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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 [1], 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:

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1. In 2004, US journalists were vastly more likely to be pro-gay than the public: [2]

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: [2]

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 [3]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 [4] 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: [5]

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] [6]

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.

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160 Comments To "How The Media Set The Gay Rights Narrative"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 3, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

Ampersand, are you seriously claiming that Republicans are conservative?

#2 Comment By Bobby On March 3, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

@Annek

Kinsey’s bell curve may hold up, at least insofar as we’re measuring one’s unconditioned sexual response to certain stimuli. Of course, we’re not talking about a phenomenon that can be measured with mathematical precision.

But there’s no reason why sexual orientation should comprise an essential element of a social identity. The orientation-essentialist thesis requires that there be a strong correlation between one’s biological response to pornography and one’s ability to form sexually healthy relationships within a fully-orbed familial context. But the correlation is rather weak. In fact, many men who test as “gay” on the standard orientation tests are quite capable of forming sexually healthy relationships with women, while many men who test as “straight” struggle to do so. In other words, biology is only weakly predictive of how well one will perform in the context of an opposite-sex committed relationship.

Of course, in our society, it’s the biological response that hits us first. We’re inundated with soft-core pornography wherever we go. So, most guys are acutely aware of their base biological urges in their early teen years. Because most in our culture–including social conservatives–accept the orientation-essentialist thesis uncritically, young guys may often feel pressure to adopt a social identity that is consistent with that orientation. Or, if they resist, they feel unnecessary internal tension.

There’s just no reason for this BS. Most men are perfectly capable of forming sexually healthy relationships with women notwithstanding their underlying biological orientation. Therefore, it’s time to lower the stakes on the question of orientation, and begin taking a more healthy, if not a more Christian, view of sexuality.

Social conservatives created this mess by insisting on having a “scientific” means by which they could identify potential sexual nonconformity. I think it’s time social conservatives to admit that the project was flawed and to pull the plug on it. I initially discussed this on the “reconversion” thread because it ties in with the flimsy evidentialist apologetics that’s turned many away from the faith. Sexuality is no more a science than religion is. That’s something our 19th-Century forbears didn’t get. I see no reason why we have to keep repeating the same mistakes. While we’re fixing our faulty apologetics, we should go on to fix our faulty anti-Christian view of sexuality. As Hannon prescribes, it’s time to be done with “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality”.

#3 Comment By Erin Manning On March 3, 2014 @ 10:28 pm

Here’s a story for you, Public Defender. It’s fiction. Or prophecy (how many years into the future is up to you). Take your pick:

Anytown, USA: Jack and Jill (not their real names) start their day just like any middle-class American couple. There is the scramble to get the kids dressed and ready for school, the discussion of whose turn it is to pick them up at after-school care after work, the last-minute return to the house for a forgotten cell phone or set of keys. But Jack and Jill are different from many people who are raising kids together in a stable, long-term relationship: they’re not married.

And they don’t plan to be.

Jill says she never got into her friends’ dreams of the costly wedding with its focus on the demanding bride on her special day. “I just wasn’t into that stuff. You know? It didn’t matter to me.” She points with pride to her new car, which cost less than many of her friends’ elegant weddings and honeymoon trips.

For Jack, the situation is a bit more complicated. He’s been married–and divorced–twice, and two of the four kids he and Jill are raising are from those two earlier marriages. With alimony payments and shared custody–the older two children each spend the summers with their respective mothers–Jack has had enough of marriage. “I told Jill when we first got serious about our relationship that marriage was a deal-breaker for me. She was fine with it. That’s when I knew this was going to work out.”

Jill was also pregnant at the time, with her first–but Jack’s third–child.

“We were already taking care of the other two kids, so I felt ready to be a mom to one of my own,” Jill explains. “And the important thing to me wasn’t a piece of paper or some big ring on my finger. It was just knowing that he’d stick around.”

