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“Framing an execution”: Death, lies, and videotape. ABC “20/20” and the rhetoric of law and order in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Thomas N Gardner, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation presents a case study of journalism as persuasion through a triangulated examination of ABC 20/20's story "Hollywood's Unlikely Hero" (December 1998), which reports on the death penalty case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The methodology includes rhetorical analysis, experimental design, and focus group audience research. It also examines the impact of a media literacy intervention---showing the video "Framing an Execution: the Media and Mumia Abu-Jamal"---on audience perceptions of the 20/20 story. This study begins with an introduction addressing the interplay of race, media representation of crime, and record levels of incarceration in the U.S. It then provides an account of the 1982 murder trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal in connection with the killing of a Philadelphia police officer. It places the genre of television news magazines in their economic and cultural setting. Following further discussion of the theoretical foundations of the study in rhetoric, cultural studies, media framing, and cultivation analysis, the paper reports the findings of the three analytical approaches. The rhetorical analysis of the 20/20 story draws from Aristotle's categories persuasion--- ethos, pathos, and logos---and from Kenneth Burke's dramatist pentad. The experimental design portion of the study involved the administration of pretest and posttest questionnaires to some 333 college students in Massachusetts, separated into three different treatment groups: one viewing the 20/20 story only; one viewing the "Framing an Execution" video only; and one viewing both videos. Four focus groups were also conducted in which participants viewed first the 20/20 story and then the "Framing an Execution" video and discussed each. The groups were divided by age and race: adult African-American; college-student African-American; white adult; and white college-student. The study situates the rise of law-and-order rhetoric and the decline in journalistic standards within trends toward conservative consolidation of political power and increasing concentration of media ownership and the commercialization of news programming. It concludes with a plea to journalists to regenerate an ethical commitment to professional standards of responsibility to report fairly and accurately, and it argues forcefully for the need to institute critical media literacy education at all levels of the educational system.

Subject Area

Mass media|Journalism|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Gardner, Thomas N, "“Framing an execution”: Death, lies, and videotape. ABC “20/20” and the rhetoric of law and order in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3193904.