Graduate Research Project in Journalism


How Obama’s 2013 SOTU Language on Guns was

Framed in Three National Newspapers

Richard A. Ries

The University of Central Florida

17 April 2013


This is a graduate study in mass media analyzing the reporting and framing of a specific contentious topic – gun control – in President Obama’s February 12, 2013 State of the Union Address (SOTU) in three noteworthy national newspapers: The New York Times (NYT), USA Today (USAT), and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and on each publication’s Facebook pages over a three day news cycle. The interest was to what degree the newspapers were preoccupied with the dovetailing of SOTU and gun violence: if there was any suggestion of agenda-setting on the newspapers’ parts; what types (if any) of frame language was employed; and what type of features the newspapers created for Facebook, perhaps to court what is often widely perceived to be a younger or more liberal audience and one less likely to read the actual print versions of the newspapers or even access their websites. (I do not proffer research that proves this belief; just that it appears to be a commonly held one, especially on college campuses.)  The RQs of the study will be found after the preliminary material. The study was limited to news articles, op-ed pieces, editorials, and Facebook frames printed or created on February 12, 13, and 14. Articles in the online versions of the newspapers were occasionally accessed, but a full analysis of the plethora of information found in,, and would be beyond the scope of this short-term study. The short frames on Facebook allow a glimpse into what national newspapers deemed important to those who may access news on Facebook, if only as a small part of users’ repertoire of news information gathering. The study confirmed, if only briefly, that the NYT indeed was interested in promoting gun control, while it was a non-issue for the WSJ.

Introduction and background

As gay marriage slowly marches down the aisle of reasonably full acceptability, gun violence and gun control laws seem to have taken center stage as possibly the most contentious issue of our times. Gun ownership is deeply rooted in American culture, enshrined in the Second Amendment as quickly as First Amendment fundamental freedoms could be guaranteed.

On December 14, 2012, 20 year old Adam Lanza killed his mother, drove to Sandy Hook Elementary school, and proceeded to kill 20 innocent children and 6 adults before taking his own life. The incident was all too redolent of a tragic trend in American life, including Columbine (1999), Amish schoolchildren (2006), Virginia Tech (2007), Fort Hood (2009), Giffords and others in Tucson (2011), a Milwaukee Sikh temple (2012), and a theater in Aurora, Colorado (2012). Many “job rage” shootings have occurred in this time period as well. Later that day following Sandy Hook, a tearful President Obama spoke publicly, summing up the spate of gun massacres in the U.S., closing with “And we’re going to have to come together and prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics” (

The debate over gun control dominated the news in the two months between Sandy Hook and the scheduled State of the Union Address. Obama assigned Biden to head a task force on gun safety issues; pundits and bloggers weighed in; there was a surge in national gun sales (Stan,, December 19, 2012). An NRA spokesman, Wayne LaPierre, issued a much-anticipated official response: that the solution to school shootings was to have more armed guards on campuses, and for schools to train and arm more teachers. Surviving children of Sandy Hook sang at the Super Bowl. It was to a polarized populace on the topic of gun shootings and safety, and to a nation distracted by an armed California fugitive, that Obama addressed the Union on the birthdate of Abraham Lincoln – the first president to be assassinated by a gun.

The 2013 SOTU        

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that the president brief Congress from time to time. On February 12, 2013, President Obama delivered the SOTU to Congress with much of the world watching. Somewhat ironically, most major cable networks were providing live aerial coverage of the California armed fugitive story and only broke when Obama’s motorcade left for Congress: the usual fare of talking heads predicting the speech were not heard. Thus gun violence was part of the framing of SOTU from a separate source. A rhetorical analysis of the 2013 SOTU itself is not the subject of this inquiry; a text of its language about guns may be found in appendix A. However, it is worth recalling a few guests seated in the chambers: Gabby Giffords; Carlos Soto (the brother of a teacher killed in Sandy Hook); Kaitlyn Roig (a surviving teacher); a government official from Newtown and responding detectives to the scene. Sitting next to Michelle Obama were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teen girl who had just performed in the Inaugural Parade – but was killed by gunfire in Chicago. Also present was former rock star and gun enthusiast Ted Nugent, brought by a Texas representative. Thus the speech was delivered with guns on peoples’ minds, and the television camera often panned the faces of the victims of gun violence. (Miller,, February 13, 2013).

Obama’s speech was just over an hour. It was not, however, until the end of the speech that he addressed gun violence, likely heightening the drama of the issue. Knowing that some anti-gun measures may not even reach the floor of the House due to NRA influence, the president kept repeating “they [victims] deserve a simple vote,” amidst a crescendo of applause. The emotional pitch of the speech grew in these moments, as Obama has often in his speeches borrowed from the pulpit technique of “call and response.” (Washington Post, February 13, 2013). With each “they deserve a simple vote,” the applause morphed into a standing ovation.

