Mainstream Media: Does It Affect Our Political Claims-Making?

Social scientists have long argued that mainstream media set the political agenda. It is not clear, however, if mass media affects how individuals make their claims. To explore this issue, myself, Christian Vaccaro, Miriam Sessions, and Heather Mauney, analyzed 2,509 emails sent to Jeb Bush about the Terri Schiavo case.

If you don’t remember the case, here is the overview:

Schiavo, who collapsed in 1990 as the result of unknown causes, became a touchstone for national debate in 2000 when a Pinellas County court granted her husband permission to withdrawal her hydration and nutrition. Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, opposed the decision and turned to the political system for recourse. With the help of conservative, Christian organizations, the Schindlers’ took to the airwaves and successfully organized a vigil outside of Terri’s hospice. Additionally, conservative Christian groups presented Bush a petition with 180,000 signatures asking him to prevent Schiavo’s death so that the Schindlers could try to get legal custody of their daughter. Their plea did not fall on deaf ears. At Jeb Bush’s urging the Florida legislature passed “Terri’s Law,” which allowed the governor to reinstate Schiavo’s hydration and nutrition; a move later deemed unconstitutional by the Florida State Supreme Court.

In the wake of the ruling, Judge Greer set the date for the removal of Schiavo’s hydration and nutrition in March. This spurred another wave of legislative activity in Florida and on Capitol Hill. The Florida legislature considered a bill that would make removing hydration and nutrition from an individual in a persistent vegetative state illegal without a living will. The bill was narrowly defeated in the Florida Senate, 21 to 18, twice in the month of March. The U.S. Congress also got involved. On March 17, 2005, Senators Bill First and Michael Enzi subpoenaed Terri Schiavo to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. While the Senators did not expect Schiavo to testify, the move extended witness protection to Terri and prohibited the removal of her hydration and nutrition. When Judge Greer struck down the subpoena, the US Congress quickly passed “Terri’s Law II” allowing Schiavo’s case to be moved from the state to a federal court; a bill which President George W. Bush signed into law. The Schindlers’ immediately requested an emergency injunction in the U.S. District Court and asked for the reinstatement of Terri’s hydration and nutrition. The request was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case and to grant certiorari. Schiavo passed away on March 31, 2005.

Terri Schiavo became a touchstone for national and international debate. Thousands of news stories and opinion pieces discussed her medical diagnosis (a persistent vegetative state) and staked out the positions on whether she should be kept alive or permitted to “die with dignity.” Likewise, during 2004 and 2005, more than 250,000 emails were sent to Florida governor, Jeb Bush, regarding the matter. We analyzed 1% of the emails sent to Jeb Bush (N = 2,509) as well as 1,182 news stories and editorials appearing in local and regional newspapers across the country. A list of ideas (or frames) that we looked for in the emails and news stories is here:

Ideas (Frames) We Coded for in the Sample

Legal Frame: Discusses the implications of the Schiavo case to individual rights and/or the legal system.

Medical Frame: Discusses Terri’s diagnosis, condition, and/or treatments.

Political Frame: Discusses political issues and interventions or their implications for government, governing, or political parties.

Death with Dignity Frame: Argues that terminally ill, mentally competent adults have the right to choose the time, place, and circumstances of their death.

Disability Frame: Discusses the rights and interests of persons with disability or how persons with disabilities are treated in the U.S.

Right to Life Frame: Argues that society has a moral obligation to intervene and protect life from natural birth to natural death.

What did we find?

In newspapers, the legal, medical, death with dignity, and political frames were discussed most often (mentioned in at least 51% of the stories), while the religious and right to life frames were discussed the least often (mentioned in less than 10% of the stories). Individual use of the legal and political frames were similar to that of mass media insofar as individuals picked up on a larger political debate among Republicans and deploy it in their own claims-making. Social conservatives argued that Jeb Bush should intervene and ensure that the Schindlers received legal custody of Terri. Fiscal conservatives disagreed. They wanted Bush to quit abusing his political power and stay out of Schiavo case.

