Dr. Tien-Tsung Lee of the University of Kansas and Dr. Gary Hicks from Southern Illinois University recently published a study in the Journal of Homosexuality investigating if the media the public consumes has any effect on people's attitudes towards same-sex marriage. The report notes that while "the news media might not be able to tell the audience what to think, they can at least tell the audience what to think about."
The findings of that study were based on a survey of 5,000 random people done in 2006 regarding a number of personal attributes, including age, gender, education and religiosity, among several others. The study found that the strongest predictor of a supportive same-sex-marriage attitude was whether the person identified as liberal, followed by religiosity. Media consumption, although not a strong predictor, did appear to influence an individual's attitudes towards same-sex marriage.
"Media consumers' positive attitudes toward same-sex marriage are positively related to one's disliking of religious programming on television, liking political television talk shows, using television as a primary form of entertainment, reading a blog often and stating that magazines are more interesting than television," Lee said.
He added, "I have been studying political ideologies, such as the difference between liberals and conservatives. I am curious about why people hold different positions on political issues, such as abortion, racial equality and women's equal status. The issue of same-sex marriage is a logical extension. Also, because I teach in a journalism school, I am interested in the 'effects' of media consumption on people's positions."
Lee admitted that the study does have its limitations. For example, the study does not separate one attribute from another. The study would not necessarily tell one which media choices that a white, educated woman who is not religious could make. Lee said, "You figured out the limitation of this particular study [ and this kind of study ] . I analyzed a survey conducted by an advertising agency [ DDB Worldwide, based in Chicago and New York ] . When I analyze this kind of data, I can only look at associations [ or correlations ] between variables [ questions in the survey ] . Because I only looked at associations, and the fact that this survey didn't ask questions about whether certain type of media affect the survey respondents' attitudes on this particular issue, I cannot untangle how one affects the other, and what the effects are."
Lee was also asked whether an attribute, such as personally knowing a gay or lesbian individual, was included in the study. He admitted that it was not but added, "There are many studies that say, if you know a gay person personally, you'd tend to hold a more positive attitude toward homosexuals in general. That is one of the many reasons that coming out [ and being out ] is important."
The study relied on a set of data that was media-type specific but did not specify the exact programming watched, the particular magazines read or the discrete blogs perused. Also not included in the study were the effects of Facebook and the social-networking phenomenon of the last five years. Lee said, "The data of this study came from a 2006 survey. Social media were not that big at that time. In another study based on more recent data ( 2008 ) , I did look at online media. The focus of that paper is gay equal rights." That paper is due out in early 2012. He added that if there were any follow-up studies, he would certainly include social-networking sites.
Ultimately, the study found that "only a few media are associated with audiences' attitudes towards same-sex marriage, and their effects are small. Other factors including citizens' religious views, political ideologies and attitudes toward racial equality have a much stronger association with their position on same-sex marriage." Lee said, "The 'effects' of this study can be a bit misleading because they are associations, not causal effects.
"However, knowledge about associations is still useful. That would give gay-rights activists some ideas about what kind of people are more supportive of that cause, and what kind of media those potential supporters consume. Therefore, the advocates or activists can reach their allies via the right media channels."