SOTUs as agenda-setters in media studies

            Presidential speeches are studied, and certainly receive much media attention, but SOTUs have not generated copious amounts of peer reviewed articles. The database PAIS International reveals a mere 7 such articles; the database Communications and Mass Media Complete reveals 19 studies. (In contrast, the term “Hollywood” generates 1,690 peer reviewed articles.) Thus there is room for further inquiry. Cox (2012) examined Obama’s 2010 SOTU; the article is a metaphorical analysis of Obama’s speech as a reflection of his governing style. The scholar notes that a president is able to “frame issues and advocate for or against specific policy” (p. 3). Cox views Obama as a master speaker who uses many “journey” metaphors, and invites examination into whether the trio of NYT, WSJ, and USAT framed SOTU in any common Obama metaphors.

            A televised presidential speech often falls under the category of agenda-setting in media studies, as agenda-setting is perhaps the most important source of presidential power (Peake & Eshbaugh-Soha, 2008). In their study of major presidential speeches, the researchers found that presidents are major agenda-setters who “influence the salience of issues to Congress, the media, and the American people” (p. 113). Because the media influences which issues the public considers to be important, it is the media that a president must first affect. A SOTU podium provides a bully pulpit that a congressman simply cannot match. The media savvy Obama administration covered its bases with the 2013 SOTU in regards to setting an agenda on gun control: Michelle Obama joining a gun protest the morning thereof; gun victims seated in the audience; the delicate subject of gun control saved for the end of the speech. Rubio’s water sip gaffe was little match for the careful orchestrations of Team Obama; Paul’s rebuttal speech is hardly remembered. Did newspapers go along with the president’s agenda? How did they frame his language and policies about guns?

Framing theory 

A good source of information about media frames is, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. A number of types of media frames exist, such as “horse race” (who is winning, who is losing); policy exploration; reaction; reality check. One must look for a “trigger” and to see if there is a hidden agenda, innuendo, or deeper meaning to a story.  <;. Frame analysis involves how a story is couched; its interpretation, context and meaning in history or current events. One must read between the lines and search for factors that may enter reporting, such as political bias or gender bias or some sort of agenda – or a desire to reach or shape a new audience. Frames define problems, diagnose causes, offer and justify treatments for problems, and predict their likely effects (Entman, 1993).

The gun debate framing invokes several narratives: in many ways it is a “Wild West mentality” versus an “educated and evolved elite” who eschew guns; “states’ rights” advocates versus those who see states as rather meaningless in the global age; red state versus blue state (a myth, as many Democrats own guns); rugged individualism (e.g. Ted Nugent) versus federal intervention; public health issue or a child safety issue (Beauchamp, 1976). We have many gun metaphors in our language: it is a loaded debate; framers wish to be on target; it triggers discussions (, March 19, 2013). Is a shooting a “massacre?” If the word “deranged” is employed enough to describe a gunman, how does that affect the framing? Is “tragedy” the same as “preventable tragedy?” Even “gun control” varies from “gun violence prevention” or “gun safety.” The former implies an overly intrusive government; the latter phrases frame guns in terms of education and health. Advocacy groups and politicians on both sides of the gun debate compete for language frames in the media. Language choices are carefully selected: no one wants to shoot from the hip.

Background check on framing Obama and guns  

At a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, Obama observed that many small town Americans “cling to guns, religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” (Smith,, April 11, 2008).  The quip became a meme, and started a tradition of framing Obama as anti-gun, anti-NRA, and out of touch with the gun culture elements of American society. A recent picture of him shooting skeet hardly dispelled this notion (Superville, “NRA scoffs at Obama skeet shooting photo,”, February 2, 2013).

Orbe and Urban (2011) fairly recently examined race and presidential politics for a special issue of Communication Studies. Since 2007, academics have examined Obama through “rhetorical, political, critical, and/or explicitly cultural perspectives” (p. 350). Powerful narratives emerged in America depicting Obama as anti-gun and un-American and that somehow to be “pro-gun” is to be “more” American. Carrington (2009), a sociologist, discussed how in 2008 there were strong links between anti-immigrant forces and pro-gun forces that often showed up at Obama rallies. Some of this was egged-on by Sarah Palin, whose remarks often painted Obama as not only anti-gun, but possibly a Muslim or a terrorist. Carrington was one of the first academics to openly voice fear an assassination. shows an array of 2012 fiercely anti-Obama Tea Party bumper sticker messages used last year, that link the myths of Obama as non-American with his stances on guns: “The Experts Agree Gun Control Works” (with images of a Nazi swastika, a Soviet sickle, and a Chinese red star); “Defend Your Constitution;” “Pro Life, Pro Guns, Anti-Obama,” “Don’t Blame Me: I Voted for the American;” “An Armed Society is a Polite Society;” and “Somewhere in Kenya, a Village is Missing its Idiot.” There is a clearly a thread of fierce chatter in America that regards Obama and his gun policies as simply “un-American.”

