Presented May 25, 2014 at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, Seattle, Wash., Journalism Studies division.
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To read the abstract, go to the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.
UPDATE: This conference paper has since been published.
The Trayvon Martin shooting and the legal (in)actions that followed, became perhaps the first major American news story of 2012. Narratives surrounding Martin and George Zimmerman widely varied, as did the images available to depict them. There’s a big difference between Zimmerman in an orange prison jumpsuit (for an unrelated charge for which he was never tried) and Zimmerman smiling in a suit and tie. Images of Martin depicted a boy much younger than the 17-year-old involved in the incident. Given the impact of imagery on the framing of a news story, this study considered competing explanations for why editors from newspapers serving racially distinct communities may have selected particular photographs to represent Martin and Zimmerman in their coverage. The method specifically sought to measure institutional isomorphism – a field-level homogeneity fed by stabilization and risk-reduction – and the community structure approach – variances at the local level based on the demographics of the market.
Among the findings:
– The story was far more likely to be depicted visually with images of or relating to Martin in the sample period (Feb. 27-Apr 27, 2012, or, from the day after the shooting to four days after Zimmerman’s not guilty plea in court).
– These depictions of or relating to Martin were overwhelmingly positive, while portrayals of Zimmerman were neutral-to-negative. Image valence held true across publications.
– Images of Martin himself quickly gave way to images of his family, and supportive demonstrators around the country. This initial spike of intense visual framing toward Martin diminished over time, and an increase in images of Zimmerman became apparent as he made more public appearances. Once again, these trends were consistent across publications.
What does it mean?
The findings observe a fairly homogenous media depiction of the Martin shooting. This is indicative of institutional isomorphism, though clear evidence of mimetic inter-media agenda setting was not identified. The results may be better explained by normative isomorphism, as media outlets quickly moved away from images captured outside of the context of the story. The apparent strength of journalistic norms in the face of a story that presented so many salacious angles offers some comfort to those concerned with the profit motive of the press affecting editorial decisions.
No support was found for the community structure approach. Despite the availability of images that portrayed Martin and Zimmerman in starkly different ways, newspapers serving predominately Black, Hispanic, and White communities employed similar presentations. Across the board, Martin was portrayed more frequently and more positively than Zimmerman, though Zimmerman’s legal battles seemed to be developing more frequent and nuanced coverage, a trend that should be followed beyond the sample in this particular study for a fuller understanding.
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