This likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the same-sex marriage battle as it rolls out across the country: Media have published more positive opinions about gay marriage than negative ones.
A new study from Pew Research Center that looked at stories from March 18 through May 12 codifies this in a helpful way. And it provides an interesting corrective: Twitter.
It seems that although news stories focus on those who support gay marriage 5-to-1 (a percentage that outstrips public support, which is just over half), Twitter is more reflective of popular opinion by far.
“Twitter postings on the subject were nearly evenly split between support and opposition for the measure, aligning much more closely with public opinion than with the news media,” the report says. Other interesting findings include:
• There is a popular perception that Fox News and MSNBC are exact opposites, with Fox leaning as far right as MSNBC leans left. On this issue, though, that’s not quite true. MSNBC’s coverage of same-sex marriage was 64 percent supporting, 6 percent opposing and 30 percent neutral (meaning an equal number of statements for and against in one segment). Fox News was 29 percent supporting, 8 percent opposing—and 63 percent neutral. CNN’s coverage was closest to Fox, with 39 percent supporting, 4 percent opposing and 57 percent neutral.
• LGBT news outlets are far more likely than mainstream outlets to focus on state legislation around gay marriage. This is too bad, because in a way, it is the local legislation that is most important. States license marriage, not the federal government. As long as the Supreme Court doesn’t rule that marriage for gays and lesbians should be legal in all 50 states, gay people living in states without legalized marriage won’t have full marriage rights.
• “Those arguing for same-sex marriage had a more consistent message,” the Pew report says. Those supporting it consistently gave equality as a reason; those opposed said that gay marriage would hurt traditional marriage, would hurt society, is immoral, or that the “government should not impose a new definition of marriage.”
• Journalists and citizens use different terms. I discussed this in my last column, but Pew confirms it: Journalists more often use same-sex marriage, while regular people tend to search Google for “gay marriage.”
• Only 21 percent of stories about gay marriage in the news media clearly identified a source as a member of the LGBT community. This I find very, very strange. Really, the people most affected by the legalization of same-sex marriage are…gay. Why aren’t they quoted in more stories? Or are they there, but reporters are embarrassed to ask about their sexual orientation?
• Conservative radio made 67 percent neutral statements, 33 percent opposing statements and zero supportive statements. Liberal talk radio (which does NOT include NPR, by the way) was 100 percent supportive. News radio, on the other hand, which does include NPR as well as news headlines from talk stations, was some of the most neutral media, with 57 percent neutral statements, 29 percent in support of gay marriage and 14 percent opposed.
What are we to make of this? First, the media is obviously not doing a good job finding the half of America that does not want to see same-sex marriage legalized. Pew doesn’t say why this is, though the study’s authors note that “events themselves during the period studied, such as announcements by politicians and state legislation, reflected movement toward same-sex marriage.” Additionally, the report says, opinion writers and show hosts (like Rachel Maddow) who support gay marriage discuss it more than those (like Sean Hannity) who oppose it. This may reflect the amount of passion in society at large—those who want to see marriage legalized for gay people may care more than those who don’t want to see gay marriage legalized. Perhaps those are the reasons that the media quotes more people, and make more statements, in support of same-sex marriage than against it.
But there are other possibilities. Perhaps it is because more reporters personally support gay marriage (I have not seen a study that says whether or not this is the case). Perhaps it is because, as speakers said at the CJR panel last week, it has become increasingly difficult to get reasonable sources on the record as being opposed to gay marriage. Perhaps it is because arguments against gay marriage often seem thin and unsupportable (as Pew alludes, many of the arguments against it say simply that since marriage has always been between a man and a woman, it should remain between a man and a woman). Perhaps it is because, after decades of social history that was negative toward gay people, positive feelings toward gays and lesbians still feel like news.
In any case, this is unfair. It is important that the half of America that does not support gay marriage feel heard and that their arguments be articulated in a thoughtful way. This is tough, because the loudest opposing voices on this issue are often the most extreme. But I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on this issue; the solution must be out there.