Claiming the News

For my dissertation, I coded a sample of newspaper articles published since 1950 that mentioned homosexuality. My sample consisted of 720 articles. In the course of coding these articles, I copied any paragraph that mentioned homosexuality. 2382 total paragraphs were copied into my coding application. I then coded each paragraph for the presence of one of 12 claims about homosexuality and/or gay men and lesbians. Using this data, I constructed co-occurrence networks. I calculated how many times two claims appeared together in the same article. I then calculated how many times we might expect these two claims to appear together randomly given the number of articles and the total number of articles each claim appeared in. A tie is present if two claims appeared together more often than one standard deviation above this random expectation. Ties are colored blue if the two claims appeared together more often than two standard deviations above what we would expect by random chance. The nodes represent claims. Red nodes represent negative claims and green nodes represent positive claims. The size of the node represents how many times a claim appeared in total. The Bad claim is a “other-negative” category for negative claims that did not fit in any of the other claims. Similarly, the Good claim is a “other-positive” category for positive claims that did not fit elsewhere.


The 1950s was a generally bad time to be gay. McCarthyism linked homosexuality to communism, arguing gays in the state department were particularly susceptible to blackmail. A campaign to purge the federal government of gays ensued and made national news throughout the first half of the decade. Not much else made news in the 1950s. The claim network reflects this – the Bad claim dominates, and is not linked with any other claim. This indicates that these negative claims were made without justification (in which we would see ties to other negative claims) or contradiction (in which we would see ties to positive claims). Sinful bridges the criminal and mental illness claims. This probably indicates that claims about the criminality or mental stability of homosexuality are ultimately rooted in a moral tradition which comes through in the news discourse. Mental illness and sinful are also tied to claims that homosexuality is Natural and that gays are Like Straights, however these claims do not appear often. Ultimately, there’s not much interesting going on in this graph.


The 1960s was a more interesting time. Negative claims are still the large majority of claims being made in the news (85%), but the ties between them tell an interesting story. The sinful claim is often countered by some positive claim, indicating that moral arguments alone were losing their effectiveness. As a result, criminal and mental illness claims split off, with criminalizing homosexuality justified through mental illness claims directly.


The 1970s marked the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian movement. The Stonewall Riots happened in late June, 1969. The activism after was more public and militant than previous activism had been. Part of this activism was countering popular conceptions about homosexuality. Gay is Good was a slogan that appeared in the early 1970s. This contest over the meaning of homosexuality is reflected in the claims made in the news. The number of claims are split almost evenly between negative and positive. Both Rights and Respect claims are made more often. Positive claims often appear together, as pro-gay speakers attempt to convince the public of their position. Negative claims are countered more often. The density of this network is impressive, both in relation to the previous decade, as well as the next.


The 1980s marked the start of the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the LGBT movement. Countless gay activists lost their lives to the disease. The LGBT community turned most of its attention to trying to deal with the epidemic. The claim network in this decade is much more sparse than the previous decade, reflecting the disengagement of the LGBT movement from its broader agenda to focus on AIDS. Negative claims represent 65% of all claims made, an increase over the last decade. There are far fewer cross-valence ties in this decade than the 1970s, so claims, especially negative claims, are not often countered in the news. The diseased claims balloons in size in this decade, reflecting the close association of AIDS to homosexuality in the popular discourse. The fact that it is only tied with respect is interesting: possibly indicative of a narrative of blaming homosexuality for spreading AIDS at the same time as expressing sympathy for its victims.


The 1990s saw a much denser claim network again. As the LGBT community began to recover from the AIDS epidemic, it publicly reengaged with its broader agenda. Positive claims make up the majority (63%) of all claims for the first time, and positive claims are far more central in the network – negative claims are all peripheral except one: unlike straights. However, unlike straights is embedded in a cluster of five nodes that are all connected to each other: rights, respect, good, natural, and unlike straights. In this context, I think unlike straights is coming from a queer politics perspective – this is gay people claiming they are not nor do they want to be like straights. In this context, then, unlike straights becomes a positive claim – Gay is Different AND Good. Respect is the most prevalent positive claim. I think this reflects the efforts on the part of the movement to change hearts and minds – many claims are made about how gay people deserve to be treated with respect.


The 2000s again represents a departure from the previous decade. In the 2000s, the number of negative claims drops dramatically – only a quarter of claims are negative. At the same time, so do many positive claims. Rights claims come to dominate this decade. There are far fewer same-valence ties (3) than cross-valence ties (11).  Pro-gay speakers no longer feel the need to justify their claims with other claims. In my dissertation, I argue that a high density of same-valence ties is indicative of speakers engaging in discourse construction, of people trying to change the dominant discourse around an issue. Considering the dominance of positive claims in the 2000s, it appears the LGBT movement was successful in this.

These claim networks represent the evolution of how the news understood homosexuality over a sixty-year period. From an uncontested, negative trait in the 1950s, homosexuality became a relatively uncontested political minority group advocating for rights by the 2000s.