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SST acquitted in Press Council complaint

Fri 28 May 2004 In: Features

A Sunday Star-Times article that claimed gays could go straight did suffer from lack of balance, the Press Council has conceded, but not enough to justify upholding complaints from the public against the newspaper. Lauren Quaintance's feature article, published in November last year, selectively published results from a controversial study of “ex-gays” by Dr Robert Spitzer in the US, and interviewed local “ex-gays” who spouted generalised stereotypes about gays and lesbians. Editor Cate Brett defended the newspaper's description of the study as “reputable” by asserting that it was published in the respected Archives of Sexual Behaviour in October 2003, but refused to acknowledge that 32 out of 42 peer commentaries published alongside Spitzer's study in the same issue were critical of it. Brett even went as far as to say that the article was not about homosexuality per se, but about sexuality and whether it was immutable. She again chose to ignore criticisms that, if this were the case, why didn't the newspaper interview gays who were “formerly” heterosexual? The Press Council in its ruling said that the treatment of the Spitzer study in the SST article did not reach the threshold for the complaints to be upheld, but was critical of the article's heavy reliance on secondary sources, and dismissed Brett's claim of not being able to criticise Spitzer's methodology because he was not available for an interview. “Some of the fundamental criticisms of Spitzer's methods and findings were available independently of interviewing the study's author,” said the ruling. “That the study was about a minority and evoked much criticism could have been more clearly dealt with by the article with more balancing information, even though the focus was local human interest...while there were references in this article to acknowledge some of the issues raised [by the complainants], perhaps more attention could have been paid to the sensitive social and political currents which swirl around an ostensibly scientific study such as this.” Brett said that journalists cannot be experts in a field, and therefore are forced in lieu of that expertise to assess the credibility of institutions and the academics who undertake the studies they report. The only evidence in the SST article that Spitzer's study had been criticised at all, let alone heavily by Spitzer's peers, was a throwaway line that the claims of “ex-gays” are “rubbished by gay groups”. Brett also defended accusations of being unbalanced by saying that complainants had been invited to submit letters to the editor for publication, however no letters of rebuttal were actually published by the SST – only letters of support for the article. The newspaper also gave permission for the article to be reproduced on a right-wing Catholic website which equates homosexuality with paedophilia, but scoffed at suggestions that there was any religious agenda behind the publication of Quaintance's piece. Since November, the Sunday Star-Times has continued its anti-gay bias, with its letters page becoming a vertiable advertorial in the weeks following the Maxim Institute's “fighting political correctness” seminar, and headling a recent front-page article on a historic three-way parental custody court ruling as “Gay men win fight for toddler” despite the story being about a lesbian couple and the child's biological father. The Press Council's decision has put the Sunday Star-Times on notice to be cautious in future about rehashing articles from overseas publications, but the question must be asked – if this article did not fully meet the Press Council criteria of “unbalanced”, what does? Chris Banks - 28th May 2004    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Friday, 28th May 2004 - 12:00pm

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