Background check on framing the NRA and gun rights in newspapers    

The idea that guns are as American as baseball, Chevy, and mom is entrenched deep in our nation’s psyche. See: Cramer, Armed America: The Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie, Nashville: Nelson Current (2006); and Bellesiles, Arming America: the Origins of a National Gun Culture, New York: Knopf, (2000). How are guns rights and the NRA framed in mainstream newspapers?

Downs (2002) specifically looked at the discourse of gun violence in the media. Gun violence is depicted as “a particularly divisive social” (p. 48). Many journalists, overexposed to stories about gun violence, often lack legal knowledge of other uses of guns such as collecting, hunting, practice shooting, and use for personal self-defense. To Downs, print news and editorials fall short of the adoption of a “cosmopolitan frame” and this silences conflicting frames often brought on by the owners of personal firearms (p. 48) A researcher cited (Patrick, (1999/2000) noted “few academic studies on the NRA” (p. 55) and that the NRA in the media often received negative monikers like “powerful gun lobby” and “most feared lobby” (p. 55).

Downs analyzed a corpus of 75,000 words, including articles, essays, editorials and letters to the editor. The rhetorician examined the use of presupposition, connotation, irony, and insinuation that might complicate the framing of gun owners. For example, the phrase “responsible gun owner” might be written, voiced, or perceived as a slur, as some gun stories are about children accidentally shooting themselves with their parents’ guns. This is particularly insightful, because irony or sarcasm is sometimes harder to spot in print than in video. Downs’ study reminds one to read carefully between the lines when it comes to analyzing gun framing.

Callaghan and Schnell (2001) looked specifically at media framing and the gun control debate in the 1990s, calling the gun control debate “an ideal public policy issue to examine the intricate dynamics of the issue framing process” (p. 185). They felt that the news media structured the overall tone of the gun debate and wanted to know to what degree the media played in shaping public opinion policy. In covering gun policy discourse, they see a triangulation between pressure and interest groups, politicians, and the media all jockeying for media consumers’ attention. As far back as 2001, they saw that “due to changes in the news business itself, journalists may now have more narrative license to mix facts and analysis and build story reports around their own interpretative themes” (p. 184). This ties in with Harnack (below) and has significance in the age of social media, blogging, and blatant agenda-setting.

Journalists and editors draw maps or internal story patterns for their readers, and these maps or frames “serve to structure public debates, influence readers’ level of information, and affect policy responsibility” (p. 187). Callaghan and Schnell identified important phrases used to frame the gun debate: the NRA and guns-rights groups use “states’ rights;” “guns don’t kill, people do; “will of the people;” “guns deter crime;” “political contest;” “feel-good laws;” “right to bear arms” and “individual liberty.” Curtailment of unfettered gun rights can be dubbed as coming from a “police state” or a “fascist state” (p. 191). Pro-gun control groups sometimes adopted identical lingo, particularly “will of the people” and “states’ rights.” However, they tend to employ the phrases “sensible legislation,” “culture of violence,” “right to safety,” and to frame guns as a public health problem (p. 199). They are far more likely to reference the CDC or NICP. The Callaghan and Schell report is an indispensable resource for determining key-word searches in analyzing gun framing.

Smidt (2012) closely examined the issue of gun control the year after Columbine. Smidt theorizes that news agenda-setting may be stronger for gun control than most any other American issue. He poses a basic question: does greater coverage mean greater influence? Shooting events at schools are considered to be a “prominent media storyline on guns and gun control” (p. 76) that can result in legislation, such as Clinton’s push for child safety locks on handguns. The study suggests that there may be a strong cultural link between the NRA and the GOP – even though many Democrats own guns, and many elected Democrats are strong advocate of Second Amendment rights (including Gabby Giffords).

The Facebook pages of newspapers

Mass media, in general, must be viewed in terms of agenda-setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). The agenda may come from politicians, special interest groups and lobbyists, corporations, or the media itself. Agendas engage media consumers. Harnack (2012) says that Facebook and other media platforms are logical extensions of engagement. An editor writing for editors, Harnack argues that “Facebook and other social media provide the best branding our [the newspaper] industry has had since the invention of the printing press” (p. 14). His main point is that newspapers should regard Facebook as a marketing tool. If this is the case, then the Facebook pages accessed in this study need to be analyzed for their market share value. Is it a liberal value? A young value? An anti-gun value?

