June 17, 2013

Way back in March, when gay marriage issues exploded upon the Supreme Court, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown didn’t appreciate how the media covered the news. His ideological brethren had to fight to get their views into stories in newspapers, online and on television. Included on his list of hard-to-crack outlets was this: “I think on the cable networks, the coverage has not been great at all. Even on Fox News, we find it difficult to get broadcast time airing our views.” (Bolded text added.)

Nearly three months later, a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) has completed a close examination of how the media covered the issue. The principal finding? Detractors of gay marriage couldn’t buy their way into the coverage. Well, that’s the unscientific way of putting things. Here’s how the PEJ puts it: “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.”

And the report carries this echo of Brown’s statement to the Erik Wemple Blog:

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.

(Bolded text added to highlight prescience of Brian Brown.)

Here’s how coverage on Fox News broke out, according to the PEJ: 63 percent mixed, 29 percent supportive and 8 percent opposing. Have a look at how Fox News compares to other cable news outlets:


The largely supportive media coverage of same-sex marriage piggybacked on polling results indicating that more and more Americans are embracing the practice. In the words of the Pew study:

Many of the news stories identified as supportive of same-sex marriage focused on evidence that it was gaining more acceptance. For example, a March 19 edition of the PBS NewsHour included a three-minute edited package that discussed polls showing increased acceptance across all demographics. The same show also featured a longer piece that discussed the endorsements of same-sex marriage from people such as President Obama and Senator Rob Portman, and how younger people were at the forefront of changes in public opinion.

Whatever the underpinnings of the coverage, it was tilted massively against those who favor traditional marriage. The Pew chart below explains the dynamic quite powerfully:


That data set contains perhaps the most explosive finding in the entire study. Spend some time with it: The numbers establish that organizations across all kinds of media categories were running stories highly favorable of gay marriage: Network news, cable news, NPR and so on.

Given that disparity, you might expect that a guy like Rush Limbaugh would help to equalize things. But not particularly — the numbers show that of the nine Limbaugh segments evaluated, two-thirds were neutral! How’s that possible? Limbaugh, after all, is the guy who has drawn associations between homosexuality and pedophilia. We may have to fact-check that one.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.