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Research project explores news coverage framing of off-campus speech litigation

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Trevor Ivan, a graduate assistant in the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State from 2008 to 2012, recently finished his thesis, “A Framing Analysis of News Coverage Related to Litigation Connected to Online Student Speech That Originates Off-Campus.” Below, he discusses the study and its implications for scholastic journalism educators and press rights advocates.

by Trevor Ivan
From my own beginnings as a high school journalist, I’ve always understood that the news media present the public with a window to the world. Without the news, most of the countless interactions, occurrences, triumphs and tragedies that take place each day would remain the experience of but a handful of people.

But it’s always fascinated me to explore how the news media portray specific issues and people. While journalists often preach objectivity and fairness as central tenets of their craft, human nature—as well as time, spatial and resource constraints—influences how they gather and organize information.

Media scholars and sociologists often refer to that selection process as “framing” an issue. Robert Entman described framing in an article in the Journal of Communication as selecting some aspects about a given issue or experience to make them “more salient in a communication text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation.” As a simplification, framing is a way to consider likely interpretations—Are the spending proposals in a budget bill a waste of money or an initiative to improve community life? Are police portrayed as guardians of public order or overzealous tyrants seeking power for its own end?

When I entered grad school, I started exploring framing as it related to political issues, namely how the news media framed both foreign policy and political candidates. However, one day the question struck me about how framing might apply to news coverage of scholastic press rights. The idea mulled around in my head, but I never did much with it until I was looking for a clearer focus for my master’s thesis.

I discovered the doctoral dissertation of Megan Fromm (an SPRC member). Her research examined how the news media framed eight seminal court cases related to high school and college student press freedom. It occurred to me that no one had explored how framing applied to coverage of court cases related to off-campus online speech, a very relevant issue given the rise of online social networking and easily accessible publishing tools.

Considering whether public school administrators, who act as government officials, do or should possess the right to discipline students for speech they create away from school grounds is pertinent to scholastic press advocates because government interference in speech always raises First Amendment concerns. In addition, any such discretion afforded to administrators to control off-campus speech could pave the way for discipline of independent student reporting or whistleblowing that take place off-campus.

Pitted against these free speech concerns is the equally pressing matter of finding effective ways to combat cyber bullying, especially when the speech is directed toward another student. Off-campus activities can profoundly affect the school environment. The online world furthers blurs the line between school and home.

This study was aimed at discovering how the news media discuss school discipline of off-campus speech given the somewhat precarious balance of free speech and personal safety. I paid particular attention to the legal context the stories contained as well as to how they portrayed the actions students and school administrators involved in the case and the online speech itself that precipitated the lawsuit.

I performed a textual analysis of 76 news stories related to four recent federal court cases that involved school discipline of off-campus online speech: Layshock v. Hermitage, J. S. v. Blue Mountain, Doninger v. Niehoff and Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools. The Supreme Court denied hearing all four of the cases between October 2011 and January 2012.

Several significant findings emerged from the analysis: a lack of sufficient legal context, a conflicting frame that classified the student actors in the cases as either aggressors or victims of an overreach of school authority, a frame of strategic battle to describe how both parties in the case related to each other, a use of descriptors and qualifiers in place of specific details of the content of the speech that spurred the lawsuit, a general sense that the speech in the four cases was not worthy of First Amendment protection, and a conflicting frame of school administrators as the guardians of order versus overreacting victims.

You can read the full study at this link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/134978665/A-Framing-Analysis-of-News-Coverage-Related-to-Litigation-Connected-to-Online-Student-Speech-That-Originates-Off-Campus

One Comment

  1. Great work, Trevor! I can’t wait to read the full study. This kind of research is tedious but really provides interesting perspectives on an important subject. Cheers to scholastic press research!

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