The phrase “liberal media” is often heard from pundits, bloggers, Ann Coulter, and others. Is there any truth to the epithet? Kenix (2009), a senior lecturer in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Canterbury, NZ, noted that there is a “social perception of liberalism” in the media (p. 94) and therefore studied 586 articles in major American newspapers and magazines from 1978 to 2002. The substantial study found that even though media workers tend to be more liberal, they actually treated liberalism more negatively than one would expect. If this is the case today, then content generated for Facebook may not be as liberal as popular lore deems. Newspapers may be hesitate to appear to be “pandering” to the Facebook audience – and beyond assumption and conjecture, it is quite difficult to pinpoint exactly what that audience is.

Baumgarten and Grauel (2009), examined the strengths and weaknesses of websites and newspapers for the analysis of political communication. They examined production bias (agenda-setting) and selection bias (uses and gratification). They found websites to be weak, rather than strong actors for political issues. In other words, a large headline on a physical newspaper – and a paper like the NYT uses very large print sparingly – may have more dramatic impact on users than websites, particularly since the endless amount of websites may collectively rend the medium less impactful and efficacious than some might believe. Broersma and Graham (2012) note that the newspaper industry is in crisis, with fewer employees, and fewer resources available for newsgathering and fact-checking. Their article “Social media as beat” focuses on Twitter, but nonetheless contains an important insight: journalists writing for social media do so as a “beat” (405). This view is helpful in understanding how news is uploaded for Facebook consumption, where users may “like” a posting, forward it, or comment on it.

Stepp (2006) observed two important trends while sizing up the newspaper industry: a merge toward merging print and online news, and a production of news 24 hours a day that did not exist in previous new eras. This influence likely came from cable television and other elements of 24-hour availability, such as fast-food chains and pharmacies (Ritzer, 2004). Stepp maintains that “whether it’s the Web, print, or handheld [devices], the future is giving people news when they want it and how they want it” (p. 52). If this be the case, then we live a U&G universe. The terse phrases of modern advertising – Gotta Have It; Just Do It; Go For It, I’m Lovin’ It – have permeated how news is electronically delivered, particularly for handheld devices.

Marchi (2012), writing on how teens access news, provides cogent insights into Generations Y and Z. Marchi cites two distinct models of citizenship that had been chartered by Bennett in 2008: the Dutiful Citizen and the Actualizing Citizen. The Dutiful Citizen feels an obligation to closely monitor the news and to vote, and may be associated with Baby Boomers and older Americans. In contrast, the Actualizing Citizen has a “diminished sense of government obligation” and a “mistrust of mainstream news media and politicians” (p. 247). The Actualizing Citizen may nonetheless be civically engaged through volunteering, social movement activism, and social networking sites; they are not “uninformed; just differently informed” (p. 248)  In the study, the three main sources of news for teenagers were trusted adults (e.g. teachers); blogs and social media; and late night acerbic comedians posing as anchors. Such findings support the notion that news content produced for Facebook is likely geared for a younger audience.

Greer and Yan (2011) first note that in 2010, the Internet surpassed print newspapers as a more popular source of news in the United States. By the end of 1995, more than 300 U.S. newspapers had some sort of online presence. In the study, 2004 is considered an important year because it was the founding of Facebook, which became available to the general public two years later. Newspapers turned to social media as “a relatively inexpensive way to connect with the lucrative tweens, teens, and young adult market” (p. 85). News for Facebook must certainly be regarded as a “beat” with a targeted and possibly younger audience.

Greer and Yan, it must be stressed, found that Facebook represented only a small percentage of total readership, even of the largest newspapers; newspapers overall were far more active on Twitter than Facebook. This is an important finding, because it strongly suggests that the content of Facebook is written for far fewer people than the actual newspaper, its online version, or its activity on Twitter. Facebook must be considered as a minor marketing technique to get users to click on hyperlinks and access other stories – but if Facebook users are going to only see those small frames, how will the stories nonetheless get framed?

Uses and gratification theory

Weiss (1976), reviewing Blumer and Katz (1974), posits that media users play an active role in choosing and using their media use, and are goal oriented in doing so. A media user seeks out a source that best fulfills his needs. This forms the basis for the “uses and gratification theory” or U&G. In other words, a media consumer may shop for information, and see what he or she wants to see. If that theory had currency prior to the explosions of the Internet and cable television, it surely has greater weight than ever before. Ruggiero’s year 2000 study of U&G provides an incisive understanding of the theory and poses the main question: why do people become involved in one particular type of mediated communication or another, and what gratifications do they receive from it? Ruggiero states that the Internet represents “the ultimate individualism” and is “a medium with the capability to empower the individual in terms of both the information he or she seeks and the information he or she creates” (p. 20).

