Pew Reports Media Bias on Marriage Debate

As the U.S. Supreme Court weighed DOMA and Proposition 8, news stories favored same-sex 'marriage' 5-1.

WASHINGTON — The Pew Research Center released a report on June 17 that confirmed overwhelming media bias in favor of same-sex “marriage.”

Researchers evaluated news and opinion coverage of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court and related stories dealing with two landmark marriage cases and found that all mainstream media outlets favored “marriage equality,” including Fox News.

Pew reported that stories “with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1.”

This skewed treatment, researchers concluded, conveyed “a strong sense of momentum towards legalizing same-sex ‘marriage.’”

Now, as the nation awaits the high court’s rulings on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8, which are expected by the end of June, the unbalanced news coverage will likely prompt intense scrutiny and debate on the media’s role in affecting the outcome of those cases.

Some constitutional scholars have predicted that the justices, mindful of the ongoing debate over Roe v. Wade, would be cautious about legalizing a social practice that lacked broad public support.

But if news stories indeed conveyed a sense of “momentum,” the high court’s deliberations might accommodate that shift.  

“I have to think the justices — and especially the chief — are very cognizant of the shifting public opinion,” Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told The Hill in mid-May, during the period that Pew researchers charted the flow of coverage favoring one side of the issue.

Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, the primary institution defending the nation’s marriage laws, told the Register that the Pew study provided valuable context for evaluating the true state of the debate on “marriage equality.”

“If there is overwhelming media bias and we are not able to get out our message broadly through broadcast television, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy,” said Brown in a June 17 interview.

“I hope this study will lead to some self-reflection on the part of the media on how they have treated folks who stand up for traditional marriage.”

Brown said it was not uncommon for his organization to be excluded from television news show about the marriage debate.

“During Proposition 8, the largest social ballot issue in history,” Brown recalled, “there were very few invitations for us and our allies to be on broadcast television. Over the past four years, we have met with Washington bureau chiefs and laid out the problems we are facing.  We have seen a little bit of improvement, but media coverage is still overwhelming biased."

“The Human Rights Campaign will be invited to speak, and there will be no one from the other side,” he said, referring to the leading organization promoting same-sex "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,” stated an executive summary of the Pew report.

“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.”

Significantly, the researchers reported that stories favoring same-sex “marriage,” focused on a central message: “Marriage equality” was a civil right. In contrast, stories that presented the views of those opposed to any change in the nation’s marriage laws, offered a number of different arguments, “but most often voiced the idea that same-sex marriage would hurt society and the institution of traditional marriage.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.