An L.A. Times story is titled Californians narrowly reject gay marriage, poll finds. A headline on the paper’s main web site speaks of the “small margin” by which the public rejects gay marriage:
The story begins:
By bare majorities, Californians reject the state Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriages and back a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at the November ballot that would outlaw such unions, a Los Angeles Times/KTLA Poll has found.
It’s the lead story on the front page, and here’s the headline in the print edition:
Wow. With language like “slimly reject,” “narrowly reject,” “small margin,” and “bare majorities,” this sounds like a real photo finish. Let’s look at the body of the story, to see how narrowly the anti-gay marriage forces are barely squeaking past the opposition.
It turns out that the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage is “was leading 54% to 35% among registered voters.”
Jeez. Only a 19-point difference! That’s certainly a “small margin”! You can’t reject gay marriage more “narrowly” than that!
I think they mean that Californians, who are slim, are rejecting gay marriage by a large margin. Hence, slimly rejecting!
(The paper also explains that the recent California Supreme Court decision is disapproved of by Californians by a 52% to 41% margin. But that 11-point difference illustrates only what people think of a decision that purports to say what the law is. It is not a reflection of what people think the law should be. For the answer to that question, you have to look to the numbers for and against the amendment — which is, again, winning by a much wider 19-point margin.)
The narrowness of a margin is really in the eye of the beholder. When the liberal position is behind, large gaps suddenly become small. Remember how this paper claimed that Arizona was “in play” for John Kerry — because George Bush was leading Kerry by “only” 16 points, 54% to 38%. By contrast, when another poll showed Kerry up by 15 in California, the headline was In California, Voters Stay in Kerry’s Corner. And more recently, Obama’s win in Oregon — a margin of 16 points when the story was written — was described as “Obama’s big win in Oregon.”
On the gay marriage issue, the article tries to downplay the piddly little 19-point margin by arguing that backers of ballot measures typically like to see initial support well above 50%, because ballot measures tend to lose support as elections draw near. That’s fine as far as it goes — but it doesn’t justify the paper’s being dishonest about the gap. 19 points is not a “small margin” by any stretch of the imagination — no matter how badly the paper wants it to be.
Thanks to Harold H.
UPDATE: The post has been updated to reflect the headline in the print edition. And here’s how it’s currently being sold on the paper’s main web page:
Just a bit! A tiny, 19-point sliver of a margin.
UPDATE x2: And the headline-tinkering continues:
UPDATE x3: Guess how the paper is spinning a 7-point margin of victory for Obama over McCain in a poll of California voters? Yeah, you guessed right.
UPDATE x4: And here is how the paper should have reported the story.
UPDATE x5: A commenter notes further examples of the L.A. Times spinning smaller margins as large when they favored Obama. 17% is a “double-digit” victory, and 15% means he “handily won.”
We can do this all day, L.A. Times editors. All day.