Pointing the Finger of Blame: News Media Coverage of Popular-Culture Culpability

By Scharrer, Erica; Weidman, Lisa M. et al. | Journalism and Communication Monographs, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Pointing the Finger of Blame: News Media Coverage of Popular-Culture Culpability


Scharrer, Erica, Weidman, Lisa M., Bissell, Kimberly L., Journalism and Communication Monographs


Abstract

In the 1990s, three relatively high-profile tragedies occurred in which popular media products (including movies, recorded music, television talk shows, the Internet, tabloid newspapers, and video games) were argued to be the primary cause. This study analyzes the discourse surrounding the culpability that was placed on popular culture in major newspaper coverage of the car crash that killed Princess Diana, the murder associated with the "Jenny Jones" show, and the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The analysis reveals patterns in the assignment of blame-and relatively more rarely of exoneration-of popular culture, interpreting why and how popular culture was targeted as a cause of the tragedies.

Throughout the twentieth century, certain segments of U.S. society have blamed the products of popular culture for lowering moral standards and inciting "had" behavior. After World War I, for example, many blamed movies for bringing the "loose morals" of Europe to America, resulting in women taking up smoking and wearing dresses that exposed their calves. In the 1950s, parents worried that doo-wop and rock and roll would provoke sexual promiscuity in their teenage sons and daughters. And in the 1980s, a group of concerned parents known as the PMRC labeled the music of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Motley Crue, and others as a "contributing factor" in teen pregnancy and suicide (Sheinfeld, 1986).

In the 1990s, popular media products (including movies, recorded music, television talk shows, the Internet, tabloid newspapers, and video games) were blamed, at least in part, for a number of high-profile tragedies. Among these were the car crash that killed Princess Diana, the murder associated with the "Jenny Jones" show, and the shootings at several high schools in the United States, including the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In news coverage of these tragedies, the mainstream news media seemed to lead the charge against their popular brethren by unabashedly reporting on, if not initiating, the finger-pointing.

This study explores how and why the news media came to assign blame to products of popular culture in coverage of the three recent high-profile tragedies mentioned above. We chose these three events because we see them as variations on a theme: well-publicized, wide-reaching events in which a tragedy occurred that involved popular media in some way and in which a large component of the news discourse that followed involved the blaming of popular media for the tragedies. We argue that the ways in which the "elite" news media covered these events were not isolated or unique but rather exemplified widely held assumptions, common practices, and consistent perspectives regarding news, popular media, and audiences. We see the analysis of three cases, rather than only one, as compelling evidence of the universality of the themes we raise.

Through case studies based on qualitative content analysis of English-language newspaper coverage of these three events, we will answer the following questions:

RQ1: How did the reporting of each story-Princess Diana's death, the "Jenny Jones" talk show murder, and the Columbine High School shootings-evolve over time?

RQ2: At what point in news coverage of each story did popular-culture culpability arise, and from what source(s) did the blame originate?

RQ3: In news coverage of each story, how were products of popular culture such as video games, the Internet, the paparazzi, and talk shows blamed for each tragedy?

RQ4: How might we explain the news media placing the blame on popular culture?

After presenting the case studies, we employ several theoretical frameworks to discuss why popular-culture products, and occasionally their producers, were blamed for these tragic events. Our goal is not to exonerate popular-culture products or their producers but to understand how and why they were implicated in news coverage of the tragedies. …

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