Framing the Debate

Today Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have explicitly allowed business owners to refuse service to LGBT persons (or anyone, really) if the business owners invoked a religious freedom objection. The bill was obviously and intentionally anti-gay. What was interesting was the way different media outlets framed the issue. For example, the Washington Post, on their website’s front page, wrote the headline as “Brewer vetoes bill denying service to gays”:

Washington Post Headline

While the Wall Street Journal framed it a bit differently. “Arizona Religious Bill is Vetoed”:

Wall Street Journal Headline


So while the Post is framing this as an anti-gay bill, the Journal is framing it as a religious freedoms bill. The anti-gay religious right is losing this issue, and many of the ways they framed the debate in the past no longer hold water. Arguments for the unnaturalness of homosexuality, or immorality, or threats to families or children, are no longer accepted by the larger public and, more importantly, judges. Since the LGBT movement has been so successful recently in invoking a rights claim, the anti-gay forces are moving to do the same (this mirrors the shift in framing strategies the gay and lesbian movement did in the 1970s, as detailed by Tina Fetner in How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism). They are adopting their own religious rights frame, claiming violation of their right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. This is a sign that the religious right is on the defensive on this issue – their traditional strategies aren’t working anymore, so they are adopting the strategies of the winning side.

By accepting a specific frame, media outlets are taking sides on the issue (it’s impossible not to). The Washington Post, as well as the New York Times and many others, are characterizing this bill as inherently anti-gay. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times accepts the religious freedom frame. The Christian Science Monitor can’t decide.

Christian Science Monitor Headline


Movements are constantly attempting to convince media reporters to use their preferred frame when talking about an issue. My dissertation looks at how the LGBT movement has changed the way issues around homosexuality is framed, and it’s interesting to see that contest play out in real time. Below is a gallery of headlines I found from a variety of news sources.