Jonesboro: The Framing of a Tragedy

    On March 24th, 1998 two boys, Mitchell Johnson (13) and Andrew Golden (11),  opened fire on their classmates in Jonesboro, AR.  At Westside Middle school, the boys allegedly pulled the fire alarm at 12:41pm, making about 125 students exit the building.  

The media heavily covered the shooting on March 24th, in Jonesboro, AR. However, the media recognized the sensitivity of this particular subject, and initially used discretion in their reporting. Two boys opened gunfire across a schoolyard, killing four students and one teacher. A tragedy, such as this, is usually going to evoke a number of emotions. I found two articles, from different newspapers, that focused on the media’s treatment of the shooting. The New York Times reported they were one of the first newspapers to release the names of the young suspects. This topic apparently caused some concern among journalists. The newspaper industry has always agreed to withhold the names "out of a sense of delicacy, and a feeling that they had enough trouble without being subjected to the scorn of the community and the world"(Roy Reed-quotation from NYT). However, once one major news organization released the names, every other organization followed. The director from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism was quoted as saying the general view of journalist is, "we’re doing it because everyone else did it." The second article is from the Kansas City Star. This article’s topic was about how the city of Jonesboro felt about the media. This article speculates that the shooting "contains all the elements of sensation and tragedy that command media attention" (KCS). It reported that the people of Jonesboro were upset that the media is highlighting its "darkest hour" which serves as a consequence for any future media. In other words, whenever Jonesboro is mentioned, the immediate image conjured up will be of a "massacre at a school." The articles discusses above reflect the media’s attitude toward the media and coverage of tragedies. The two articles essentially admit that the media has the power to frame the story in its presentation to the public. Many newspapers that reported on the tragedy did use framing techniques, which will be discussed and shown to be proof of the media’s power over how the story is presented.

Searching through the newspaper archives in the school library, I came across 418 articles from March 24, 1998 to March 30, 1998, which concerned the shooting in Jonesboro, AR. All of these articles were from large, nationally recognized newspapers. I only selected about ten articles to look at closely, and in all ten I noticed the choice of words used to describe the shooting. USA Today used words like ambush, assault, and attack. The Los Angeles Times used words like lethal, staccato of gunfire, rampage, massacre and bullet-pocked wall. Words like these are used in articles to attach more meaning to the story, or give it more "salience" (Entman 52). In his article, "Framing Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm," Entman goes on to list what frames do in news articles. He says the article "define[s] problems, diagnose[s] causes, make[s] moral judgements, and suggest[s] remedies" (52). In the articles I read the problem was defined as a tragedy concerning America’s schoolchildren. The cause of this problem was diagnosed as troubled youth. Two young boys had an "arsenal" of guns, allowing them to "spray" children with gunfire as they were running out the doors of the school. The articles generally describe the young boys as being disturbed and "problematic." These characteristics are "warning signs" that can be identified and treated. The moral judgement made on this tragedy is that the schools cannot become a "shooting gallery" for disturbed youth. The articles’ remedies usually concern preventative measures, as mentioned above, and the role of parents and society in influencing the youth. Each article I read outlined their "story" in this manner. A tragedy, such as a school shooting, can be avoided if enough attention is paid to the situational factors that may produce a disturbed youth. It is a general plot that is present in almost every article.

The plotline associated with Jonesboro will always be the "massacre at a schoolyard." Plotline is one of three framing techniques outlined by Pan and Kosicki in their article, "Framing Analysis: An Approach to News Discourse." The other two are thematic structures and rhetorical structures. Thematic structures generally imply the article’s hypothesis, or what the article is trying to prove. Surprisingly, most of the news articles concerning the shooting were not assigning blame to the two young suspects. The articles were trying to prove that something or someone else is to blame. USA Today was insinuating childhood games such as "little boys playing cowboys." The Los Angeles Times took a psychologist’s point of view saying that "people don’t take kids seriously…They tell friends they’re going to do something. They send a lot of signals." This hypothesis is along the lines of proving that this tragedy could have been prevented. Rhetorical structures fall in the same general category of adding salience to the story. One Los Angeles Times headline reads: "Death in Young Hands." This headline is meant to put into perspective exactly what the nation has to face. The youth of our society has the control to take lives, and a tragedy such as this is proof that it is true. "A hero’s funeral" was also present throughout many articles. This became the catch phrase surrounding the teacher who gave her own life to save the children’s lives. According to Pan and Kosicki, a plotline tells a story; the hypothesis tries to prove something; and the rhetorical structures give meaning to the story.

