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How The Media Set The Gay Rights Narrative

A reader who supports same-sex marriage sent this story from today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune in, without comment. It’s a piece taking a look at how Minnesotans lives are changing six months after SSM became legal in the state. It is a classic example of advocacy journalism, and how the media have framed the debate to achieve their favored outcome.

The story comes in at about 2,200 words — long for a newspaper feature. It profiles a gay male married couple and a lesbian married couple, and is filled with rich details about how their lives have changed since SSM became legal. That’s good journalism. I have no objection there. But the reporter makes only a half-hearted glance towards the lives of SSM opponents, noting in a perfunctory manner that some merchants are contemplating shuttering their businesses because they can’t in good conscience provide wedding services for gay couples — and they fear being sued.

That’s huge. To come to the point where you have to choose between your conscience and your livelihood because you have good reason to fear the state and activists will destroy you — that’s incredibly dramatic content. But the reporter doesn’t care to explore that, and the lives of the people having to adjust to that stark reality.

I did a word count of the piece. How many words are dedicated to neutral background material? About 400.

How many words are dedicated to exploring the lives and opinions of SSM opponents in Minnesota? About 300.

How many words are dedicated to exploring the lives and opinions of SSM supporters? About 1,500.

This is bias. This is bad journalism. This is also something that very few people in newsrooms would see as a problem, because you see, error has no rights. We’ve had at least 10 years of this kind of thing, spread out across all media, news and entertainment both. If you control the narrative, you eventually will control the culture. As we are seeing. As we will continue to see.

UPDATE: I dug these data points up from the nonpartisan Pew Center for People and the Press:

1. In 2004, US journalists were vastly more likely to be pro-gay than the public:

As was the case in 1995, journalists are much more accepting of homosexuality than is the general public. Overwhelming majorities of national (88%) and local (74%) say homosexuality should be accepted by society. Only about half of the public agrees (51%).

2. In 2004, there were far more liberal journalists than conservative journalists:

Journalists at national and local news organizations are notably different from the general public in their ideology and attitudes toward political and social issues. Most national and local journalists, as well as a plurality of Americans (41%), describe themselves as political moderates. But news people ­ especially national journalists ­ are more liberal, and far less conservative, than the general public.

A third of national journalists (34%) and somewhat fewer local journalists (23%) describe themselves as liberals; that compares with 19% of the public in a May survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, there is a relatively small number of conservatives at national and local news organizations. Just 7% of national news people and 12% of local journalists describe themselves as conservatives, compared with a third of all Americans.

3. In 2004, Pew found that the liberal journalists it polled were far worse than conservatives in discerning liberal bias:

Roughly two-thirds of self-described conservatives (68%) could identify a specific news organization that is especially liberal, and the same number (68%) could name a news organization that is “especially conservative.” But moderates and liberals could identify conservative news organizations far more often than liberal ones. Roughly three-quarters of liberals (74%) and a majority of moderates (56%) say they couldn’t think of any news organization that is especially liberal.

(Similarly, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out that his liberal colleagues — who are almost entirely liberal — are quick to see bias when women or minorities are underrepresented, “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.” Haidt went on to point out that every group will coalesce around protecting its “sacred values.” In my experience as a journalist, if you want to get up the backs of your colleagues, suggest to them that journalists are biased to the left. The sacred value of American journalists is that they are unbiased.)

4. In 2013, Pew found that the news media’s coverage of gay issues was fantastically biased to the pro-gay side:

In a period marked by Supreme Court deliberations on the subject, the news media coverage provided a strong sense of momentum towards legalizing same-sex marriage, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Stories with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1.

In the coverage studied, the central argument among proponents of same-sex marriage was one of civil rights. Arguments against were more varied, but most often voiced the idea that same-sex marriage would hurt society and the institution of traditional marriage.

Almost half (47%) of the nearly 500 stories studied from March 18 (a week prior to the Supreme Court hearings), through May 12, primarily focused on support for the measure, while 9% largely focused on opposition and 44% had a roughly equal mix of both viewpoints or were neutral. 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. Stories that did not meet that threshold were defined as neutral or mixed.

Many of the events themselves during the period studied, such as announcements by politicians and state legislation, reflected movement towards same-sex marriage. Polls show the nation’s views have been shifting as well, though there remains significant opposition with 51% of the public in support of legalizing same-sex marriage versus 42% opposed, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.[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.

If you don’t think that the news media are strongly biased towards gay rights, then you are either willfully blind, or you simply aren’t paying attention.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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