Thus while this study is interested in three mainstream national newspapers, it cannot be forgotten that many Americans will have read or learned about SOTU through countless other sources, and that a devoted FOX News watcher likely isn’t frequently flipping to MSNBC – and vice-versa. The days of getting news from the Big Three or only a few newspaper choices are gone. Finding your favorite news source is more akin to shopping for the right fabric on or the best date on

Content analysis

Content analysis of news involves counting of words employed in articles and making inferences based on the numbers. One classic definition of content analysis comes from Harvard University Professor Weber (1983): “Making inferences from a symbolic medium – usually a text – is the essence of content analysis.” (127) To Weber, “the usage of words in a text often indicates preoccupation with a particular theme or message” (p. 137). “A large portion of culture is represented in texts such as newspapers constitute an essential set of variables for the study of cultural dynamics; for example, changes in ideology or political agenda” (p. 127).

The content words I searched for were: State of the Union Address (or SOTU) and guns; Sandy Hook or Newton; school shooting; gun safety; gun control; gun violence and Obama (to weed out the California manhunt story); pro-gun; anti-gun; gun rights; Second Amendment rights; the National Rifle Association (or NRA); and gun lobby. (See Appendix B). For the terminology that is linked with pro-gun sentiment, I also looked into the online newspapers, believing that they may be more likely to put articles and commentary about the NRA or gun rights on the Web than in print. (I was right.)

Stylistic analysis

Ruffner (1981) created a classic rubric for assessing journalist writing. Factors include: (1) Productivity, the total number of words in an article; (2) average sentence length (calculated by dividing the total number of words by the number of sentences); (3) lexical diversity (the total number of different words used in an article); (4) redundancy (looking at repetition in articles, prepositions, and conjunctions); (5) pausality (looking at internal punctuation, and that its overuse might be indicative of sensationalism); (6) emotiveness, examining the total number of adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs in an article, and their relationships with one another; and (7) The Gunning Readability Formula (GRF), an equation which mathematically looks at words, long words of three syllables or more, and sentence length to create a readability quotient. See:

To fully analyze all of the articles, op-ed pieces, and editorials applying this formula, particularly the GRF, would take more time, mathematical calculations and computer power than I had at my disposal. Nonetheless, the rubric is helpful even in making anecdotal observations, particularly when looking for emotionally charged language, slurs, idioms, and sensationalism – that would be less likely to be found in a news article, but perhaps could easily appear in commentary.

Purpose and methodology of the study

American interest in gun laws is very high and news consumers tend to follow the issue very closely (, I was interested in this topic because I am a former teacher, and school shootings is a common and serious topic in teacher lunchrooms. It is a topic that affects all of us – not just schools but mayors, police forces, gun owners, and a large gun industry – which provides many jobs. It spawns advocacy groups on both sides. I strove for detached objectivity in examining the written material of the newspapers and websites much as I had trained to do as an English teacher assessing student essays whether I agreed with their positions or not.

I first closely read each newspaper’s February 12, 13, and 14editions, digesting articles, essays, and editorials that pertained to SOTU’s references to guns. I used ProQuest and LexisNexis Academic to search for key terms. On a case by case basis, I looked at articles stylistically, to see if they covered both sides, and for what language was used to frame guns.

The Facebook part of the study came second, and is written about as a shorter, separate piece.

The research questions:

RQ1: Which newspaper (and their Facebook pages) focused most on SOTU’s references to guns and could this be viewed as agenda-setting?

This is an agenda-setting question, and I did not believe SOTU would receive equal amounts of attention in all three national newspapers. I predicted that the order of coverage, particularly about gun control, would squarely be NYT, USAT, and WSJ.

RQ2: How were the NRA or pro-gun enthusiasts framed in print or on Facebook?

For RQ2, I relied primarily on Downs’ study about gun reporting – that even “pro-gun” references might contain veiled innuendoes, irony, connotation, presupposition or sarcasm. I used both a content analysis (counting how many times the NRA or positive references to guns was mentioned) and a close reading to see whether simply mentioning pro-gun forces was neutral or could be interpreted to have some of these weighted meanings. I hypothesized that the NYT would frame gun rights in the least positive light, the WSJ in the most positive light, and USAT would strive for the most neutrality on the issue.

RQ3: How was Obama framed in his quest to increase gun control legislation?

As noted in the preliminary material, Obama has a history of being painted as “anti-gun.” Things that Obama says about guns have a way of becoming distorted (e.g. “he’s going to take our guns away,” just as the healthcare debate somehow became “death panels for grandma.”). I wanted to check for any of this traditional anti-Obama lingo, certainly not in professionally edited articles, but perhaps in op-ed pieces and editorials.

