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Outing the Media

Leigh Moscowitz, communication professor

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There was a time not long ago, says communication professor Leigh Moscowitz, when television news segments on gay Americans consistently featured stereotypical images of seedy gay bars, boisterous gay pride parades or leather festivals. After that, when gay marriage became a national debate, news reports made repeated use of strong sexual scenes.

“It would almost be a same-sex kissing montage opening the nightly news,” says Moscowitz.

Some gay-rights advocates cried foul at the aggressive imagery, complaining that depictions of love and intimacy between heterosexual couples were not nearly as explicit. Moscowitz, meanwhile, became increasingly interested in how the media color the debate surrounding gay marriage. Before coming to the College, she began her dissertation at Indiana University on the subject and reviewed 18 months of national television and magazine news coverage. She also interviewed gay-rights activists who were most commonly quoted in news reports.

Moscowitz’s research soon caught the attention of her peers. Her dissertation, “For Better or for Worse: News Discourse, Gay Rights Activism, and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate,” was the recipient of the 2009 Nafziger-White-Salwen Dissertation Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Among Moscowitz’s notable findings, her research revealed that only about 20 percent of gays prominently featured visually in a news report were also quoted.

“It was a seen-but-not-heard type of thing … almost this zoo effect,” Moscowitz says. “Let’s look at the gay and lesbian couples but not allow them a chance to speak.”

One Newsweek issue, for example, had a cover image of a gay couple, but a lengthy article inside did not quote them. “They’re visual ornaments,” Moscowitz says.

Moscowitz also documented that gays were quoted considerably less in news reports than political and religious leaders who opposed legalizing gay marriage.

“That says something about how the debate was weighted,” she says.

Gay activists told Moscowitz they did not relish being quoted in news reports opposite the president, senators and ministers – all people occupying well-respected offices or positions.

“I’m losing this debate before I even walk in the door,” they told her.

Ten states now allow gay marriage, and Moscowitz says there is plenty more for her to study. She wonders, for example, when the media will feature gay couples of color regularly. She wonders when the media will not identify a source simply by their sexual orientation, but by other characteristics as well, such as if they’re rich or poor, living in a rural area or a city. Lastly, she wonders when the media will focus on an underrepresented subgroup: gays who are opposed to gay marriage.