A lot of talk in the media today about the study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus in Social Science Research that questions the outcomes for children raised in same-sex relationships. The study was rolled out to the press last Thursday and the first reports on the study in the mainstream press came from the conservative newspapers Washington Times and Deseret News.
Fortunately, the folks at Box Turtle Bulletin were all over the research and quickly provided important information about the study, including news that the study was funded by two conservative foundations that fund efforts opposed to same-sex marriage–the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. Like most of the work at BTB, the analysis is rational and even-handed.
The best mainstream coverage of the study came from the New York Times, which did a nice job explaining both the critiques of the study but also explaining the study’s strengths, including quotes from supporters of same-sex marriage who nonetheless believe the study is significant.
Other good coverage came from Slate, which featured both the study’s author as well as a fisking of the research by William Saletan.
Beyond that, most of the coverage is predictable based on who is doing the coverage. The conservative world thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread in a bag and the progressive/LGBT media has taken the approach that it is deeply flawed research based on a clear conservative agenda.
There is nothing more difficult than writing about social science research, especially when it comes to the LGBT community where the research is often deeply flawed or deeply limited. In fact, a companion analysis in Social Science Research looks at the problems in many of the “kids are alright” studies on LGBT families and notes the problems that exist in that research.
For journalists, our first job is to be accurate . . . and skeptical. We must look at research and put it into context. While lots of people are demagoguing the research, Regenerus is fairly upfront about the study’s limitation and encourages people not to use the data to make assumptions about LGBT families in 2012. Of course, he says that knowing that’s exactly what people are going to do with the research.
But being skeptical of research is a two-way street and journalists need to be skeptical (and find out the agenda of the researchers and funders) whether the research undermines assumptions or confirms assumptions. There’s a lot of flawed research out there, including research that is favorable to LGBT families.
As more coverage of the study emerges, it will be important to avoid the demagogues and seek out analysts who can speak to research design and to people who have actually read the study. What are the strengths of the study? What are the flaws? Are the critiques fair? Does it matter who pays for a study? These are all questions journalists should be asking as the study moves beyond the ideological arena and into the mainstream.