I. The New York Times

The NYT is popularly painted as “liberal” and often part of that household phrase “the liberal media.” It has in fact endorsed a Democrat for president since 1956, when it went with Eisenhower. Irvine, reporting in on April 23, 2012, revealed that the NYT’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, admitted to the newspaper’s “pro-Obama bias.” While news articles in NYT likely get very carefully edited to eliminate bias, the editorials and op-ed writers are a different species that might lend credence to stereotypes about the Times. The bias may permeate the gestalt of how the NYT presents and frames news.

On February 12 in the NYT national section, a long article of 898 words concerns the night’s speech (A18). It is primarily a review of SOTUs in the 20th century, and how the word “strong” gets frequent use. There is no mention of guns, but the length of the article suggests Dutiful Citizen agenda-setting: a desire to cue readers to tune in that evening. Several Times op-ed columnists on February 12 were ready for the speech. David Brooks wrote about voting and only mentions guns once, in stating that “Obama’s support would help on gun control” (p. A30). Joe Nocera used the film “Die Hard” to write about guns. In addressing the Newtown killings, he says that “on one side are those who believe we can cut down on gun violence, by, among other things, banning the assault weapons that always seem to be used in mass shootings.” He calls the other side, however, “Second Amendment absolutists,” (A30) which may be certainly be regarded as a framing slur. Here, gun rights advocates are unreasonable and rigid; out of touch.

The February 13 edition contained 10 news articles, two op-ed columns, and one editorial that concern the speech. The front page includes a large photograph of Obama during SOTU, hand raised in an impassioned moment; nearby is a picture of Carolyn Murray, a grieving Evanston, IL woman whose son was shot to death. Agenda-setting or coincidence? It’s hard to tell. The front page’s lead story is a hefty 1,482 word article, “Obama vows push to life economy for middle class” (A1). The 7th paragraph mentioned gun violence and that Obama delivered “an emotional appeal.” Rhetoric professors often stress to end an essay with dramatic impact. The last two paragraphs of the article were about the role of gun violence and victims in SOTU. The penultimate paragraph begins “Children loomed large Tuesday night,” which creates an emotional appeal that may be viewed to be sympathetic to the gun safety movement, and mention the parents of Hadiya Pendleton by name. The article ends simply by quoting Obama: “She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend.” By emphasizing the loss of a teen, the article frames gun control not as a “political theory” but in terms of a very palpable and heartfelt human tragedy.

On February 13, the NYT’s “GOP puts on a calmer face, except for one wild-eyed rocker” (A19) is about Ted Nugent’s presence at SOTU and is contains some anti-gun framing rhetoric. Nugent is a “gun-rights brawler.” Brawl is a term we associate with Wild West saloons. On the other hand, other guests are “the victims of gun violence and family members still grieving for lost loved ones.” Back to Nugent: “a saber-toothed tiger invited to a garden party.” The article frames Nugent as part of chaos and lack of civilization. An animal.

On the op-ed page, Maureen Dowd’s “The Rap on Rubio,” concerns the GOP response more than SOTU itself, but does reference guns. Dowd takes a swipe at the GOP’s use of the phrase “guns don’t kill people; it’s a culture glorifying guns and violence that kills people” (A27). She frames the GOP as out to lunch. One expert on gun control, Jon Vernick, the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, is cited on page A4, but the article is about Mexican gun violence, not American. That he is the authority figure – not an NRA spokesman – links the Times to academia, lending credence to the story. The fact that a 1,228 word article about gun control in Mexico exists, however, reinforces a hypotheses of civilization agenda-setting. It might be “warning” us about slipping into a lawless society. Little is left on February 14 beyond passing references. Gun control was yesterday’s news.

Between February 12 and February 14 exactly two editorials dovetailing guns and Obama exist in the NYT. On February 13, the section of SOTU that references guns is called “the most emotional moment of the night, drawing sustaining cheers” (A26). The National Rifle Association was mentioned in only two articles during this three day period. Whereas a Johns Hopkins professor was cited in an article about Mexico’s gun laws, in an article about retiring Senator Frank Lautenberg, the gun authority the Times turns to is Scott Bach, Executive Director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs. Which expert seems more educated, and more trustworthy?

The corpus of the NYT on SOTU, gun control, gun violence, and the NRA – for at least these three days – feels fairly much in favor of stricter gun control. It ridicules Ted Nugent, mourns the losses of gun violence victims, champions gun control, and paints America as a culture of violence on the verge of becoming a lawless Mexico. Gun violence is framed as a national embarrassment; an ugly, uncivilized cancer that must be stopped. Duck and deer hunters, target practice shooters, gun collectors, responsible gun owners, and the lives that guns save do not receive any attention.

