn much about this provocative study. Despite flaws in the news coverage, especially those of omission among the national, mainstream media, this study has generated useful dialogue for those willing to engage in it. And careful readers could learn much.

In short, we really don't need mainstream media to tell us what news is any more.

One last thing has generally been mostly missed in the broader media discussion that needs saying:

Given that current studies that look at the outcomes of children of parents in same-sex relationships have significant weaknesses, given weaknesses in funding, given the nature of society, and given the evolving nature of law, it remains very difficult to craft any study today about the children of same-sex relationship parents without running into severe limitations of scope, of method or of bias.

There's much that seems unknowable, for now. At least that's my take. To fully know the outcomes for children with parents in same-sex relationships will take a few decades of children growing in relationships that include same-sex marriage.

And that's worrisome. If you start with the premise that marriage is fundamentally and first about stability for children — rather than a contract that reinforces the rights of adults — then the growing policy debate over gay marriage runs up against the current limits of science.

Perhaps I force this analogy, but when science tests medical treatments, researchers go through rigorous pre-tests and models before they ever go into clinical trial. To do otherwise is unethical.

Yet, if my reading of these family studies is correct, we embark with somewhat limited knowledge on a massive, uncontrolled experiment when or if our nation chooses to adopt gay marriage generally.

If our country over time adopts gay marriage, maybe it will all turn out well for children. Let's hope so. But if the current science is any indication, it will take years for science to sort out fully whether that hope was misplaced. By then, it will be too late to stop the experiment.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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