A study from the September edition of The Social Science Journal comparing the coverage of gay marriage in the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times draws interest on a morning when nearly all major dailies lead with the ruling on Proposition 8.

The study—the findings of which are summarized by Miller McCune’s Tom Jacobs here—examined stories relating to gay marriage published in the papers between November 18, 2002, and November 18, 2004. Each date fell a year before or after November 18, 2003, the day on which the highest court in Massachusetts ruled a ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.

It’s noteworthy that the findings are based on reports at least six years old, and that in this particular debate, attitudes can shift quickly (though not quickly enough for some). Nevertheless, the findings are interesting, if not completely shocking given the traditional leanings of the papers. Looking at how frequently topics like the constitution, equal rights, and religion were associated with gay marriage in stories, the ideological and sexual orientation of sources, and the “tone” of stories, the study concluded:

The results indicated that The New York Times was inclined to emphasize the topic of human equality related to the legitimization of gay marriage. After the legitimization, The New York Times became an activist for gay marriage. Alternatively, the Chicago Tribune highlighted the importance of human morality associated with the gay marriage debate. The perspective of the Chicago Tribune was not dramatically influenced by the legitimization.

From the Miller McCune piece, which ran yesterday:

Stories focusing on “American tradition and family values” made up 17.5 percent of the Times’ coverage, and 22.2 percent in the Tribune. Religious attitudes toward the topic were emphasized in 12 percent of the Times stories but nearly 20 percent of those in the Tribune.

In the year after the Massachusetts ruling, the Times coverage changed in one dramatic way: The newspaper quoted far more people who were identified as gay. Twenty percent of sources quoted in gay marriage-related stories were identified as gay, compared to 5.4 percent during the year before the ruling.

The Tribune, in contrast, was more consistent. Before the ruling, 10.9 percent of sources in gay marriage-related stories were identified as gay; after the ruling, the number rose slightly to 11.8 percent.

We can’t make a direct comparison between the way the Times and Tribune covered yesterday’s news to see if these findings hold true today, as the Chicago paper ran the Los Angeles Times’s report on the ruling. But we nevertheless found it intriguing to examine—if less statistically and rigorously than The Social Science Journal’s report—the angles taken by some major dailies on the news of Judge Vaughn Walker striking down Prop 8.

The Times’s front page story, “Court Rejects Same-Sex Marriage Ban in California,” covers a lot of ground. Reporters Jesse McKinley and John Schwartz detail the decision and Walker’s reasoning, grab quotes from advocates and lawyers on either side (doing the obligatory “ideological opposites” spiel about plaintiff lawyers Boies and Olson), provide a snapshot history of the original Prop 8 vote, consider the political implications federally and locally (“still unclear”) of this latest development, and even speak to gay-man-on-the-street Ron Cook. He tells the paper, “If the court had come back and upheld it…I would have moved out of the state.”

What most pleased about the Times’s report though, was that as well as laying out the arguments of both sides of the gay marriage debate, it delved a little deeper, laying out the fundamental stakes for the groups affected by the decision.

For advocates of gay rights, same-sex marriage has increasingly become a central issue in their battle for equality, seen as both an emotional indicator of legitimacy and as a practical way to lessen discrimination.

“Being gay is about forming an adult family relationship with a person of the same sex,” said Jennifer Pizer, the marriage project director for Lambda Legal in Los Angeles, who filed two briefs in support of the plaintiffs. “So denying us equality within the family system is to deny respect for the essence of who we are as gay people.”

But Andrew Pugno, a lawyer for the defense, said Proposition 8 had nothing to do with discrimination, but rather with the will of California voters who “simply wished to preserve the historic definition of marriage.”

“The other side’s attack upon their good will and motives is lamentable and preposterous,” Mr. Pugno said in a statement.

Interestingly, the passage suggests The Social Science Journal’s study was not far off in claiming equal rights as one of the Times’s foremost concerns around gay marriage. Pugno’s counter, as presented here, reads as limply as it did for Judge Walker.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.