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Gay Marriage in Iowa

How Iowa media framed the gay marriage issue and the resulting removal of Supreme Court Justices

Joel Geske

on 14 March 2012

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Transcript of Gay Marriage in Iowa

Gay Marriage in Iowa:
The Visual Framing of a
Controversial Social Issue

Research by Joel Geske, Ph.D. and Patti Brown, MSW • Iowa State University
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Fifth Judicial District Court in Des Moines, Judge Robert Hanson struck down Iowa Code §595.2 (1) restricting marriage to the union between one man and one woman.
Friday, August 31, 2007
Judge Hanson stays his own order at approximately 1 p.m. pending review of the Iowa Supreme Court. This opened approximately a five hour window for couples to legally marry. Only one couple managed to navigate these logistics.
Friday, August 31, 2007
Two other men, well-known business owners also from Ames, Iowa, obtained a license but the marriage ceremony was not until Sunday after the stay was put in place, so the legality of this marriage was less clear. These two events set historic legal and social precedent in Iowa and generated local, national and international news coverage.
The timing of these events placed them against an important political backdrop. The court ruling and marriage occurred the Thursday and Friday before Labor Day weekend, viewed by politicos as the official kickoff (Clymer, 1999) to the 2008 Iowa Caucus campaign season.

Candidates’ positions on contemporary social issues, including gay rights and same-sex marriage, are of interest to voters and the media.

As this story broke in the capital city on Thursday and unfolded on Friday, members of the media from every corner of the state, across the country and around the world were on hand to follow and report it.
Review of Literature
This research project examines media coverage of this story utilizing framing theory to see how the state’s newspapers covered the story from a visual standpoint. The study looks at the importance the story was given by its dominance in placement and visual presentation within the paper and also how the photographs and illustrations framed the issue.

The media play an important role in setting the public agenda regarding the salience of contemporary social issues and shaping public opinion about those issues. Since the public relies on the media for information, it is important that the media report stories on all issues fairly, accurately and without bias.
By deciding not just which stories to focus on, but how stories are told in tone, size and image, the media put a contextual frame around issues (McCombs and Shaw, 1972; Brewer and McCombs, 1996).

Previous research indicates media frames “are particularly relevant when the way an issue is presented has potential social consequences (Hardin, 2002). That is because photographs are powerful and news photos can become “iconic” or representative of more than what they picture (Perlmutter, 1998).

Clawson and Trice (2000) note, “People and events that appear in photographs accompanying news stories are not simply indicative of isolated individuals and occurrences; rather the photographs are symbolic of ‘the whole mosaic.’ They become emblematic representations.”
Gitlin’s definition of media framing (1980) specifically mentions visual framing as part of framing theory.
Although words can provide details and context, the visual image is in many ways more powerful. Research has shown that news images leave lasting impressions that may overshadow the text (Zillman, Gibson, Sargent, 1999).

In one study, authors used a news article on a multi-faceted issue accompanied by a photo that showed one side of the issue. After a period of time, the balancing text was forgotten while the visual perception was retained.

Several studies show photographs can evoke a more powerful memory than text (Perlmutter, 1999; Lester, 1991).
The study of visual framing of minorities has been used by Lester and Ross (2003) to show pictorial stereotypes in media. Kahle, Yu and Whiteside explore how minorities were portrayed in the Hurricane Katrina disaster (2007).

While little has been done to date on visual framing of gay men, images that come to mind are gay pride parades with flamboyantly dressed or scantily dressed men, drag queens and the images of devastated bodies of men dying from AIDS.
Research Questions
Q1) How much emphasis did the story receive from a visual standpoint in terms of dominance on the page and visual representation?

Q2) How did the media portray the issue of same-sex marriage, in the cases presented here of the two male-male couples?

Q3) Did the media provide balanced visual coverage of the same-sex marriage story as it unfolded in Iowa?
Research Methods
Four media were selected:
The Des Moines Register
is a state-wide newspaper which focuses on international, national and state news coverage. It was selected because it covers events the capital city.

The Ames Tribune
focuses on national and local news. It was chosen as the local newspaper for both exemplars in this study, the ISU students profiled above and a second couple also from Ames, Iowa, who had celebrated 30 years as partners before obtaining a license to marry.
The Iowa State Daily
is the student-run newspaper that focuses on campus news and events.

The official news voice of Iowa State University is the ISU website (www.iastate.edu). It had no coverage of the story. The editor responded to an inquiry with the following explanation:

“It's always a judgment call about what does and doesn't go on the homepage. The stories we post about Iowa State students generally have something to do with their role as students here. While this is a historic event, ISU students get married nearly every day. If we post one wedding on the homepage, we'll certainly get other requests from students who want to know why their weddings are any less worthy of homepage coverage.”
Therefore, only the three newspapers were selected for this study:
• one focusing primarily on state news coverage,
• one focusing primarily on local/city news
coverage, and
• one focusing on university news coverage.

