Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Protecting 1st Amendment? Newspaper Coverage of Hate Speech

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Protecting 1st Amendment? Newspaper Coverage of Hate Speech

Article excerpt

Hate speech tends to be covered as a campus issue with emphasis on speech codes, events and absence of discussion of First Amendment implications.

In the pressures of a free society, the media have ample opportunities to elucidate issues of free expression. Hate speech provides one such opportunity; however, some researchers have argued that journalists seldom place concrete events in the larger context of democratic philosophy.(1) This is particularly ironic given their vested interest in free expression and First Amendment ideals. But the news media do not hold sole interest in free expression - the public also has a stake in maintaining its free-speech rights. In addition to protecting their own turf, then, journalists have a unique opportunity to serve the public need in reporting on First Amendment issues.

Events such as the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the October 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., thrust the issue of hate speech onto the national agenda. Both events were preceded by virulent speech acts. Following the Oklahoma City bombing, news media documented the statements by radio talk show hosts like Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy, who instructed listeners on how to kill federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials, and Chuck Baker, who called for "an armed revolution" against the federal government. News coverage of the Million Man March was dominated by commentary on the appropriateness of participating in an event organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is notorious for his attacks on Jews and whites.

Many researchers hold that the ways that news media frame issues have substantial impact on such things as legitimacy of political groups(2) and the outcome of policy debate.(3) Thus, newspaper coverage of First Amendment issues may provide readers with a context for forming either pro- or anti-regulatory attitudes about certain forms of expression.

In the early 1990s, political correctness hit the media spotlight. The idea of being inclusive and sensitive to others, usually the historically oppressed - and all that that entails, from multiculturalism in university curricula to using non-offensive terminology - spread from university campuses to the media to the general public sphere.(4) Books championing the political correctness movement competed in the marketplace with those from the anti-PC side. At issue was the right to freely express ideas versus the right to the opportunity for equal, or at least fair, treatment.

The inception of political correctness on university campuses spurred media coverage of academe, according to both journalists and scholars. D. Charles Whitney and Ellen Wartella's search of major newspaper indexes found that the term political correctness appeared nearly 4,000 times in 1991, compared to 638 instances in the previous year; however, they did not search for the occurrence of the term university within the same articles? In 1991, mainstream magazines and syndicated columnists focused so much attention on the PC debate as to make it the top story on higher education.(6)

Those who have studied media coverage of political correctness suggest several reasons for the press's fixation on portraying PC as a campus issue.(7) Huntly Collins argued that political correctness became a big story for two reasons: First, university issues became more complicated and budget-centered, and academic research became more esoteric, fueling anti-intellectualism in the popular press.(8) The second reason is economic: As readership declined, newspapers found political correctness on campus as a way to sensationalize often-mundane academic coverage by playing on the "deepest fears of white, middle-class Americans - the very segment of the population that [they] must attract if they are to remain economically viable."(9) Increasing pressures to diversify the journalistic workforce itself may have indirectly caused threatened editors to play up the political correctness debate? …

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