Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Mass Communications

First Advisor

Durham, Frank

First Committee Member

Singer, Jane B

Second Committee Member

Durham, Meenakshi

Third Committee Member

Ekdale, Brian

Fourth Committee Member

Tolbert, Caroline


This research looks at how local television news framed the efforts in Iowa in 2010 and 2012 to unseat Iowa Supreme Court Justices whose 2009 ruling in the case Varnum v. Brien made Iowa the third state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. By looking at relevant news packages and interviewing journalists, news directors, and spokespersons, I traced the way the traditionally ignored judicial retention votes became a top political story, and how particular frames entered the news. I found that despite a well-meaning intention to cover the story in a professionally acceptable fashion, these same news values and reporting rituals blinded journalists to how their attempts to provide “balance” ultimately accomplished the opposite.

Evidence studied here suggested that morality politics was the dominant frame throughout most of the coverage, with the civil rights aspects of the issue mostly relegated to the day after each election rather than in the weeks prior. Political science literature defines morality politics as a campaign strategy that relies upon arguments based on “morality,” “values,” or even “sin” to motivate supporters. In the Iowa case, this concept gets modified because while the conservative campaign engaged the logics of morality politics, they also felt the need to couch their campaign in issues like “judicial activism.” I conclude the ability to get news coverage of the anti-retention campaign and get this modified morality politics framing as dominant in that coverage reveals the exercise of political and social power in defense of the hegemonic heteronormative cultural matrix.


Framing / Visual Framing, Journalism, LGBTQ, Politics / Morality Politics, Same-sex marraige, Television News


xiv, 216 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 164-180).


Copyright 2016 Shawn Paul Harmsen