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Coverage of Gay Marriage Far From Monolithic

A newly published study finds the issue of gay marriage has been framed quite differently in The New York Times compared to the Chicago Tribune.
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Did you read about the latest court ruling on gay marriage? New research suggests what precisely you learned — that is, how the controversial subject was framed and presented — may have varied a lot depending upon which newspaper you turned to for coverage.

A study just published in The Social Science Journal compares coverage of gay marriage in The New York Times and Chicago Tribune in 2003 and 2004, and finds some striking differences.

“The New York Times was inclined to emphasize the topic of human equality related to the legitimization of gay marriage,” writes the research team, led by Po-Lin Pan of Arkansas State University. “The Chicago Tribune highlighted the importance of human morality associated with the gay-marriage debate.”

The researchers analyzed the content of each paper’s coverage of the issue during the year before and the year after the Nov. 18, 2003 Massachusetts ruling that legalized gay marriage in that state. A total of 120 news stories were studied to determine their approach to the topic, the tone of the writing and the types of sources who were quoted.

Their overall conclusion: “The New York Times embraced the issue of human equality, while the Chicago Tribune attempted to emphasize American family values in the debate over gay marriage.” Specifically, 33 percent of sampled stories in the Times focused on equal rights, compared to 19 percent in the Tribune.

Stories focusing on “American tradition and family values” made up 17.5 percent of the Times’ coverage, and 22.2 percent in the Tribune. Religious attitudes toward the topic were emphasized in 12 percent of the Times stories but nearly 20 percent of those in the Tribune.

In the year after the Massachusetts ruling, the Times coverage changed in one dramatic way: The newspaper quoted far more people who were identified as gay. Twenty percent of sources quoted in gay marriage-related stories were identified as gay, compared to 5.4 percent during the year before the ruling.

The Tribune, in contrast, was more consistent. Before the ruling, 10.9 percent of sources in gay marriage-related stories were identified as gay; after the ruling, the number rose slightly to 11.8 percent.

Both historically and in their current-day incarnations, the Tribune is a conservative-leaning publication while the Times has a more liberal outlook. It is thus interesting to note how their different approaches to this issue reflect psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s framework for the different moral worlds of liberals and conservatives.

As we have reported, Haidt argues that liberals prize justice, fairness and doing no harm to others, while conservatives are more concerned with purity/sanctity, respect for tradition and authority and in-group loyalty. With that in mind, it’s fair to conclude both papers reflected the moral beliefs of their readers and editors. It’s just that people in the conservative Midwest tend to have a different set of values than those in the liberal Northeast.

That assertion is arguable, of course. But the study does make one thing absolutely clear: Those who speak of the “mainstream media” as monolithic don’t know what they’re talking about.