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News Media and Social Problems

film strip of news media

Lane Kirkland Gillespie

Dr. Lane Kirkland Gillespie earned a Ph.D. in Criminology from the University of South Florida in 2013 and joined the faculty of the Department of Criminal Justice at Boise State University later that year. Dr. Gillespie’s research focuses on violence and victimization, including intimate partner violence, the relationship between gender and crime, rural crime and justice, and the role of the victim in criminal justice processes (e.g., capital sentencing). She teaches courses in her areas of research interest, as well as research methodology.

News media has been pushed front and center in the national debate. However, long before the 2016 election season researchers have been interested in media and its influence in society. There are a host of topics that the public learns about through media, and specifically through news media. Traditionally, news media has referred to local, state, and national news outlets –historically, print news – however, with the evolution of news mediums and rise of partisan news programming, news media and their analyses have evolved. Examinations of news media today often include assessments of televised news, Twitter, Facebook, and exclusively online news media content. However, studies of local and state newspaper content remain prominent as a means of examining localized understanding of social problems. So, what are social problems?


image of child watching tv

On October 27, Dr. Gillespie will present Examining the Portrayal of Femicide in the News through Content Analysis on the campus of Boise State University. Her presentation is part of the Politics and Policy Series presented by the Idaho Center for History and Politics. It will take place at noon in the Bergquist Lounge of the Student Union.

There is no singular, unified definition of a social problem; as discussed by Scott Harris, defining social problems objectively would result in something along the lines of “conditions or behaviors that have harmful effects on large numbers of people”. However, consensus on the definition of harmful and large number may pose a challenge. Thus, the study of social problems in social science research often leans toward a constructionist definition; again according to Harris, “people decide what is and is not a social problem by the way they react to things. Human beings create or construct social problems when they give particular meaning or “spin” to potentially troublesome conditions.” There are many social problems related to crime and criminal justice. And, much of what the public learns about crime and criminal justice is informed by news media.

As such there has long been interest in understanding how the public may identify and understand crime-related social problems through news media. One way of exploring the public’s understanding of crime is through content analysis. Content analysis includes examining data (often text) and linking codes to words, passages, images, etc. within the data in order to explore patterns. Content analysis may include examination of manifest and/or latent content. Manifest content are elements that are physically present and identifiable (more objective), whereas latent content refers to more subjective (though with justification/evidence) interpretations of meaning based on manifest content. In newspaper stories, for instance, a researcher may identify certain words (manifest content) and use configurations of words to make assessments about the tone of a story (latent content). Frame analysis is a form of content analysis with particular relevance to studies of news media coverage of potential social problems.


News media frames are prepackaged social constructions that function as fully developed templates for understanding social phenomena. News media frames are prepackaged social constructions that function as fully developed templates for understanding social phenomena; frames are often shaped by sources, word choice or language, and context. The convergence of these components in news coverage of domestic violence (or any other social problem) may convey a specific understanding of the issue. Crime can be framed in more than one way, as illustrated by the variety of crime media frames and frames specific to domestic violence.

Common crime media frames that move beyond “just the facts” include blaming the crime event on a faulty criminal justice system, suggesting structural-level opportunity roadblocks experienced by the victim or offender, social or moral breakdown that may have contributed to the crime event, institutional racism, and blaming the media’s focus on violence. Frames identified in the domestic violence media literature evince some variation from these traditional crime frames: blaming the victim and/or minimizing the perpetrator’s blame, normalizing the event as commonplace, treating the incident as an isolated event, emphasizing unique aspects of the victim, perpetrator, and/or situation that are different from the norm, and asserting that perpetrators should be easily identifiable. In the context of domestic violence, the commonplace and isolated incident frames are often similar to the “just the facts” frame, providing little context for domestic violence. Further, research on domestic homicide has indicated a duality in news coverage, whereby the majority of stories do not define the event as domestic violence; but a minority does. Thus, both common/general media crime frames and domestic violence frames may be employed in news coverage of domestic violence.

Let’s return briefly to Harris, who wrote, “It is the process of calling attention to a troubling condition, not the condition itself, that makes something a social problem.” This is what my colleagues and I became interested in exploring: whether the news media have called attention to domestic violence, which in turn identifies individual instances of domestic violence as indicative of a larger social problem. Specifically, we set out to explore how the most common form of domestic homicide, male perpetrated-female victim intimate partner homicide (hereon referred to as femicide) is framed, and whether it is framed as a social problem.


In the 1970s activists began working to convince the public that intimate partner violence should be treated as a social problem. Prior to this time domestic violence received minimal news media attention. Police and other social services also largely treated domestic violence as a private matter, as reflected in the permissiveness of legal statutes at the time. Efforts of what was largely referred to as the battered women’s movement resulted in increased societal awareness that violence is not predominately something that happens between strangers. This is especially true for women, who are at more risk of physical harm from someone known to them than a stranger. Kathleen Tierney’s assessment of the battered women’s movement identified and attributed growing media coverage of wife abuse in the 1970s to the social movement’s efforts.

