Is There Bias In Media's Coverage Of Gay Marriage Fight?

If conservatives think that the mainstream media has been giving advocates of gay marriage sympathetic coverage, they may have a point. A recent Pew Study, for example, found almost equal amounts of stories giving affirming or neutral coverage of gay marriage, but only a smattering of coverage sympathetic to the arguments of those opposed to it. But journalists are wrestling with aspiring for objectivity, reflecting changes in public mores, and, in many cases, addressing their own sense that gay marriage is a civil right just like interracial marriage was in the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the coverage seems to embody a sense that opponents to gay marriage are on the wrong side of history.

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Yesterday's decisions by the Supreme Court on gay marriage brought widespread celebration and a lot of coverage of those celebrations. But cultural conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage believe recent coverage of the issue has not fairly reflected their views. They may have a point.

As we hear from NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik, the coverage reflects a struggle to both capture multiple voices in a complex debate and mark a historic moment.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The headlines in this morning's newspapers ranged from descriptive to celebratory, from the Philadelphia Daily News' Love Supreme to the Spartanburg South Carolina Herald Journal's Banner Day for Gay Rights Movement.

TERRY MORAN: You do have to recognize that this is one of those issues which drives deep into people's hearts. Both the hopes and the sense of triumph today and the fears and, in some ways, the sense of disappointment and even rage today, you have to open yourself to that in order to report on it.

FOLKENFLIK: Terry Moran covers the Supreme Court for ABC News. He says the views of people who take issue with gay marriage are not always adequately reflected. The public sentiment is shifting in favor of it, and Moran says that's newsworthy. Journalists, for that matter, are not immune.

Earlier this year, conservative columnist Cal Thomas argued that news organizations had revealed their true colors. Here he was on "Fox News Watch."

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CAL THOMAS: The media drive the coverage, I think, and for themselves. I haven't seen so much cheerleading for an issue since that done by the media for President Obama.

FOLKENFLIK: And Thomas has some backup. A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reviewed stories from mid-March to mid-May from newspapers, TV, websites, and NPR.

The center found 44 percent of stories were pretty neutral. But in stories that largely reflected one side or the other, statements supportive of gay marriage dominated those opposing it by a 5-to-1 margin. Amy Mitchell is the acting director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Mitchell hesitates to suggest bias by reporters or to say that viewers and listeners and readers will necessary see bias.

AMY MITCHELL: I can't get inside the heads of people to know how they would feel. But what I can say is what comes across in the coverage is clearly a sense of momentum in one direction.

FOLKENFLIK: She says the pattern is consistent and that for what it's worth it holds true for Fox News, too. Many of the stories describe positive developments for those fighting for gay marriage as elected officials offered fresh support with a consistent message of civil rights and equality. Kevin Merida is managing editor of the Washington Post. He says the paper takes this concern about balance seriously.

KEVIN MERIDA: We always ask the question: Are we covering it broadly enough? Are we hitting the counterintuitive points? And we consciously do that. We did that yesterday even as the rulings came through.

FOLKENFLIK: Merida says it's hard to cover history as it happens.

MERIDA: We need a little bit more time to kind of see the change in the country as a result of the election of Barack Obama. And I think, right now, you've seen a number of - this is obviously a big moment historically.

FOLKENFLIK: Yesterday, ABC's Terry Moran described an electric current crackling in the crowd outside the court.

MORAN: There were a few people who were clearly disappointed by it. But it is a fact that right across the country, for gay people and those who love them, this is a day of glory, constitutional glory. It is one of those days where a group has stepped forward and claimed ownership of the equality principle in the Constitution in a really strong way. And you have to report that.

FOLKENFLIK: Moran says reporters note events, too, as when the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington started to sing near the court.

GAY MEN'S CHORUS OF WASHINGTON, D.C.: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light...

MORAN: It is human to - when people burst into tears around you at the singing of the national anthem - to notice that.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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