Studies Look at Public, Media Perception of Marriage Parity
The very idea of putting the rights of gay and lesbian families to a popular vote, a la Proposition 8, smacks less of objective rationales than of ideological gamesmanship, but there has been little scholarly data to support (or refute) the gut-level sense that the issue is susceptible to spin over reason. Now a study on public attitudes toward marriage equality confirms that demographics play a part in how news media frames the issue--while at the same time debunking the notion that a "liberal" (or even "illiberal") media is attempting to foist social experimentation onto the public.
The upcoming issue of The Social Science Journal includes a study on how two newspapers reported on marriage equality, reported Canadian media service Postmedia News on Aug. 6. The New York Times, the study suggests, approached the story from more of a civil rights perspective, whereas the Chicago Tribune tended to emphasize the religious aspects of the debate.
"In terms of the big picture, the two newspapers looked at gay marriage very differently: one from the perspective of human equality, one from the perspective of human morality," the University of Dayton’s Juan Meng, a co-author of the study, told the media. Meng is assistant professor of public relations.
The study examines stories from the two newspapers over a two-year period: from 2002, the year leading up to the legalization of marriage equality for the first time in the United States in 2003, and 2004, the year the court decision that opened the way to marriage parity came into effect and the nation’s first same-sex marriages were granted.
Before same-sex families were able to marry, researchers found, a third of the stories run on the subject in the New York Times emphasized civil rights and equality, whereas in the Chicago Tribune, less than 20% of the stories took that approach. The Tribune focused rather on "tradition" and religious beliefs around marriage.
Even so, the New York Times didn’t quote much from sources openly acknowledged to be gay--until after marriage equality became a reality, that is: then, such acknowledgement exploded, noted the study.
The take-away lesson: the media does not attempt to tell people what to think or how to think about the news; rather, the media characterizes the news according to consumer expectations, which began to shift once same-sex families began to win, and claim, their marital rights.
"Newspapers have a philosophical outlook on the world that’s shaped by their location and their audience," the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride asserted. "People who would equate that with an agenda are oversimplifying." Even so, the media may well play a role in facilitating the changing public attitudes to which they also must shape their stories: "In a way, it may be a chicken-or-egg question," McBride noted. "It’s impossible to say which comes first, the audience or the tone of the publication, because they’re constantly in this cycle of influencing each other."