However, the pattern of individual claims-makings didn’t always line up with that of newspapers.
* The right to life frame is prominent in individual claims-making but receives very little media attention. A closer analysis of the emails shows that the prominence of this frame is almost completely explained by a social movement campaign. In May 2004, the pro-life group Operation Rescue with the help of Randall Terry, the former Operation Rescue president who lived in Florida, organized an email campaign to thank Jeb Bush for his efforts to save Terri. More than 35,000 individuals participated in the campaign, which explicitly referenced the right to life frame in the group’s proffered text. The email read, “Thanks for standing up for Terri Schiavo’s right to live. And thanks for having the courage to appeal her case to a higher court. And thanks for valuing human life.” While many participants introduced additional frames in their claims-making, the email campaign is responsible for the predominance of the right to life frame in the email sample.

* Individuals rarely included the death with dignity frame in their emails; a frame which appeared in 57% of the news stories. One explanation for the limited discussion of this frame by individuals is the absence of organizations (or individuals) visibly championing the idea in broader culture. As seen above, the presence of an interested actor with a clear message and goal can shape the content of individual claims-making – at least in the short term. We did find support for this interpretation. We noticed that Compassion & Choices, which specifically advocates that individuals with terminal illness should be allowed to die with dignity, did not publish or put out an official statement on the Schiavo case. This was surprising given the prominence of such an argument in media accounts. We contacted the group for an explanation and learned that the organization decided that the Schiavo case was “too controversial” since Terri’s end of life wishes were unclear. The spokesperson explained that the group focused on the importance of individuals’ communicating their end-of-life wishes for their loved ones. In short, Compassion & Choices distanced itself from the death with dignity frame and urged individuals to engage in personal – rather collective – action, which reduced the utility of the frame in individual claims-making around the Schiavo case. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to Compassion & Choices’ recent campaign with Brittany Maynard in which the organization actively pushed for legislation allowing individuals to die with dignity.

* The medical frame is mentioned in 70% of the media stories, but only 13% of individuals discussed it in their emails. Not surprisingly, mainstream media professionals, who rely on institutional sources for the news of the day looked to medical experts to assess Schiavo’s diagnosis and prognosis; both of which were controversial. Individuals without medical expertise likely found these debates difficult to follow and avoided medical arguments when it came to their own claims-making. Complex frames that require a specific skill set to leverage effectively, in other words, get media attention but are discussed by individuals at relatively low rates.

Frequency of Ideas (Frames) Mentioned in Mainstream Newspapers

% of mentions in the sample # of mentions in the sample

Death with Dignity 57% 673
Disability 21% 250
Right to Life 7% 102
Religious 3% 32
Legal 79% 930
Medical 70% 823
Political 51% 644

Total # of Frames = 3,454
Total # of Stories = 1,182

Note: Percentages do not equal 100% because typically more than one frame was discussed in the media story. The percentages reflect the frequency of each frame in the total number of media stories.

Percentage of Frames Used to Support and Oppose Intervention in Emails to Bush

Support Intervention Oppose Intervention
(N of emailers = 1,533) (N of emailers = 976) Total N
Death with Dignity 24% 74% 315
Disability 91% 7% 407
Right to Life 91% 7% 631
Religious 63% 35% 211
Legal 74% 24% 851
Medical 64% 34% 331
Political 47% 51% 958

Note: Percentages do not equal 100% percent because 2% of the emails either did not mention a frame in their short email (e.g., “Save Terri!”) or the frame fell into the “other” category. Since the emails in the “other” category could not be meaningfully organized, they are excluded here.

Want to learn more?

Read our paper: Rohlinger, Deana, Christian Vaccaro, Miriam Sessions, and Heather Mauney. 2015. “Individual Claims-Making in the Terri Schiavo Case.” Social Currents. Available online (DOI: 10.1177/2329496515603726) and in print soon!

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Why You Should Be Watching ABC’s Blackish

If you missed last night’s season premiere of ABC’s family comedy Black-ish, than this is an oversight you want to correct ASAP.

Last night’s episode reminded me that network TV occasionally produces programs that are thought-provoking and hilarious – a balance not easily achieved.

If you avoided the show because of its content, than you missed insightful (and, yes, funny) dialogue about the use of the N-word in America. Here are just a few issues the show gets you thinking about:

* Generational differences in how words are used. The Johnson family has very different
perspectives on how the N-word should be used – and who can use it. Pops Johnson
(Laurence Fishburne) argues that the term is derogatory, while Dre claims that his
generation has reclaimed it for their own purposes. Not unlike the B-word, Dre
contends that it the N-word can be empowering – a point with which his parents
vigorously disagree. Dre gets caught off guard when his daughter, Zoey, mentions that
(presumably white) boys at school use the term all the time but that they are not
using it in a derogatory way.

