Frame and Blame: An Analysis of How National and Local Newspapers Framed the Jena Six Controversy

Article excerpt

This study analyzed local and national newspapers to determine how each framed the Jena Six controversy and to determine if either broke from traditional episodic coverage in framing crime and African Americans. Local papers more frequently put a human face on the issue, while national papers more frequently framed it as a moral wrong. However, unlike previous studies, this analysis found that both local and national papers used more thematic than episodic coverage, suggesting that sometimes the circumstances surrounding a crime can be so egregious that societal factors must be included in coverage.

The events surrounding the Jena Six controversy started in Jena, Louisiana, in August 2006 when a black student asked at a high school assembly if he could sit under the "white tree," so dubbed because it had heretofore been perceived largely as the domain of white students. The principal said the student could sit anywhere he would like. Shortly thereafter, nooses were hung from the branches of the tree. The three white teens who hung the nooses were suspended from school after the school board as administrators believed the students' claim that the incident was a prank inspired by a scene in the television mini-series, "Lonesome Dove."

The decision sparked a series of conflicts between blacks and whites during the year that followed, with the most severe punishments being given to African Americans. Most notably, several white teens struck a black student with bottles at a park, but only one was charged, with simple battery. The next day, a white man brandished a shotgun at a group of black teens who wrestled the gun away from him. The gunman was not charged, but the boys were charged with theft for taking his gun.2 On December 4, six black students attacked white student Justin Barker, kicking him in the head as he lay unconscious. Though Barker was well enough to attend a school ring ceremony later that evening, the black students - the "Jena Six" - were charged with attempted murder.3 In September 2007, more than 20,000 people swarmed the small Louisiana town to protest a double standard they say harkened back to the worst days of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.4

Several studies have found that the media frame African Americans negatively, often casting them as guilty in cases involving violent crime.5 These negative portrayals have real-world consequences. The black criminal stereotype is a pervasive view born from marrying traditional media frames of black criminal pathology with schémas that build on existing white fears and biases against African Americans.6 Those harboring this largely media-created belief are more likely to espouse suffer sentences, including the death penalty, for black defendants.7 Research, however, has rarely addressed the role media can play in ameliorating stereotypes, especially when journalists break from traditional racial frames. People would say that an independent press does not have a responsibility to do this, but the media frame issues whether they mean to or not. This research examines newspaper coverage of the Jena Six, beginning from a theoretical perspective that the news media can be an agent of social responsibility. This view holds that, operating from a privileged position in a democracy, the media are tasked with being the voice of reason, providing clarity and explanation beyond the reasoning of an average citizen.8 More important, as the lens through which an increasing percentage of Americans see and understand issues of race,9 the media must provide a complete view of incidents like the Jena Six in order to understand the media's role in influencing the public's perceived link between race and crime.

Theoretical Contribution to Framing Analysis. Entman defined framing as the media's way of taking some perceived reality and highlighting some aspect, "in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and /or treatment recommendation. …