“Evil Visited this Community Today”: News Media Framing of the Sandy Hook School Shooting

aejmcPresented 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.

To request the accompanying tables and figures, email Dylan.

To read the abstract and request the full paper, go to the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

 

SYNOPSIS:

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.

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Covering the Conventions: Bias in Pre and Post-speech Media Commentary during the 2012 Presidential Nominating Conventions

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Presented March 1, 2013 at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium, Tampa, Fla. Electronic News Division, Top Paper Award.

To request the accompanying PowerPoint, email Dylan.

To read the abstract and request the full paper, go to the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

SYNOPSIS:

Party nominating conventions used to be messy and meaningful. Today, they’re more pomp and circumstance. It’s no wonder the broadcast television networks pay far less attention to them now than in decades past. For cable news, on the other hand, the conventions provide fuel – or at least a moving backdrop – to the 24-hour news cycle. And in the pauses between speakers, the talking heads weigh-in with their analysis.

There is a healthy amount of research suggesting that the party nominating conventions can influence voters, as well as a stack of studies that indicate media analysis of political events can influence voters. However, the specific cross-section between conventions and commentary has not been evaluated.

Does instant media commentary affect perceptions of convention speeches? This study lays the foundation for that investigation by looking at how favorably (or unfavorably) different news networks covered the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions.

We looked at a large sample of live convention coverage – all six nights of primetime (10 p.m. E.T.) on the three major broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC) and cable (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) networks. Here’s what we learned:

  • Convention coverage was generally favorable to the host party.
  • Bias was indicated by an exaggeration of this positive commentary, and near absence of negative commentary (for instance, coverage of the DNC on MSNBC was 3% negative; the RNC on Fox News was only 2% negative). In other words, unbalanced coverage was not the result of tearing one side down, but by disproportionately praising the other.
  • The largest differences in valence were observed on Fox News & MSNBC, though some statistical tests revealed evidence of bias in traditional network broadcasts.

We look forward to enriching this study with further data from the content analysis, including potential explanatory mechanisms. Next, we desire to test the effects of such instant media commentary on the audience. We extend our thanks to the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida for hosting the event, and the paper judges for honoring us with the Top Paper Award in the Electronic News Division.