“News, Race, and the Status Quo”

Posting will continue to be sporadic over the next month, as I continue to juggle about six different deadlines, in addition to all the stuff that goes along with the start of the school year. But in the midst of this it was nice to hear from some of my old colleagues about a paper we put together while I was still a student at the University of Washington. It was presented at a conference, and I thought it was an interesting paper, but I had pretty much forgotten about it.

Nice thing about historical work, as opposed to web-related research, is that it actually has a little bit of a shelf-life. After some massaging by the lead authors, it was recently published in the Howard Journal of Communications. I’m still not used to the idea of articles with seven different authors–almost feels like a hard-science citation!–but thanks to some good management and a bunch of very easy-to-work with folks, it was a rewarding, learning experience. The paper also speaks, I think, to the degree to which the status quo is maintained and frames discussions of race in contemporary contexts.

Some details:

Spratt, M., Bullock, C.F., Baldasty, G., Clark, F., Halavais, A., McCluskey, M., & Schrenk, S. (2007). News, Race, and the Status Quo: The Case of Emmett Louis Till. Howard Journal of Communications, 18(2).

Using inductive and deductive framing analysis, the authors examine how 4 newspapers covered a key event sparking the civil rights movement – the 1955 murder of Emmett Till – in an effort to gauge how the press covers events that are part of larger social ferment. The Daily Sentinel-Star (Grenada, Mississippi), Greenwood Commonwealth (Mississippi), Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Defender varied in intensity of coverage, use of sources, and attention to crime news and, as a result, framed the story differently. The African American Defender defended Emmett Till’s reputation, focused on larger issues of civil rights, and provided a clear argument for social reform. The 3 mainstream dailies defined the case primarily as one in which the victim invited his own death; they provided little or no support for reform. In this case, an advocate press seemed better able to give voice to those who challenged an entrenched status quo. By examining initial coverage of the Till case, we can better understand the news reporting traditions and devices that shaped (and continue to shape) narratives about the struggle for racial equality and justice.

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