The couple has been together for eight years already, and shared several milestones–the eighth-grade graduation of Jack’s oldest child, Jill’s mom and stepdad’s 20th wedding anniversary. “Mom and her husband tease us about getting married sometimes. How will we ever celebrate our anniversary? I tell my mom that we celebrate the anniversary of our un-marriage ever day.”

If Jack and Jill could change one thing about their life, though, it would be the idea–increasingly seen as religious bigotry–that there is something special about marriage: a bigotry Jill believes is unconstitutionally reflected in America’s marriage laws.

“There are so many privileges attached to getting that piece of paper. And it shouldn’t be that way. Why should we have to register our partnership with the state in order to file our taxes together? We’re a two-income household, and we should be treated like every other two-income household. Marriage should have nothing to do with it. It’s a throwback to religious beliefs about marriage and sex that, honestly, nobody believes anymore.”

It may be stretching the point to say that nobody believes in marriage anymore, but recent data showing that, for the first time, more children are born out of wedlock than in it supports the idea that marriage may increasingly be seen as a quaint custom rather than an important milestone. And people like Jack and Jill keep asking the question: is it unjust for so many legal rights to be linked to that quaint (but expensive) custom that is rapidly failing in popularity among younger Americans?

Bill Jones of the Campaign for Unmarried Equality thinks that it is. “We have this tangled mess of religious beliefs, bigotry, hatred for people who choose to order their lives differently, and it’s all tied up in the law, in this piece of paper that is supposed to protect your rights. Only it doesn’t even do that very often anymore. People of my generation don’t want it.”

Jack would have to agree. “All marriage did for me was cost me money even when the relationship was over. That might have made sense back when religious bigots kept their wives in the kitchen and wouldn’t let them work, but both of my ex-wives are fully capable of supporting themselves without my help. Why should they get some of my money just because I earn a little more than they do? The kids, fine–they’re my kids, I take care of them, even Jill helps. But my ex-wives? No way.”

So Jack and Jill support the efforts of the Campaign for Unmarried Equality, and spread the word among their friends–married or not–that marriage is a private, personal decision that shouldn’t be tied to tax breaks or other benefits. And people in their age group agree: more than 54% of people under age 35 already say that all households should have the same privileges as married people and any variation in the law should have to do with the number of the people in the household, not the person you are–or should, in the old view, be–married to.

With the popularity of the hit new TV show, “I Don’t!” the momentum of the anti-marriage movement has never been greater. Jill hopes that this is the beginning of the end of marriage.

“I just want to be treated exactly like all the wives out there. Actually, I want everybody, married or not, to be treated the same way, not like wives at all,” Jill says. “I hope my daughter will live in a world where your relationship status, or how often it changes, or how many different fathers or mothers your kids have, won’t mean anything to anybody. There’s a lot of hate and bigotry out there, unfortunately, but I’m hopeful that as more people get to know the unmarried-by-choice they’ll realize that we deserve the exact same treatment as people who have a Vegas wedding and then divorce six weeks later. We deserve better than that, really–we’ve been together eight years.”

Is it time for the legal concept of marriage to be replaced by something more fair to those who want to organize their households but don’t want marriage, with all the social and religious baggage it carries? For Jack and Jill, and thousands of young couples just like them, the answer is an unqualified “yes.”

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 4, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

Bobby has been developing an interesting line of analysis the last several posts, and it makes a lot of sense. The whole notion of “sexual orientation” as an IDENTITY is dubious.

To me, that means the notion of “marriage equality” is equally dubious. There aren’t two distinct immutable CLASSES of people, so how could the law favor one and deny benefits to the other? If its not the case that a young man either can, or cannot, form a long-term stable relationship with a woman, if its possible regardless of whether he does or does not have hormonal feelings for individuals of his own sex, then indeed he hasn’t been deprived of the equal protection of the laws.

Whatever their mix of hormonal urges, any of these young men could marry a woman, and might well do so. The “equality” argument would then march us down the road Erin just outlined.

