Newspaper portrayals of celebrity suicide: Examining coverage of Robin Williams

The suicide of Robin Williams shocked his fans around the world. His depression and history of addiction, though not uncommon to celebrity biopics or news of suicide, did not pair with the Williams we thought we knew. We have a relationship with Williams through the characters he portrayed in film, from the Genie in Aladdin to a man who literally healed through humor in Patch Adams. Though roles for an actor, they become a public persona – one that we don’t associate with depression and suicide.

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icaPresented May 23, 2015 at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, San Juan, P.R., Journalism Studies division. Information about accessing this paper and associated materials available here, or by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

The suicide of Robin Williams shocked his fans around the world. His depression and history of addiction, though not uncommon to celebrity biopics or news of suicide, did not pair with the Williams we thought we knew. We have a relationship with Williams through the characters he portrayed in film, from the Genie in Aladdin to a man who literally healed through humor in Patch Adams. Though roles for an actor, they become a public persona – one that we don’t associate with depression and suicide.

Research on media coverage of suicide mostly deals with the risk of imitation, what has been referred to as the Werther effect. Celebrity suicide, in particular, increases the amount and prominence of coverage, and the parasocial relationships fans have with those celebrities might exacerbate imitation.

Numerous advocacy organizations issue guidelines for journalists covering suicides, suggesting that the content of the story, and not simply the subject, may be at fault. However, this assumption turns out to be woefully under-investigated. What we do know is that media –both in news and entertainment – have a less than stellar track record of accurately representing people with mental illnesses. They are depicted as being disproportionately dangerous, and their identity is rarely examined beyond their illness.

The Williams suicide presented a unique case study to look at how the story of a prominent celebrity suicide was told through the media. This particular study considered coverage from the 20 highest circulation newspapers in the U.S., including tabloids, over the week immediately following Williams’ death. It looked at the types of sources and content used in articles, as well as how prominent those articles were in the newspaper. Findings were then compared to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for reporting on suicide and existing literature on media stigmatization of mental illness.

The degree of detail needed for this type of study required some intensive work on the part of our coders. The team analyzed almost 6,000 individual sentences within 174 stories that cited over 550 sources. If you’re one for reliability statistics and methodology, drop me a line and I’d be glad the details of achieving reliability with so many moving parts.

Among the Findings:

– The suicide was largely told through the lens of Williams’ celebrity – his career and reaction from fellow movie stars – rather than focusing on issues of mental health.

– Coverage became less celebrity-oriented as time passed, but the frequency and prominence of articles also declined considerably, meaning that while coverage became more substantive, it also became harder to find.

– While medical experts weren’t widely cited, they were relied upon for most health-related information. Only twice was sourcing problematic. Medical sources were lacking in articles regarding addiction and speculating as to possible reasons for suicide.

– Tabloids were behind most WHO guidelines violations. They were far more likely than traditional newspapers to speculate about external “triggers” for the suicide. These “reasons” were almost always attributed to celebrities or friends of Williams, oftentimes anonymously. Tabloids also described the suicide in the most graphic detail – something that, aside from taste, is thought to increase imitation. This New York Daily News cover pretty well sums up the problems with tabloid coverage:

hanged

Overall, print coverage of the suicide departed from stigmatizing presentations. As a result of Williams’ stature, he was not a faceless victim; rather, his identity was explored rather deeply. Aside from the tabloids, attempts to link the suicide to some “trigger” event were rare, and suicide as a form of escape was not promoted, despite that message being circulated by some very prominent sources. Most impressively, the stigma that people with mental illness were dangerous did not appear a single time in almost 6,000 sentences analyzed. This was especially surprising when drugs and alcohol entered the discussion.

However, there was still room for improvement. It took time for a medical angle to emerge and for medical experts to appear as sources. That leaves room for unwarranted speculation in the immediate aftermath, when audience attention is at its highest. Print coverage also appeared to miss an opportunity to talk about depression, addiction, and suicide in a more general context. Such extrapolation was isolated.

The real question is whether coverage was unique to the uniqueness of its subject. Is the press getting better at explaining mental illness, or was coverage more delicate because of the beloved actor who made us all laugh? Future research will tell us more, though we hope it is a long time before a context for investigation presents itself again.