An agenda was set.

II. USA Today

            USA Today, “America’s Newspaper,” established in 1982 by Gannett, is the widest circulated newspaper in the United States. The paper’s large headlines, shorter paragraphs, colorful charts and weather maps, and color-coded, easy to read sections of News, Money, Sports, and Life are iconic elements in American society today. Whether it is as “prestigious” or “scholarly” as the NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Politico or Huffington Post is debatable. It is certainly popular though, and a force to be reckoned with – and analyzed.

USA Today began planting seeds in readers’ minds on at least February 12. The first, “Will he hit it out of the park tonight?” mentions gun control only once, at the end of the article (2A). The other article, “Six speeches that made a statement – and still do” is about SOTU “greatest hits” through the centuries (p. 6A). The two articles may be viewed as a desire on the newspaper’s part to encourage readers to tune in – which may be called agenda-setting – though nothing suggest an agenda beyond becoming more of an informed citizen.

On page 8A, however, Dewayne Wickham’s column “Gun violence growing threat to young blacks – Nation can no longer ignore the carnage” can only be described as agenda-setting; the header alone contains a moral imperative. The essay references the Pendletons, who would sit next to Michelle Obama; Trayvon Martin’s death; and refers to the killing of young blacks as “an American pandemic” – fairly powerful language that pits guns as a health issue. Gun violence is referred to as a “slaughter,” and the NRA is referenced thus:

“It [the slaughter] is inextricably tied to the members of Congress who kowtow to the  National Rifle Association even as                the epidemic of school shootings proves that  there is no haven for any of our children from the unchecked gun violence.”

This piece was easily the most passionate polemic penned during the three days by any essayist.

The February 13 front page article on SOTU, “Obama’s goal: Reignite true engine of America – minimum, gun laws top agenda” demonstrates that the USAT editors regarded gun control as a major aspect of the speech whereas WSJ headlines omitted guns. The article’s main sentence about guns and SOTU reads that Obama “called on lawmakers to vote on even the most divisive aspects of his plan to overhaul gun laws” (A1). The framing is about civilizing the debate through law.

A February 13 article on page A6 noted that the last time guns were mentioned in a SOTU was 2000 – after Columbine. Victims’ families plead for ‘safer’ gun legislation” appears on page A7. It provides an in-depth discussion of the gun protest on Capitol Hill that took place the morning of SOTU. There are many quotes from victims of gun violence, and those who lost loved ones. The articles makes references to Virginia Tech twice, and interviews the Pendletons. The article references Mayors Against Illegal Guns – but does not reference the NRA. Thus the article must be viewed as promoting the cause of gun control as a civics or civil rights issue.

Editorials, by their very nature, provide greater windows into a newspaper’s views than articles can. The day after the speech, USAT produced a 562 word reflection on SOTU that references guns only twice, but the phrase “gun violence is a blight on America” (10A) indicates at least some agenda-setting on the editorial staff’s part. “Blight” is part of the “cancer” framing of gun violence. The February 14 issue has only a passing reference to gun control.

The only article in USAT during this three day period that references the NRA is Wickham’s February 12 anti-gun essay. “High drama over ex-cop plays out in gunbattle and flames,” (1A) makes several references to Newtown and Gabrielle Giffords. The article begins “Just as President Obama was preparing to put gun violence squarely in the national political agenda with his address to Congress” – and then proceeds to detail the manhunt in California. Commentary is injected about 10 paragraphs down:

A string of mass murders, including the slaying of 20 elementary school children and six adults at Sandy Hook school in Newton, Conn., helped elevate the issue of placing  controls on guns – long anathema to gun-rights advocates – in the national conversation   and political debate.

Here seems to be an example of emotional agenda-setting. The term “slaying” when applied to the children feels particularly emotionally charged. Overall, while USAT did not generate nearly as many words about SOTU as the NYT did (and cannot be expected to, given the convenient size of the newspaper), the three day news cycle may be viewed as sympathetic to gun control advocacy.

III. The Wall Street Journal

            There are few newspapers in the country that have the history, prestige, name recognition, and gravitas of the WSJ. Its readership is vast. Yet a search for articles that include “State of the Union” and “guns” for the February 12, 2013 WSJ reveals only one. Thus gun issues can’t possibly be viewed to be as important to the WSJ as it was to the NYT or USAT on the date of the scheduled speech. On February 12, the commentary “Economic anxiety shadows speech,” by Gerald Seib, occurs on page A4. “Gun control” is merely a lone passing reference.  The SOTU is framed in other articles for its impending economic discussion.

