News Outlets Show Significant Bias in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage

The public is in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, but not by a margin of five to one, which is how a new Pew study weighs coverage during Supreme Court hearings for two landmark cases.
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LGBT flag. (BENSON KUA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

LGBT flag. (BENSON KUA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The media is off balance with the public on the issue of same-sex marriage, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Stories with statements mostly in support of same-sex marriage outweighed those with statements mostly opposing by a five to one margin, from March 18 through May 12, while only a slim 51 percent majority of the general public favor legalizing same-sex marriage. The Pew study looked at stories from a mix of new media outlets such as Politico and BuzzFeed; 11 national, regional, and local newspapers; major broadcast news programs; radio programming like NPR's Morning Edition; opinion radio broadcasts like those of Ed Schultz and Rush Limbaugh; and programs from the three dominant cable news channels. The study ran during the period when the Supreme Court washearing two landmark same-sex marriage cases, which the court is expected to rule on this month.

Even among outlets with reputations for conservative or at least middle-of-the-road political bents, opposition to gay marriage received scant coverage. Per the study:

The coverage on Fox News was 63% mixed, 29% supportive of the measure 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 or neutral reporting, 70% and 67%, respectively, and more even ratio of supporting versus opposing stories.

The pro-marriage bias will come as no surprise to conservative activists like Eric Erickson, who have long contended that, despite the surfeit of polls showing just-solid-enough gay marriage support among the general public (even among demographics that have historically opposed gay rights), the media is out of step with a country that saw 32 states reject ballot initiatives for same-sex marriage rights until the 2012 elections. Here’s Erickson, echoing a point other conservatives have made:

It is one thing for voters to tell pollsters they support gay marriage. It is quite another thing to actually get it passed at the real polls. Perhaps pollsters should stop asking people if they support gay marriage and instead ask people if they think their neighbors would support gay marriage.

The Pew study seems to give credence to this view—sort of a “Bradley Effect” for gay rights. According to the study, just using the term "same-sex marriage" or "marriage equality" might be a sign that you're a national media insider: Over the past five years, the term "gay marriage" has been a more popular Google search term many times over compared to "same-sex marriage" and "marriage equality"; meanwhile, 24 of the top 25 newspapers by circulation prefer the term "same-sex marriage" according to Pew’s look at the LexisNexis database. Apparently, when we’re at home at our computers, we think about the issue in entirely different terms from those that we hear in the media.

This isn’t to say the media is fully wagging the dog here. As analyzed in depth by Nate Silver a few weeks ago, the dramatic pro-equality shift in the tone of coverage (and in the stances of public officials, and legislative efforts) appears to have been preceded—and probably catalyzed—by a much more gradual, measured shift in Americans’ personal political opinions on these issues.

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