* This fits with the second thought-provoking point; what terms should white people
use? In a hilarious meeting at work, Dre debates the N-word with his black
colleagues. When his white colleagues and boss weigh in on the conversation, other
terminology including African-American enter the terminology mix. While the exchange
is very funny, it pinpoints cultural tensions over terminology.

* The episode also points to the role of social status in the use of controversial
words. At the center of the episode is whether young Jack should be expelled for
dropping the N-word during his talent show performance. As Dre points out at the end
of episode, the consequences associated with using language varies dramatically by
social status. Paula Deen drops the N-word and suffers virtually no consequences,
while a child trying to navigate the mixed messages of language is facing expulsion.
This scene is excellent.

As with life, there are no easy answer. But, if you want to laugh and think, this is an episode you really must see.

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The Attack on Planned Parenthood, Why Now?

This week antiabortion advocates gathered in Washington D.C. to urge Congress to defund Planned Parenthood. The controversy ignited this summer when the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released a video that allegedly provides evidence that the organization sells fetal body parts for profit.  Pundits are already predicting that government funding for Planned Parenthood will be at the center of a political maelstrom this fall, and conservatives are voicing their willingness to shut down the government over the issue.

Yes, legal abortion is tied up with partisan politics. But, the question that begs an answer is, why are we seeing these attacks on Planned Parenthood now?

Here’s an answer in a nutshell: Decades of work by the antiabortion movement came to fruition just as the war over whose-rights-matter-more collided with the election cycle.

Read my book, which includes an analysis of Planned Parenthood.

Read my book, which includes an analysis of Planned Parenthood.

Anti-abortion activists have been working to defund Planned Parenthood for decades. American Life League’s STOPP (which stands for Stop Planned Parenthood) was founded in the 1980s and has dedicated itself to delegitimizing the organization and undercutting the group’s public and funding support. Even antiabortion groups that do not particularly care for American Life League’s approach to politics agree that Planned Parenthood is enemy #1, the behemoth standing between them and victory. While there are plenty of hardliners, most antiabortion activists agree that closing Planned Parenthood’s doors would make abortion legal, but almost completely inaccessible. An enormous win for the movement.

Planned Parenthood truly is the thorn in the side of the antiabortion movement. If you don’t follow abortion politics, than you might have missed the antiabortion movement’s election strategy, which focuses on getting opponents of legal abortion elected to offices in every level of government. The results are zoning laws that make it difficult for clinics to set up in cities and Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws that make it very expensive for clinics to operate. Planned Parenthood is among the few that has weathered these attacks decade after decade.

The timing of the “gotcha video,” which allegedly shows a Planned Parenthood big wig selling fetal body parts for profit, was perfectly timed. The Center for Medical Progress hit the media sweet spot, creating a controversy when the news media didn’t have a lot of other political news to cover. Antiabortion groups kept the controversy alive with additional videos, protests around the country, and with a little help from their friends. Republican presidential hopefuls fanned the flame of controversy largely by displaying extreme naiveté about women’s issues and the range (and frequency) of Planned Parenthood’s services. Elected politicians picked up where the hopefuls left off, holding a Congressional hearing last week and scheduling another one for this week. The result is a cascade of media attention, most of it shaking a finger at Planned Parenthood.

The relative silence by Democrats has helped fuel the attacks on Planned Parenthood as well. Over the last year, lots of Democrats have gone silent on the issue of women’s rights. This is, at least in part, a function of a political climate where the rights of women are directly pitted against religious freedom. This is clear in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. After spending decades trying to prove that Democrats support and, even, embrace religious traditions, this is not a fight progressive politicians with (re)election aspirations are looking to have. From their perspective, staying out of the political fray as long as possible is the best course of action.

Of course, with conservatives already threatening to shut down the federal government over the issue their time on the sidelines is almost at an end.

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Interview with Media Activism (hosted by the Annenberg School of Communication)

Read my interview with Rosemary Clark here:

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From Causes to Cars: Reputation Matters!

Double take Sociology:

Check out my new post in Mobilizing Ideas!