This research was conducted by the University of Alabama Health Communication Lab, a part of the College of Communication and Information Sciences. McLemore served as the lead researcher for this study.

Institutional Isomorphism and the Community Structure Approach in Visual Framing of the Trayvon Martin Shooting

jpcover#ICantBreathe. #BlackLivesMatter. #Ferguson. One does not have to look far lately to find prominent discussions of race and social justice. You could argue that the present movement began in 2012, with the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. I looked at how elite and local newspapers covered the shooting and its aftermath, specifically in terms of the images used to represent the story.

I wrote more about the findings back in May, when an earlier version of the paper was presented at the International Communication Association annual conference in Seattle.

The article has now been published in Journalism Practice. You can access it here.

 

The published version provided a chance to think a great deal more about sociological explanations for news framing. In particular, it argues that institutional isomorphism offers a well-developed, multidisciplinary theoretical framework in which intermedia agenda setting can be positioned and strengthened. From a theory-building standpoint, the Martin shooting left something to be desired, but nevertheless demonstrated the functionality of the approach. I’m hoping to replicate the design in the future.

As a heavily quantitative media effects guy, this project began outside of my comfort zone. But I’m glad I was encouraged to follow it through to publication. It made the process of mass communication become that much bigger – thinking not just about the sender and receiver, but about the entire ecosystem surrounding them. And for that, I owe Wilson Lowrey a great deal of gratitude. He (and the tremendous number of books and articles he recommended) stretched me as a scholar, and made my approach more well-rounded as a result. Truly the sort of experience doctoral programs are meant to foster.

Access the full article.

Institutional Isomorphism and the Community Structure Approach in Visual Framing of the Trayvon Martin Shooting

icaPresented May 25, 2014 at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, Seattle, Wash., Journalism Studies division.

To request the accompanying visual aids for this paper, email Dylan.

To read the abstract, go to the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

UPDATE: This conference paper has since been published.
DOI: 10.1080/17512786.2014.988993

 

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.

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

aejmc

Presented August 10, 2013 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Washington, D.C., Political Communication Interest Group.

This paper was previously presented at the 2013 AEJMC Southeast Colloquium in Tampa, Fla., where it received the Top Paper Award for the Electronic News Division. AEJMC permits re-submission of regional papers to the national conference.

To request the accompanying poster for this paper, 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 (presently in the data collection phase). We extend our thanks to the reviewers, moderator, and discussant for taking the time to read our paper and provide valuable feedback.

“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.

Rolling Stone cover of alleged Boston bomber sparks controversy – Framing villains and violence

Social media went nuts Wednesday, when Rolling Stone released its latest issue, the cover featuring alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Rolling Stone Tsarnaev

As the day wore on, major pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid all announced they would not carry the issue. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote a letter to the magazine’s publisher condemning the glorification of terrorists and wondering why first responders and survivors didn’t make the cover.

The cover refers to Tsarnaev as “The Bomber,” though he pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. The photo is from Tsarnaev’s Twitter account, and – let’s face it – could have just as easily been the face of a young pop star gracing the music magazine.

Surely that must be the reason for our collective outrage – Tsarnaev doesn’t look like the bad guy here, though the cover text goes on to say he “fell into radical Islam and became a monster.” But even that phrasing, “fell into,” refers to a narrative that has existed since the day a major American city was completely shut down until Dzhokhar was found bleeding in a boat – he was the sheep that wandered into older brother Tamerlan’s sadistic plans. Dzhokhar was to be admired before his fall. He “became a monster”; we remember his humanity. (Though the article makes it pretty clear “The Bomber” is no hero to be celebrated.)

But Boston remembers humanity as well. The three killed at the marathon; the MIT police officer killed in the lead-up to the massive manhunt; the 280 injured between the two events. In the days following the bombing, newspapers and television newscasts were filled with graphic images of victims clutching soon-to-be-amputated limbs along blood-soaked sidewalks. Seeing one of the two men responsible for that carnage on the cover of a national publication is going to stir some raw emotions.

Except it didn’t in May, just three weeks after the bombing, when the New York Times ran the exact same photograph on their front page to promote a similar profile story.

Continue reading “Rolling Stone cover of alleged Boston bomber sparks controversy – Framing villains and violence”

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.