Before I’d even left the house Tuesday morning, Facebook friends were already posting about how you could go to jail for trying to get a marriage license as a same-sex couple.
By noon, a story coming out of northwest Indiana suggesting that changes to state law now made it a felony for same-sex couples to try to get a marriage license had gone completely viral. I saw it on Facebook. I saw it on local news station websites. And I saw it posted on political blogs, all taking a potshot at Indiana’s clearly backward nature.
But here’s the thing. It wasn’t true in all the ways that mattered.
Yes, Indiana has a law banning same-sex marriage. It’s been on the books for at least 16 years, probably more. And just like lying on any other government document or application, putting down false information on a marriage license application, including gender, is a crime. The only thing that changed in the past few months, or even years, was that Indiana recently reclassified its criminal code, making crimes that were once Class D felonies now Level 6 felonies.
Yes, it’s still a crime for clergy to have a religious marriage ceremony for those who cannot marry legally, or civilly, such as same-sex couples or close relatives. But the state did not wake up Tuesday morning any more or less bigoted than it was Monday night when everyone went to bed.
Somewhere, though, a newspaper thought it had. And by the evening, the Associated Press was moving stories saying the same.
Tuesday was an example, journalistically, of how context is important, about how just because we notice something for the first time doesn’t mean it is news.
It is my job as a reporter to do one thing above all else: to tell what is true. And part of what is true is the context within which information exists. When we journalists fail to adequately explain, fail to use judgment in the information we gather, we fail the public. People are hurt. Reputations are damaged.
On Tuesday, it was Indiana’s reputation that was hurt.