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Pew study: News stories about gay-marriage support outnumbered those opposed by 5-1 margin

News release from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism:

News stories focused on support for same-sex marriage outnumbered those opposing it by roughly 5-to-1 in the two months marked by Supreme Court deliberations on the issue, according to a Pew Research study of nearly 500 news media stories related to the issue.

Indeed, 47% of the stories studied from March 18 through May 12 focused on support for same-sex marriage, while 9% largely focused on opposition and 44% were offered a fairly even mix of support and opposition or no views at all. In order for a story to be classified as supporting or opposing same sex marriage, statements expressing that position had to outnumber the opposite view by at least 2-to-1.

This news media focus on support held true whether the stories were reported news articles or opinion pieces, and was also the case across nearly all media sectors studied. All three of the major cable networks, for instance, had more stories with significantly more supportive statements than opposing, including Fox News.

Despite the preponderance of supportive coverage across media sectors, the level of mixed or neutral coverage varied among individual outlets. In cable news, MSNBC produced 30% mixed, 64% supporting and 6% opposing among the stories studied, while Fox News produced 63% mixed, 29% supporting and 8% opposing. And on CNN, the break was 57% mixed, 39% supporting and 4% in opposition. In newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today stood out for higher levels of mixed reporting, 70% and 67%, respectively, and a more even ratio of supporting versus opposing stories.

In the media coverage, supporters of same-sex marriage had a more consistent message than those arguing against it. Nearly half (49%) the stories studied in the news media included the argument that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because it is an issue of equality. Among opponents, the most common argument was the idea that same-sex marriage would hurt society and traditional marriage; but it appeared in 18% of the stories. Other arguments against the measure included the idea that homosexuality is immoral (10%).

"This study shows how same-sex marriage supporters have had a clear message and succeeded in getting that message across all sectors of mainstream media,” said Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism Acting Director Amy Mitchell. “In addition, many of the events during the period studied, such as announcements by politicians and state legislation, reflect movement toward same-sex marriage.”

At the same time, public opinion, while shifting towards greater acceptance, shows significant opposition remains. That also comes through in the analysis of Twitter conversation included in this study.

Statements on Twitter were closely split between those that supported (31%) and those that opposed (28%). There were, however, significant shifts in the sentiment over the nine weeks studied.  During the week prior to and the week of the Supreme Court hearings, more of the Twitter conversation favored same-sex marriage. The two following weeks saw a reverse with more posts in opposition. Then, during the last month of the study, assertions in favor of the measure once again took the lead.

These are some of the conclusions from the study that examined coverage of the same-sex marriage debate in the mainstream press, in LGBT outlets and on Twitter. The main news sample included a mix of websites, newspapers, news programs from PBS, the three main network and cable news outlets, talk radio, NPR and syndicated radio headlines. Separately, researchers examined and analyzed coverage from the Huffington Post (which produced such a large amount of coverage on the topic that to include it with the rest of the news media would have overshadowed the results), coverage across a mix of leading LGBT news publications and the tone of the discussion on Twitter. This report is a part of Pew Research Center’s ongoing LBGT in Changing Times series.

Among other findings in the study:

· Most of the attention to the subject came in the five days surrounding the Supreme Court hearings (March 25 – 29). Of the main news media stories studied, 55% were produced in that period. The same was true for 44% of the stories on The Huffington Post and nearly half (47%) of the conversation on Twitter. The LGBT outlets, on the other hand, were somewhat more consistent in the amount of attention devoted to the subject throughout the eight weeks studied.

· In addition to the main arguments for and against the issue, the notion that the Supreme Court should not have taken up gay marriage was a common theme. About one-in-six (17%) of the stories in the main news media studied included this claim. In most instances, this case was made by legal scholars and the Supreme Court justices themselves as they wrestled with the legal questions. On a few occasions, however, the argument was used by opponents of same-sex marriage.

· Huffington Post, including its dedicated page Gay Voices, produced far more coverage than any other media outlet studied. Fully 365 stories about same-sex marriage appeared during the time period studied (every other day from March 18 – May 12), including 77 on March 27 alone, the second day of the Supreme Court hearings. Overall, the coverage showed more momentum toward same-sex marriage than the rest of the news media—62% of the stories were dominated with statements of support, very close to the level of support in the LGBT news outlets studied.

· While expressing strong support for the measure, LGBT news outlets focused on a different element of the story than any of the other media studied. A full quarter, 25%, of the coverage in the 11 LGBT outlets studied focused on local and state laws, an element that made up just 10% of the other news coverage. Generally, those stories detailed developments in marriage legislation on the state level.

· Journalists and citizens following the subject on the Internet used different terms when discussing the subject. An analysis using Google Trends, a service that tracks the phrases used during Google searches, revealed that citizens searched more often for “gay marriage” than “same-sex marriage.” Journalists, on the other hand, used “same-sex marriage” more frequently – according to searches of the LexisNexis database. The term “marriage equality” was not used by either as much, but did see an increase over time.

Read the full report.

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Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan source of data and analysis, and takes no advocacy positions. Its Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks the transformation of journalism in a changing information landscape through its annual State of the News Media report and other special reports.

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