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The 'pros' have it on gay marriage

THUS FAR in 2004 readers have complained relatively little about the Globe's news coverage of the same-sex marriage debate. Aside from a cluster of objections to headlines on poll stories and the occasional reminder about phrasing (e.g., it's "heterosexual-only marriage" that's being challenged, not heterosexual marriage"), it's been reasonably quiet on the news front.

On the opinion side of the fence, however, readers have a chronic complaint: The number of pro-gay marriage letters routinely outnumbers anti-gay marriage letters.

"Your editorial page is printing letters in a ratio of seven-to-one in favor of gay marriage according to my sampling," complained a local college professor. "Surely this is not a fair reflection of your readers' letters?"

Actually, the ratio of incoming letters is even more lopsided -- more like 40 to 1 in favor of gay marriage -- according to the two editors, Glenda Buell and Peter Accardi, who compile the daily letters for publication.

Impossible, you say? Well, I haven't eyeballed every letter myself, but my quick review convinces me that -- surprising as it is -- the Globe indeed gets many more letters supporting gay marriage than opposing it. And that leaves editors scrambling to find suitable "anti" letters to run along with the "pro" ones reflecting the Globe's editorial stance on the issue.

On one recent occasion they were so desperate that they went to the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, to see if he had any "anti" letters that could be used. He didn't.

The problem, the editors say, is compounded by the fact that many of the "anti" letters tend to be simple statements of religious or personal belief, rather than the more layered arguments that make the best reading as letters to the editor.

In the end, the paper ends up publishing one anti-gay marriage letter for every two or three pro-gay marriage letters -- a "pro" tilt, but a far less dramatic one than what is represented in each day's incoming mail.

Why would letter-writers be so one-sided in their view? "Our letter writers tend to be more liberal than our readers," says Robert Turner, deputy editor of the editorial page and overseer of the Letters to the Editor section. "Our readership is broadly spread out, but it seems as though the liberals pick up the pen a little faster than the conservatives."

The resulting imbalance is frustrating, he says, because it robs the editorial section of the broad variety of opinion that is desired -- and not just on the issue of gay marriage.

To those with opposing views, Turner says, "Bring 'em on!"

* Who's elderly?

The story that caught reader Elizabeth Lieberman's eye was a mere brief in the City&Region section of March 20, but it raised an ongoing concern. The story referred to a 63-year-old woman and her 67-year-old husband as "elderly." Wrote Lieberman: "As a 62-year-old woman married to a 63-year-old man, I find it hard to believe that we would ever, at this stage in our lives, be referred to as elderly. How do your writers decide when to use this word?"

The answer is the Globe stylebook, which says: "The word elderly is best used in collective references for those over the age of 65."

But that guideline is sometimes overlooked. In recent months, readers have pointed out stories in which "elderly" was used to describe people in their early 60s, as well as a 51-year-old.

Even reserving the word for the 65-and-over crowd may be outdated given that, as another reader noted, "people are living into their 90s more often, so the bar should be raised."

Lieberman, a longtime reader from Newton, said she and her friends debated the proper cutoff during one of their recent workouts in the gym. There was no consensus, she said, but 80 was considered safe.

And, she added, "I would advocate not using it as a descriptor for individuals." That, too, is what the stylebook says: "As an adjective for an individual, this word is vague and can sometimes be derogatory."

* Wrong turn for paddy wagon

The phrase "paddy wagon," considered an ethnic slur to Irish-Americans, sneaked into a March 21 story about riot police in Tanzania. "I'm sure it's downright ignorance, rather than indifference or insult, that let this wording slip by," wrote Patrick Pendergast of Hampton, N.H., referring to a description of Tanzanian authorities' roundup of street peddlers.

He's right that the word didn't belong there. The Globe has tried for years to eliminate it, routinely inserting "patrol wagon" instead. This one got by the copy desk.


A postscript on the crossword puzzle The many readers who protested the change in the crossword puzzle will be pleased to note that on every day except Sunday the original same-day-answers format is back.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is 

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