Mass Media and the Death Penalty: Social Construction of Three Nebraska Executions

By Lipschultz, Jeremy H.; Hilt, Michael L. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Mass Media and the Death Penalty: Social Construction of Three Nebraska Executions


Lipschultz, Jeremy H., Hilt, Michael L., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


On Friday, September 2, 1994, Harold Lamont "Walkin' Willie" Otey died in Nebraska's electric chair. Otey was one of 31 death row inmates nationwide to be executed in 1994. At 12:40 a.m. the Associated Press sent this bulletin to its Nebraska broadcast affiliates: "Harold Lamont Otey died in the electric chair early Friday for the rape and murder of a woman 17 years ago. It was the first Nebraska execution in 35 years."(1) In the urgent that followed seconds later, the state newswire added that Otey was the first to die in Nebraska's electric chair since Charles Starkweather was executed in 1959.

On Wednesday, July 17, 1996, the death penalty was enforced upon John Joubert. At 12:29 a.m. the Associated Press sent to its Nebraska broadcast affiliates: "John Joubert was put to death in Nebraska's electric chair for butchering two boys in an Omaha suburb 13 years ago" (Howard, 1996).

On Tuesday, December 2, 1997, Robert E. Williams died in the electric chair. Long before the execution, he had confessed to murdering three women during a three-day crime spree in 1977. Associated Press reporter Robynn Tysver wrote: "His execution was the first daytime execution and the first to be witnessed by a victim's relative in Nebraska since the state resumed carrying out the death penalty in 1994 (Tysver, 1997)."

This study analyzes the coverage of the executions of Otey, Joubert, and Williams by four Omaha, Nebraska television stations -- three of which covered the scenes live outside the Nebraska State Penitentiary during the scheduled time of execution. The purpose of this examination of the videotaped coverage of these executions -- for source selection and news organization routines, consonance of coverage, use of symbols as cultural meanings - is to better understand the role of local TV news in influencing public opinion.

We propose that local television coverage of an execution scene is a social construction of reality, shaped by the social conflict of symbols, actors, and meanings, and influenced by journalistic-decision making that tends to create a consonant view among mass media.

The death penalty in general, and execution by electric chair in particular, produces a difficult set of circumstances for local television news reporters. On the one hand, media are called upon to cover and even to treat as normal death penalty procedures of the state. On the other, electric chair executions are viewed by many as inhumane and painful death (Freedburg, 1997). Invented 100 years ago, the electric chair was originally seen "as a quick and painless execution method after witnesses were shocked by hangings that went awry" (Freedburg, 1997, A1). However, a botched electric chair execution in Florida in 1997 added to the debate over whether the chair in states where it is mandated should be replaced by lethal injection (Clary, 1997).

This study comes at an important time in the nation's history. The Williams execution in 1997 was one of 74 across the country, more than in any of the past 42 years (Carelli, 1997), and the most since the age of television.

Gitlin (1980) pointed out almost two decades ago that television is a magnifying glass for American society. On live television, "visual simultaneity provides a dimension of experience that is like being transported to the scene" (Lang & Lang, 1984, p. 26). From the perspective of social construction of reality, the three Nebraska executions may have been assumed to be better than "being there" (Lang & Lang, 1984).

These three executions provide a particularly clear window into the nature of local television news. On the nights Otey and Joubert were executed, Omaha, Nebraska television stations portrayed the social conflict between supporters and opponents of capital punishment and emphasized the death penalty as appropriate justice. While much has been written about the justice and injustice of capital punishment, little has been written about the role that news organizations play in public perception of the death penalty.

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Mass Media and the Death Penalty: Social Construction of Three Nebraska Executions
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