Is the political fight over gay marriage over? Or is that just the story the media are telling?

June 17, 2013

We've written repeatedly in this space that the political fight over gay marriage is all but over due to increased acceptance across a broad section of society of same sex couples' right to marry.

A new study by the Pew Research Center raises an important question about that perceived momentum: Is it being created, at least in part, by positive news media coverage of the possibility of legalization?

"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," reads the report. "Stories with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1."

Forty-seven percent of news stories on same sex marriage from March 18 (a week before the Court heard oral arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8) to May 12 focused on support for the measure while just nine percent focused on opposition and 44 percent of the coverage was mixed in its focus.

That coverage is far more tilted in favor of legalization than Pew's polling of the electorate as a whole; 51 percent believe gay marriage should be legal while 42 percent believe it should be illegal.

Looking at the numbers above, it's easy to simply assume that the media is pushing an agenda rather than reporting the facts. But, things are rarely as simple as they look. Consider the following:

1. While the stories covering the legalization of same-sex marriage far outnumber those detailing the opposition to such a move, there is also a considerable amount of coverage that tells some of both sides of the story.

2. The forces in support of same-sex marriage are simply better organized message-wise than the forces against it, according to Pew. "The central argument among proponents of same-sex marriage was one of civil rights," reads the study. "Arguments against were more varied, but most often voiced the idea that same-sex marriage would hurt society and the institution of traditional marriage."

3. There is a bit of chicken and egg going on here. Lots and lots of polling done over the last few months suggests that public opinion is in fact moving  -- across virtually every demographic measure -- in favor of legalization of same sex marriage. So, while the Pew study does show real and significant opposition to allowing gay people to marry, the coverage focuses on what's new(s), which is the movement toward legalization.

All that said, it's important to remember that regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in the coming weeks on DOMA and Prop. 8 -- and how it's covered -- the opposition to broad-scale legalization of gay marriage remains a very real thing, particularly among social conservatives who could well play a critical role in choosing the identity of the next Republican presidential nominee.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Ed O'Keefe · June 17, 2013