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Actualité États-Unis

Ruling on Prop 8 Triggers the Online Debate

Over the past two months, one issue has emerged as the leading catalyst for online conversation. While debates over harsh interrogation methods and the economic crisis have repeatedly attracted interest in the social media, the subject of gay marriage has bubbled up again and again, in a debate often missing from the mainstream media.

Last week (May 25-29) it was a California Supreme Court ruling upholding a gay marriage ban that re-ignited the social media debate, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. With 35% of all the linked to news stories, as studied by the Project's New Media Index, the ruling dominated online conversation. That marked the fourth time in the last two months that the topic has either been the No. 1 or No. 2 story.

Earlier attention was also triggered by state government actions. First, in early April the Vermont legislature and Washington D.C. City Council approved gay marriage initiatives, followed by the Maine legislature in early May. Then last week's ruling in California turned in the other direction, upholding that state's ban on same-sex marriage. The one other driver, in late April, was Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean who voiced disapproval of same-sex unions in response to a pageant judge's question.

The intense social media focus on same-sex marriage stands in stark contrast to mainstream press attention. Over the past two months, the topic generated 11% of the links in the blogosphere but filled just 1% of the newshole in the traditional media.

That disparity in coverage illustrates a basic difference between the traditional media's more hierarchical structure and the online world's self-motivating communities of interest.

More mainstream media editors must weigh an event or issue against the day's other news when allocating resources and space, often creating a substantial threshold for stories to gain prominence. In the blogosphere, on the other hand, any event tied to an issue that mobilizes a segment of the social media universe can quickly gain attention and dominate the conversation.

A series of state decisions on Gay marriage-a subject that stirs great passion and interest for some news consumers-speaks to this phenomenon.

Another component to the online discussion is how the debate breaks down. For the most part, the initiatives approving gay marriage sparked more response from supporters who cheered on the movement. The notable exception is the Prejean episode which generated more commentary from opponents who praised her for standing up for her beliefs.

Last week however, was the first one in which the conversation was quite mixed, with both supporters and opponents of same sex marriage contributing to the debate.

From May 25-29, the debate over the Prop 8 ruling overshadowed a number of other subjects. No. 2 in the blogosphere (at 19% of the links) was a discussion of health care triggered by news of a possible new sales tax to fund it. The No. 3 story in social media (12%) was the nomination of the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor-a subject that topped the mainstream news agenda. That was followed by Obama's announced intention to appoint a cyber security czar (8%) and the North Korean nuclear test (5%).

PEJ's New Media Index typically utilizes data collected from two different Web tracking sites, Icerocket and Technorati. However, Technorati has been having technical problems so this week's NMI is based solely on daily figures from Icerocket.

Ruling on Prop 8 Triggers the Online Debate