Another way of giving meaning to the story is to personalize it to the rest of the public. This framing technique is one of the techniques outlined by Tamar Liebes in his article, "Our War/Their War." Personalization is prevalent throughout the articles I read. Every article mentioned at least one other school shooting. In five months, there were three shootings. The others were in Mississippi and Kentucky. Also, about three months after the Jonesboro shooting, came the Springfield, OR shooting. Another example is a survey that had just been done, regarding school violence. USA Today reported "57% of 1,200 schools reported crimes." The size of the town was also emphasized, and supported by the common quote, "these things just don’t happen in a place like this." Small towns all over the world sympathize with that statement. Another example is the related stories on gun control, and gun legislation. It was emphasized that "Arkansas law does not prohibit minors from possessing shotguns or rifles, but it does bar people younger than 21 from possessing handguns." This is an issue that has concerned Americans for years. A tragedy like Jonesboro just incites more debates over the issue of guns. All of these related topics to the school shooting allow the public to sympathize and "feel" for the victims and their families. The story becomes personalized to the public.

The ten newspaper articles I looked at in depth shared similar framing characteristics. Certain words and phrases were common across all of the articles. Words describing the shooting and the suspects gave the story more meaning, or salience, according to Robert Entman. The meaning derived from the words used in the story frames how the public views the story. Do they see it as a "bloody massacre" or as a "boyhood game gone awry?" Pan and Kosicki argue that plotline, hypotheses, and rhetorical structures also frame the public’s view of the story. The plotline essentially tells the story for the public, while the news story is attempting to prove its own theory. Most of the articles attempted to assign blame to anyone other than the suspects. Therefore, the public will also look somewhere else for blame. Liebes discusses salience in terms of how personalized the story becomes to the public. If the public can related to any issue that is spurred from the main issue, then the story is personalized. This makes the public more sympathetic to the situation, giving the whole issue more salience. These framing techniques prove that the newspaper industry has a foothold in shaping the public’s view of a story. The Jonesboro tragedy is framed in such a way.

On **** two teenagers in Jonesboro open fired on their schoolmates, killing a teacher and wounding fourteen others. The media covered this story using four main frames: the need of a scapegoat, the characterization of the shooters, the storyline of the shooting, and the minimization of the punishment the boys received.
The main frame of scapegoating appeared at least implicitly in all the articles about the Jonesboro shooting. There was always present the idea that someone needed to be blamed for this affront to society. The situation was presented not just as a shooting in a certain location, but as a event that threatened children in all schools. This personalizes the event, and makes us all feel involved in it, and makes us all want to see whoever is responsible to be appropriately punished. In most of the articles, the responsible agent was portrayed as the children. But in others, the responsibility was placed on a mental problem, or on society for allowing children to be raised around guns and in such a violent atmosphere of television and movies. The parents were also blamed in some articles for being too liberal in raising in their children, by allowing them to be around guns as they were growing up and allowing them to hunt.
The shooters are characterized very strongly as seeming to be harmless. They are described as small, insignificant boys, who looked innocent or at least unnoticeable. Their looks were "normal" and their manners were also, even polite. Very little about either of the shooters caused adults to worry about them. On the other hand, their classmates said that the two of them talked incessantly about firearms, and about shooting things, especially animals. They also talked about revenge, and some classmates said that the shooting ocurred because a girl turned one of them down and wanted to take their revenge on her. A similarity in their characters was that they both had an extensive knowledge of guns. They were exposed to guns as children, and had both been taught about how to shoot. They both enjoyed hunting, and often when hunting together, bragging later to their friends about what they had killed. The final similarity pointed out between the two shooters was their portrayal of both being relatively dumb. They are presented as having insignificant motives for doing such a horrible thing. The media also frames them as sincerely thinking that they would get away with it, which in retrospect seems completely silly.
There is also the frame of a storyline used. The situation of the school shooting was framed as a fantasy of the boys that they waited for several years to fulfill, but they finally got up the courage to do it, and the carried it through. The entire shooting is portrayed as their "dream come true", or the realization of a fantasy they had carried for some time. This may seem a little twisted to many readers, but by framing the situation as a dream come true, the reporters call attention to how the shooters had such a warped sense of right and wrong that they thought it was permissible to live out their dream by trying to kill people. It also makes us wonder about what kind of individuals would dream about killing their classmates.
The final frame that is used in this situation is the minimization of their punishment. Many articles pointed out that the boys were prevented from getting their due because of their age. They were sentenced to years in a juvenile detention center, which is the maximum punishment that is possible, but still sounds very light compared to what the media implies that they should have received. They will be released by the time they are 21, and when the articles mention this, they imply that it is a very inappropriately light sentence. There is even a quote from the judge in the case that says that the sentence is not what they deserve. Unfortunately, the legal system is not set up to deal with juvenile criminals as serious as the two shooters in Jonesboro. This is a failing of the entire country: that we cannot adequately punish these delinquents, but we must stand by while they go free. It’s a sobering thought, and the articles dwell on this.