Kathleen Tierney’s assessment of the battered women’s movement identified and attributed growing media coverage of wife abuse in the 1970s to the social movement’s efforts.Tierney’s article was published in 1982, and by 2009, when my colleagues and I initiated our research efforts in this vein, attention had been devoted to examining the portrayal of domestic violence in the news, but little research focused on the media portrayal of femicide. Furthermore, a handful of studies had explored the framing of domestic violence, but this research was spread out over the course of several decades, and again there was little research applying media frames to femicide coverage explicitly. Given increasing societal awareness and discussion of domestic violence, we were interested to investigate whether there were any changes in the framing of domestic violence. We wanted to know if current news coverage of femicide was utilizing common crime frames, domestic violence frames, and/or if there were any variations to existing frames.

We examined the applicability of the abovementioned frames to femicide news by analyzing the components of the frames – types of sources cited in the story (e.g., police, family, domestic violence advocates), language and word choice, and context – in several years’ worth of news coverage from North Carolina. North Carolina was chosen for several reasons, including the data collection activities of the state’s domestic violence coalition and the state’s relevance in regards to the occurrence of female homicides perpetrated by men. We assessed the presence of a frame (latent content) by examining the collective presentation of manifest content in a news article. What we found was that femicide news coverage utilized a variety of frames, including frames that had not been identified previously. The most notable newly identified frame appeared in articles that used language congruent with domestic violence, which we labeled the domestic violence as a social problem frame. This frame appeared in approximately 12% of our overall sample of articles, and framed approximately 25% of the articles utilizing domestic violence-related language.

Identifying the domestic violence as a social problem frame illustrates not only that lethal domestic violence has been labeled a social problem in news media, but also how critical assessments of latent content are. The presence of manifest content elements was not related to singular interpretations of latent content (frames). For example, articles that included manifest content such as “domestic dispute” did not always contextualize the event as a social problem, but rather simply used the phrase to describe that the victim and perpetrator cohabitated and/or appeared to have a romantic relationship. Those using the social problem frame included several terms related to domestic violence in addition to using experts or advocates as sources, discussing domestic violence more broadly, and/or including victim resources. Thus, we concluded that femicide events are framed as a social problem sometimes, but not as often as they could be.


The news media play an important role in constructing and raising awareness of social problems. Relevant context is an important consideration in the consumption of crime news. Through frame analysis, we see that journalists approach crime coverage in ways that move beyond “just the facts”. This past year in The Blue Review an article introduced readers to the concept of “solutions journalism”. The author, Brian Calfano, explains, “In many cases, reporting “just the facts” is fine, and can be a public service. But sometimes the facts are not enough to serve the public interest. This is especially true in cases where reporting the “who, what, where and when” fails to make the public more enlightened in the process of telling them something they need to know”. As a non-journalist this term was new to me; as a researcher who has investigated the framing of crime-related social problems I was struck by some of the similarities between the idea of framing social problems and solutions journalism. My colleagues and I have argued (echoing others) that explicit framing of domestic violence as a social problem may serve individuals who have experienced violence by providing the opportunity to contextualize their own experiences; and enhance recognition of domestic violence at a societal level, resulting in better public policy initiatives, support, and resources.

image of tv news crew
A September, 2016 Blue Review piece introduced the concept of “Solutions Journalism.” Photo: Greg Skidmore/cc


Collaborations between media, advocates, and/or content experts can have fruitful and meaningful results. One of the most prominent examples of news media addressing social problems is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for responsible reporting on suicide. The development of these recommendations was undertaken primarily in an effort to curtail potential contagion effects. Notably, suicide events overlap with domestic violence as the most common type of murder-suicide is intimate partner murder-suicide. Subsequent to examining femicide news frames, my colleagues and I explored frames and adherence to suicide reporting guidelines in femicide-suicide coverage. We identified six frames in femicide-suicide news coverage (several varying from previously identified frames); as well as finding that only a minority of articles adhered to more than one of the CDC’s suicide reporting guidelines. Developing reporting guidelines for murder-suicide as well as domestic violence is one potential avenue for increasing consistency and accuracy in the identification of domestic violence as a social problem.

Another example of successful collaboration took place in Rhode Island. Charlotte Ryan, Mike Anastario, and Alfredo DaCunha reported the results of a statewide experiment bringing together advocates and journalists with the purpose of implementing a best practices handbook for journalists to change how domestic murders were covered in the media. Their results indicated both the increased use of the term “domestic violence” when appropriate, and a 100% increase in the use of domestic violence advocates as sources in news stories.

The CDC’s adoption of reporting recommendations and the experiment in Rhode Island are just two examples of collaborations resulting in increased attention to social problems. Public knowledge about crime and victimization is shaped by news media. Examining how news coverage is framed can help us understand what information the public is receiving about crime as well as whether and how crime is being presented as indicative of social problems. Perhaps most importantly, it can raise public awareness and inform policy development.