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Media, Marriage and the Construction of the LGBT Legal Agenda



Media, Marriage and the Construction of the LGBT Legal Agenda



Bibliographic Citation

69 Rutgers Univ. L.R. 691 (2017)


Legal and sociolegal scholars have argued that social movement litigation often generates social change indirectly by drawing publicity and public attention to movement issues. Yet some cases are more likely than others to receive coverage in the mainstream news media-particularly those cases involving conflict or controversy, which resonate with established definitions of "newsworthiness." This Article empirically examines bias in the news media's coverage of social movement litigation through a case study of the LGBT movement, which compares the content of the litigation dockets of three major LGBT civil rights organizations to the content of newspaper coverage of those organizations from 1996- 2006. The time period examined in this study offers a unique opportunity to investigate bias in media coverage of movement litigation. This period marks the formative first decade after LGBT rights organizations began to take part in litigation for marriage equality, an issue which has since become an essential part of the LGBT movement's public narrative. As movement litigators during these years tentatively asserted the right for same-sex couples to marry in a few select state courts, they were met with an intense conservative backlash targeting both same-sex marriage as a goal and the impact litigation strategies being used to achieve it. In examining LGBT movement litigation during this period of intense controversy around same-sex marriage, this Article illuminates the role of counter-movements in shaping media constructions and broader popular interpretations of social movement litigation. Findings from the study reveal that the news media reported more extensively on the LGBT movement's marriage equality litigation than on any other issue. This coverage was drastically disproportionate to the small percentage of marriage equality cases on the LGBT legal organizations' dockets during this time period. In addition, news articles on same-sex marriage litigation were significantly more likely than other articles to discuss anti-LGBT countermovement activity. These findings suggest that countermovement mobilization against same-sex marriage, dubbed a "culture war" in the media, may have created conflict that reporters found particularly newsworthy leading the news media to focus attention on one of the LGBT movement's most contentious litigation campaigns. I explore the implications of these findings in shaping the course of social movement mobilization, countermobilization, and the possibilities for social change.