Studies Look at Public, Media Perception of Marriage Parity

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 17, 2010

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."

Family Parity is a Horse of a Different Color

But another study suggests that when it comes to family parity, the public takes the lead, resisting attempts to frame the debate and responding the same whether the issue is cast in more or less friendly vocabulary. The Medical News reported on Aug. 17 that a study carried out by Indiana University researchers found that, with respect to marriage equality anyway, the public responded based on pre-existing beliefs about morality rather than according to how the issue was treated in the press. That result stood in marked contrast to other social issues, in which public attitudes are susceptible to influence depending on what words are used to color the issues.

"Framing, wording doesn't matter," IU Sociology doctoral student Oren Pizmony-Levy told the media. The study showed that responses from the public remained constant whether terms like "civil rights" were used in place of "gay rights," a phrase that has historically been used by anti-gay activists seeking to create the impression that gays wish to claim rights for themselves that are unavailable to straights. "We need to stop trying to change the rhetoric and focus on the important issues, such as the benefits that children in same-sex families gain from the legalization of same-sex marriage," added Pizmony-Levy.

Even so, the framing continues. Anti-gay sites, such as the religious site Crosswalk, use an array of rhetorical devices to cast doubt on the innate nature of homosexuality or the sincerity of gay and lesbian families who say they wish to secure only the same rights and protections already enjoyed by heterosexuals.

In a June 17 Crosswalk op-ed on a recent Gallup poll's findings that Americans now accept gays as not being necessarily "immoral," Chuck Colson noted that attitudes were changing most markedly among men under the age of 50, and that the change of heart was not accompanied by a change of mind: people who now accept gays as not being "immoral": due to their homosexuality are just as likely as they were before to think that homosexuality is a choice, rather than an inborn characteristic. Colson went on to lament, "The only good news from the survey results is that 53 percent of those polled are against same-sex marriage, which is 'down slightly' from last year."

The op-ed continued, "Not surprisingly, gay-rights activists are ecstatic over the results. At the Atlantic Monthly, Andrew Sullivan called the results a cultural 'Rubicon' and rejoiced in the failure of those he labels 'Christianists'-a nice back-handed comparison to 'Islamists.' " Or, perhaps, to another of the rhetorical flourishes used by anti-gay sites, which often refer to gays as "homosexualists."

Colson then suggested that media depictions have, indeed, influenced the culture. "The elite molders of opinion have done their job well," the article read. "We live in a world where moral qualms about homosexuality are regarded as bigotry. Today it requires more courage, as well as strength, to swim against the cultural tide and express any reservation about homosexual relationships.

"But swim we must," Colson went on. "What is true has never been a question to be decided by polls or popular opinion. Truth isn't 'democratic'--it's something that God has written into the very fabric of nature."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2010-08-18 18:49:07

    Perception of marriage? Well yeah, I suppose you can call it that, I perceive that the Book of Genesis 2:18-24 gives marriage to man, though the first man and woman, Adam & Eve. I perceive that Jesus, in Matthew 19:4-6 reaffirms Genesis. I perceive that this has been a religious ceremony, tradition and basis for family life for uncounted millennia. Yep, I perceive all that, and more!

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