There were a total of 48 articles and 32 photos during the tracking time period.

The great majority, 36 of the 48 articles (75 percent) and 23 of the 32 photos (72 percent), were published in the first week after the ruling and first marriage.
Placement was determined by whether most of the picture or the important content occurred 1) above the fold of the newspaper on the cover page or, 2) below the fold on the cover page or, 3) if the story began on the inside the paper.

Dominance was determined by the size of a photo in relation to the size of the broadsheet. These were relatively easy to measure by measuring the square inches of the photo as a percentage of the total square inches of the page.
Photos over 10 percent of the page had a feeling of dominance on the page. Ten photos met these criteria.
Six frames became evident from the photos:
1) Mug shots. Photos that were primarily for identifying persons, such as the judge, lawmakers, or opinion editorial writers.
2) Affection. Photos showing embracing, kissing or other affectionate behavior.
3) Celebration. Photos not showing affection, necessarily, but showing emotions or the couple or their friends in the process of celebrating the activities.
4) Family/Friends. Photos that the portrayed family life of the couples or friendship with colleagues.
5) Activists. Photos of people in an activity supporting or opposing gay marriage.
6) Illustrations. News graphics or political cartoons used to illustrate the story.
Of the 32 photos, 13 were coded as mug shots. While these have visual value, they were not really news photos that would be considered framing the issue.

This left 17 photos that would be considered news photos and one illustration and one political cartoon.

Of the 17 photos, 10 (59 percent) were on the front page of the newspaper and eight were on or above the fold giving them visual prominence and the likelihood of being the first thing noticed by many readers.
Des Moines Register
Ames Tribune
Iowa State Daily
Des Moines Register
ran one front-page photo on one day, which was dominant at 17 percent of the page layout. This photo shows two ISU men kissing after their marriage ceremony with the license in hand in what appears to be a private moment.
Ames Tribune
ran four front-page photos on three different days. Three photos were positioned above the fold and one was below the fold.
Iowa State Daily
also ran five front-page photos on four different days. Four were above the fold and one was below the fold. The first photo ran September 4 and showed the ISU men kissing after the paperwork had been filed. This photo occupied 12.6 percent of the page layout.

Also the same day below the fold:
The next front page photo ran September 14, almost two weeks after the court ruling and shows the other Ames couple who obtained a marriage license and had a marriage ceremony after the court stayed its own order pending Iowa Supreme Court review.

The final front-page photo from the
ISU Daily
also showed the candlelight rally, one of more than 30 that were held in unison across America that day:
The second research question deals with the content of the images regardless of size or placement: Q2) How will the media portray the issue of same-sex marriage in the cases presented here by male-male couples?
All images would be classified as supportive or positive in tone. None of the photos featured rallies or persons demonstrating against the ruling or the men involved. Looking at the body of photos as a whole, the tone is one of family and celebration with the second round of photos moving to photos of activists and/or rallies in support of same-sex marriage.
Other Images
Des Moines Register
, the state’s largest paper, took a documentary approach with its photos showing a picture of the judge, a picture of the actual wedding ceremony in the minister’s front yard, the wedding kiss and the front-page photo of another kiss with the marriage license in hand.
Ames Tribune
had no visual coverage of the original story featuring the two Iowa State students. Instead it framed its visual coverage on the two local businessmen and took a friends-and-family tone or frame.
Finally, the
Iowa State Daily
presented a more activist frame, with its photos showing the two ISU men in an embrace after receiving their license surrounded by reporters and media. This photo must have been taken near the same time as the
Des Moines Register’s
photo but the
excluded the media frenzy that occurred.
One would have to argue, given the controversial nature of the issue of same-sex marriage, that the coverage of the issue in these Iowa papers does not show a balance of viewpoints. The
Des Moines Register’s
visual framing, which focuses on one couple, does not show any controversy. It could be argued that showing two men kissing may be controversial or repulsive to some conservative viewers. However, the photo shows caring and warmth between the couple. By not showing the media surrounding the couple, the paper has removed any hint of controversy from the frame.

Ames Tribune
embraces the local couple. This could be any heterosexual couple celebrating their 30 years together with friends and family. Only the
Iowa State Daily
hints at the controversy with the activist approach, but no images are provided of organizations or protests opposed to the same-sex marriage ruling.
From this analysis it is clear that editorial decisions were made so that the visual coverage reflected the nature of the newspaper and its audience. The choice of photos presents different images and impressions of the actual events. But in viewing the full sequence of images from all the papers, there is no doubt but that the overall visual frame is one of acceptance of same-sex marriage, gay families and activist support for the issue with no negative visual imagery.
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