Presented August 8, 2013 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Washington, D.C., Newspaper and Online News Division.
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On December 14, 2012, Adam P. Lanza shot and killed 20 children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., in the deadliest grade school shooting in American history. Media coverage of the tragedy was swift and extensive. Naturally, grief gave way to the question – How could this have happened? A content analysis of seven U.S. newspapers looked at the way the Sandy Hook shooting was framed and how problem definitions emerged in the week following the incident.
The seven papers were The Hartford Courant, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The St. Louis Post Dispatch and The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Articles were coded for topical frame, presence of blame, valence, and source of information.
In the case of Sandy Hook, the death of so many children, all seven years of age or younger, presented a dramatic frame not present in many other prominent massacres. As such, stories were often framed in terms of the victims, and were overwhelmingly positive – celebrating the lives lived rather than lamenting the lives lost.
Guns emerged as the most prominent problem definition, or “blame frame.” Already an institutionalized frame for examining shootings like Columbine and Aurora, the frame was propelled by major political figures, including President Barack Obama and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who advocated gun control in the wake of the shooting.
Discussion of mental health was also prevalent in the coverage, and a specific point of interest for us. Many recent mass shootings, including Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora, have been carried out by individuals with a mental illness. However, confirming diagnoses often lag far behind media speculation. A considerable number of stories mentioned that Lanza had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Autism is a neurological disorder, not a mental illness, and would not have been responsible for the type of premeditated violence perpetrated at Sandy Hook. Still, Lanza’s mental health remained a topic of speculation in the media.
Even more troubling was the sourcing of the mental illness frame. Rather than relying on experts in the field, three-quarters of mental illness frames relied on members of the communities, victims’ families, or similar laypersons. Sourcing for other frames made more sense. Political figures involved in the debate informed the gun control frame, educators and law enforcement informed the school security frame, and community members informed the victim frame.
A long-held criticism of the press is that it is insensitive to victims of tragedy, immediately trying to move the story forward. That criticism was not validated by the present study. Only two stories from the first day of coverage invoked blame, increasing to about a third of stories on day two. By day three, attributing blame became a focus of media coverage, accounting for more than half of frames over the rest of the week.
We look forward to refining our methodology and exploring coverage of events that capture national attention. We extend our thanks to the reviewers, moderator, and discussant for taking the time to read our paper and provide valuable feedback.