Originally posted on Mobilizing Ideas:

By Deana A. Rohlinger

Posted in Flickr Creative Commons by Neil Cooler

We spend a lot of time evaluating reputation. We research the reputation of a manufacturer before buying a car, investigate the reputation of a neighborhood before renting a home, and carefully consider the reputation of an individual before deciding to act on his/her professional advice. Despite the importance of reputation in everyday life, we largely have ignored its influence on the course and outcomes of social movements.

Activist groups mobilizing around a shared, general goal rarely stand as equals, shoulder-to-shoulder, united against an authority. Ultimately, a target decides which group to deal with and a social movement organization’s reputation, or, among other things, the ability of a group to meet the institutional norms of its target, is a critical factor in its decision-making.1

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Are Abortion Politics Still Relevant in America?

Originally posted on Cambridge University Press’s website, Fifteen Eight Four.

If you pay attention to national news, you might be under the impression that the battle over legal abortion is finally winding down.

After all, survey data suggests that the American public doesn’t really see abortion as a pressing political issue and birth control – not abortion – dominated the debate during the mid-term elections.

“Do you think the issue of abortion is a critical issue facing the country, one among many important issues, or not that important compared to other issues?”
2009 2011 2012 2013
A critical issue facing the country 15% 30% 31% 18%
One among many important issues 33% 28% 33% 27%
Not that important compared to other issues 48% 39% 35% 53%
Don’t know/Refused 3% 3% 2% 2%

Data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Religion & Public Life Survey

“Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?”
2011 2012 2014
Support 66% 66% 61%
Oppose 24% 26% 32%
Don’t Know/Refused 10% 8% 7%

Data from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Survey

But is abortion politics really off of the political map?

Not by a long shot.

In my book, Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America, I show when (and why) abortion is on the political agenda as well as how interest groups work publicly – and behind the scenes – to influence how we think about the abortion issue.

Let me highlight some of the reasons that the abortion debate no longer seems to be a national issue.

  • The abortion issue is rarely considered newsworthy at the national level. When I spoke to journalists, editors, and executive producers of national news, it quickly became clear that those who decide what we see (and don’t see) think that the abortion issue is an “old” one that doesn’t merit much attention. Not surprisingly, we often see legal abortion discussed relative to a politician’s position on it. Presidential hopeful Scott Walker’s position on abortion, for example, is getting a great deal of press – at least locally and online.      
  • Interest groups wanting to prohibit abortion increasingly focus on state rather than national politics. Many opponents of legal abortion gave up on overturning Roe v. Wade and, instead, spent the last several decades pushing the limits of what constitutes an “undue burden” on women. To their delight, their efforts to restrict abortion access have been quite successful. Proponents of legal abortion are organizationally weak at the local level and rely on the court system to stymie restrictive policies. So far, this strategy has not worked horribly well.
  • The interest groups that want to credibly weigh in on the abortion debate via national media often lack the reputation to do so. I find that the reputation of an interest group matters a lot in terms of its ability to get – and shape – media attention. Groups that have a strong reputation with national media wield their reputational power carefully. This is, in part, because maintaining a strong reputation requires groups to largely avoid rancorous media debates and work behind the political scenes to shape policy debates. The interest groups that are included in media stories during these moments are largely discredited and marginalized in the coverage. Not surprisingly, rather than shape debates these groups provide additional ammunition for opponents to lob at their political enemies.

The battle over legal abortion is ongoing in the United States and there are no signals that an end is in sight. Learn more about abortion politics and how groups use media to affect political change in my book, Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America.

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A Review of Deana A. Rohlinger’s, Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America.

Double take Sociology:

Read Erin’s review of my book on Mobilizing Ideas.

Originally posted on Mobilizing Ideas:

Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America (2015) is Deana A. Rohlinger’s tour de force thus far. The book coalesces her years of research on the abortion debate, social movement organizations, and media discourse in a way that is satisfying and compelling. I was pleased to see so many of the concepts she’s used over the last 10+ years (radical flank, organizational identity vs. reputation, professionalization, branding, etc.) deployed in this book. Finally, we are able to see her extensive data (that includes content analyses of thousands of newspaper, radio, magazine, and television accounts, as well as organizational newsletters, and in-depth interviews with members of the four organizations) used in a comprehensive analysis of a movement in which Rohlinger spent well over a decade of her research career immersed.


As she highlights in the introductory chapter, Rohlinger shifts the conceptual gaze away from examining the power of media…

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