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Pew Research: Gun rights, abortion, gay marriage views over time

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Social issues — and the associated “culture war” in America — continue to play prominent roles in politics. There is an ingrained notion of a static political standoff: To many, the country seems split into two camps that have stubbornly dug in on issues. But survey data suggests that public support for some social issues has fluctuated significantly over recent history.

A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, “More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage than in 2008, 2004,” compared current surveys on support for social issues with past data. The 2012 survey asked more than 3,000 adults about their views on gay marriage, gun rights and abortion.

Key findings include:

  • There has been a significant decrease in the opposition to gay marriage over time. In 2004, 60% of American opposed gay marriage and 31% favored it. As of 2012, 43% of Americans opposed gay marriage while 47% of supported it.
  • Among Americans younger than 30 there has been a significant decline in opposition to gay marriage, from 48% in 2008 to 30% in 2012. As of 2012, “young people favor gay marriage by more than two-to-one” with 65% in support and 30% opposed.
  • As of 2012, the majority of Democrats (59%) and Independents (52%) support gay marriage, an increase of 9 percentage points among Democrats and 10 percentage points among Independents since 2008.
  • Republicans remain opposed to gay marriage, with 68% in opposition to it and only 23% in support. However, there has been a 10 percentage point decline in opposition to gay marriage among Republicans since 2004.
  • Opinions on gun rights have shifted significantly over time. In 2000, 66% of Americans said controlling gun ownership was more important than protecting gun rights, while just 29% said rights were more important. By 2012, 49% supported gun rights versus 45% favoring gun control.
  • Support for gun ownership among both men and women has increased from 2008, with a 14 percentage point increase in support for gun rights for men and a 9 percentage point increase for women.
  • Partisan division over gun control has also grown in recent years. Republican support for gun rights increased from 65% in 2009 to 72% in 2012, while Independent support for gun rights increased from 48% in 2009 to 55% in 2012.
  • In 1995, 59% of Americans supported legalized abortion in all or most cases and only 40% did not. In 2001, citizens were equally divided on abortion, with 49% supporting it and 48% opposed. By 2012, support had shifted back in favor of legalized abortion, with 53% supporting it in all or most cases and 39% against.

“Opinions about a pair of contentious social issues, gun control and gay marriage, have changed substantially since previous presidential campaigns,” the report notes in its summary. “On gun control, Americans have become more conservative; on gay marriage, they have become more liberal.” As for near-term trends on citizens’ abortion views, “little changed from recent years. In 2009, the percentage favoring legal abortion in all or most cases fell below 50% for the first time since 2001. Since then, however, support for legal abortion has rebounded and is generally in line with trends dating to 1995.”

Tags: gay issues, campaign issue, guns, civil rights

    Writer: | Last updated: May 16, 2012

    Citation: “More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage than in 2008, 2004,” The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, April 2012.

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    Media analysis

    Read the issue-related New York Times column titled "The Persistence of the Culture War."

    1. What key insights should reporters be aware of as they cover "culture war" issues?

    Study analysis

    Read the full study titled “More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage than in 2008, 2004.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?