Competing Media Frames After the Santa Barbara Shootings: Which Narrative 'Wins?'

06/02/2014 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014

Like so many others this week, I've been thinking a lot about the shootings in Isla Vista last Friday. While my personal reactions to the rampage itself were devastating, saddening and horrifying, my scholarly self paid attention to media coverage following the massacre. As with any news story, there are frames that trump the narrative, and this one was no different. What surprised me with this story was the emergence of many competing media frames surrounding the root causes of Elliot Rodger's behavior.

In the early aftermath, many news outlets jumped reliably to the "young White male with a mental illness" frame. Such media frames are central, organizing ideas for content. Media framing isn't really about what stories get told, but about how they are told. And most importantly, framing is not a choice; it's unavoidable. If you are telling a story, some things are included. Some things are emphasized. And importantly, some things are excluded entirely. The reasons behind these decisions vary, but certain frames emerge over and over again, making them seem the obvious answer to whatever problem is being discussed. For example, with the game frame, journalists pit political candidates against each other in a "race," with competitors fighting it out to win the title. Look at any news story about an election and you'll find examples of the game frame. For example, this article about the Tea Party refers to a "battle," a "contest," and one of the candidates as "a heavy favorite to beat" his opponent. This is just one of many, many examples that frame elections as contests to be won rather than policies to be debated, or the role of representative democracy, or Name-Any-Other-Relevant frame.

So how does this relate to media coverage of the Santa Barbara shootings? I saw the same over-reliance on a single frame -- the "young White male with mental illness" frame -- in the immediate aftermath of the Santa Barbara shootings. Take this CBS News headline from two days after the shooting: "Sheriff: Elliot Rodger long concealed mental health issues." (Not to single out one news source, here are a few others with similar frames: USA Today or the Washington Post.) We see words like "madman" and "mental illness" as the first go-to explanations for the shooter's motivations. In fact, much of this early coverage referred to the attacker's feelings toward women as some sort of secondary offshoot of this mental illness. Some foreign news outlets were more likely to identify the rampage as driven by misogynistic motives in those early hours and days, as a columnist in UK's Guardian did the day after the shootings. And several authors, feminist and otherwise, acted quickly in identifying the secondary frame of misogyny. Others even pointed out that the shooter was not, in fact, a White man. But many of these were in non-mainstream sources, and the "madman" frame reigned.

Of course, now that we are a week out from the tragedy, there is deep and varied discussion on the motivations of the shooter. From opinion columns in major news magazines to Twitter hashtag campaigns to sites like PUA Forum, where some "pick-up artists" are even discussing the dangers of such forums, as in this comment: "...if this forum itself is any clue, this community is made up mostly of degenerate, angry, lying losers who are a few shades away from the acts of the PUAHATE posterchild." For every story, there is a frame. Facts are included. Words are selected. Inconvenient truths are ignored. A story emerges.

But what does it say that our first response to these now all-too-common massacres is that the perpetrator is a "madman?" How does that frame influence immediate news coverage? How does it portray the mentally ill? How does it ignore other issues, such as misogyny and objectification of women?

These are questions that I hope you will ask as you read the varied coverage of this, and other, crimes. The truth is that news (and of course, commentary) is not a completely accurate portrayal of reality. It's subjective, no matter how fair and balanced any journalist aims to be. What challenges these ingrained frames are individuals who choose to tell a different story. Like Richard Martinez, the grieving father of one of the victims, who has spoken out early and often about gun policy. Like Ann Hornaday, a film critic who points out the inherent sexism in so many Hollywood films. And like film director, Judd Apatow, who responded publicly to Hornaday's critiques, saying that "She should blame Groucho for kissing Thelma Todd." This is the burden and the boon that modern media provide us. While everything -- and I mean EVERY thing -- is framed, some frames win out over others. As critical news consumers, our job is to find those underlying frames that might shed light on the story, even if that light shines in a direction that is uncomfortable or unpleasant.