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

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.

“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



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”

Mass layoffs or ‘job notifications’? Advance’s attempt to spin its Deep South newspaper guttings

Six hundred employees at four Deep South newspapers lost their jobs Tuesday, as Advance Publications continues its transition to primarily digital news. The cuts hit newsrooms surprisingly hard, especially in the wake of Advance’s earlier commitment to “significantly increase online news-gathering efforts” and offer “richer” “deeper” “robust” “enhanced printed newspapers on a scheduled of three days a week.”

In May, Advance announced limited print schedules and a revamped online approach for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register, and the Huntsville Times.

[RELATED: Times-Picayune, part of New Orleans culture, scaling back; Alabama papers hit, too]

The Times-Picayune lost 49% of its news staff on Tuesday. The Birmingham News purged 60% of their journalists. In moves that cut roughly one-third of each newspaper’s overall staffing, it would seem that the actual news gatherers were hit disproportionately hard.

Advance promises that a portion of these positions will be refilled, no doubt by less experienced, more affordable reporters. Still, fulfilling the watchdog role of the press is awful tough work when there aren’t capable bodies there to do the groundwork.

And if yesterday’s events were any indication, the NOLA and AL media groups are going to have a lot of trouble covering their respective cities. Just look at how poorly they covered themselves…

Continue reading “Mass layoffs or ‘job notifications’? Advance’s attempt to spin its Deep South newspaper guttings”

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