I wondered about couples wanting the benefits of marriage without being married when California wrote its first domestic partnership law. Certain sub-cultures had been singing “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall,” and now, although not actually marrying, they wanted an unmarriage piece of paper from the city hall.

#5 Comment By Public Defender On March 4, 2014 @ 7:32 pm

Erin,
If people get all the legal privileges of married they are legally married. I would be happy if we got rid of government-issued “marriage” licenses and renamed them “civil unions.” Then, we could let anyone do whatever legally irrelevant but religiously significant marriage ceremony that they wanted. (And let any clergy decide when they are willing to sanction the beginning or end to a religious marriage.) Plus, what you describe is basically common law marriage, which is not exactly a new concept. And if any radical changes do come to marriage law, the changes are just as likely to be based on the extreme religious liberty argument that Dreher makes. Because if Dreher wins his point, there is basically nothing to stop people from claiming the religous liberty right to polygamy.

But most importantly, you still haven’t pointed to a real narrative involving real peopl that explains why it is so important to deny health insurance, pension survivors’ benefits and the like to the spouses in a same-sex marriage. And that’s why you’re losing this argument.

#6 Comment By Annek On March 4, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

Public Defender:

“But most importantly, you still haven’t pointed to a real narrative involving real peopl that explains why it is so important to deny health insurance, pension survivors’ benefits and the like to the spouses in a same-sex marriage. And that’s why you’re losing this argument.”

I don’t object to providing benefits to same sex couples via, say, civil unions. My objection is to calling a homosexual relationship a marriage. There is no equivalency between a homosexual and heterosexual relationship.

#7 Comment By M_Young On March 5, 2014 @ 2:51 am

“). as I see it, “marriage” should be defined by the two parties entering the marriage – there is no “one size fits all” marriage or family, ”

So if there is no ‘one size fits all’ marriage, why just two people? We have business partnerships of three or more, why limit marriage to two?

There are good reasons, based in biology, to limit marriage to one man, one woman — we are a k-selected species and monogamy reinforced by law aids that. But when you depart from the biology, then all bets are off. If two dudes can be ‘marriage’ why not three dudes, two dudes and a girl, two girls and a dude, or whatever. Let it all (as they said in the 1970s) hang out.

#8 Comment By Annek On March 5, 2014 @ 10:13 am

M_Young:

“But when you depart from the biology, then all bets are off. If two dudes can be ‘marriage’ why not three dudes, two dudes and a girl, two girls and a dude, or whatever.”

It a bastardization of the concept of marriage.

#9 Comment By John D On March 5, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

Annek,

I don’t object to providing benefits to same sex couples via, say, civil unions. My objection is to calling a homosexual relationship a marriage.

For the millionth time (not to you, admittedly), the package of benefits given by the civil authorities to couples is called marriage. That is to say, you are suggesting that we re-name civil marriage as civil unions. Whatever for?

The argument that same-sex couples should have the rights of marriage without the name is about the weakest argument one can construct. If you were hungry and wanted an apple, it would make no sense for me to withhold it unless you agreed we’d call it something else. (And let’s be clear: the major opponents of same-sex marriage have vocally opposed domestic partnerships and civil unions for being “too much like marriage.” Maggie Gallagher has made it clear that she is fine with the civil registration of same-sex couples, as long as no benefits are ever attached.)

Creating a duplicate set of rights would clearly serve no legitimate government purpose. It is actually a clearer violation of equal protection than the denial of marriage is. At least in denying marriage, the claim can be made that reserving these rights serves some important governmental purpose. With civil unions, you’ve already conceded that one point.

#10 Comment By Annek On March 6, 2014 @ 12:02 am

John D says:

“…the package of benefits given by the civil authorities to couples is called marriage. That is to say, you are suggesting that we re-name civil marriage as civil unions. Whatever for?”

If marriage is simply a package of benefits, then I suppose I see your point. However, isn’t marriage more than simply a package of benefits?