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

Frames                             % 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

List of                                   Support Intervention                      Oppose Intervention
Frames                               (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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About Double take Sociology

I am a professor of sociology at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. My new book is "Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America" (2015, Cambridge University Press). Be sure to visit my website at www.DeanaRohlinger.com!
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