The February 13, 2013 WSJ featured a picture of Obama on the front cover before his SOTU. The article was headed “Obama Turns Focus to Boosting Economy in SOTU.” Guns are simply not mentioned on page 1. In the iconic bifurcated “What’s News” column (Business and Finance on the left; Word-Wide on the right; a faint, off-yellow background) SOTU is the head summary article on the right – but does not mention guns. While we can’t conclude much from page 1, we might be able to surmise that the WSJ was not setting any agenda on guns.

The print article about SOTU finishes on page 4. Here we find two pictures – of Senator Rand Paul, the Tea Party candidates who would give a rebuttal, and the bottom picture is of Marco Rubio, who delivered the GOP’s response. This seemed relatively balanced – but no mention of the gun debate. In the first column on page 4, in a speech from a twice-elected Democratic president, the word “Republicans” came up 4 times; the term GOP once, and the term Tea Party also once. “Democrats” did not surface. The slant toward the GOP was palpable.

The WSJ’s February 13 Eastern Edition editorial, which concludes “his grand liberal plans will vanish faster than he imagines,” is openly opposed (if not hostile) to the plans outlined in the SOTU. An array of issues are covered – schools, climate change, economic growth – but guns do not appear once in this reaction. If making gun violence in mid-February was an important mission to national newspapers editors – the mission was not shared by WSJ editors.

The February 14 WSJ’s “What’s News” World-Wide column led with a briefing of SOTU, but the paragraph did not mention of guns. The phrase “State of the Union Address” does appear frequently in the February 14 edition, but only two articles address both SOTU and guns – and one of them is penned by none other than Karl Rove (A17). The commentary piece predictably derides the SOTU, with language like “gushing of liberal supporters.” Gun violence receives a stray passing reference. The other articles that day are about Obama’s economic plans.

An article on A21, “To fight guns, groups model gun owners” was submitted from Newtown. A number of experts are cited: Senator Martin Looney, co-chairman of the anti-gun violence legislative task force; Nancy Lefkowitz, co-founder of the gun control advocacy group March for Change; Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (which opposes new gun laws); and Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Of all the articles I read, this one seemed to be the only way to go out of its way to quote members on both sides of the fence. De Avila’s piece struck me as perhaps the best example of balanced journalism published over the three day period.

The three newspapers’ Facebook pages

            Newspaper Facebook frames must not be viewed as akin to the depth of actual Web newspaper presence. They are “hooks.” The USAT Facebook page of February 12 asks its readers “What do you think the president will say tonight?” It is a rather simple question that almost sounds like “What do you think mom will make for dinner tonight?” It generated a mere 92 “likes.” Anyone “up” on the news – through dailies, talk shows, NPR, the blogosphere, online newspapers – might find the question slightly amusing. The page provides a hyperlink to the ghosts of SOTUs past – suggesting a need to educate the American public. The February 13 page contains a link to a video of the SOTU, and an article. A good seven of the paragraphs in this online article are about guns. They are usually three lines long, for example:

In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the hour-long speech, Obama called on  Congress to vote on gun-control proposals in order to honor “Americans whose lives  have been torn apart” by mass violence. “They deserve a vote,” Obama said.

The language seems well within reach of a 7th or 8th grader, and the paragraphs provide visual ease of digestion. At the end of the article, there was an easy to click on menu with recent results from a Gallup poll. If you clicked on “gun laws,” a large, easy to read pie chart pops up:

Fig. 1: USAT Facebook chart (chart does not replicate itself in WordPress).

The question is whether you would support your congressman in Obama’s stricter gun laws. In this pie chart, a small sliver is neutral or undecided, and 53% would favor stronger gun controls. What I think is interesting about the chart is the use of colors: it does not divide the nation into “red state/blue state” on the issue of guns. It may be subtly setting an agenda in that most of its colors are blue – something we tend to associate with Democrats and liberalism – or it may simply be that a blue circle is something we associate as a logo of USAT.

The WSJ’s February 12 Facebook page led with a color picture of Obama at the podium, and the small box quoted only text from SOTU concerning guns – in contrast to its print edition.  The article received 546 “likes,” but inferences about “likes” are hard to prove. Since the February 13 print edition of the Journal seemed to downplay the SOTU, or emphasize the GOP reaction to it, the highlighting of it on Facebook suggests that the WSJ was potentially courting a new or different audience. Reading too deeply into a day’s worth of news that is probably hastily pieced together by low-level workers strikes me as a mistake of scholarship.

Of the captions on the NYT’s Facebook pages, February 12-14, only two boxes are about SOTU: both on February 12. One is a large, colorful picture of an impassioned Obama speaking at the podium. This caption has 2,045 “likes,” and while a small number in comparison to the number of actual NYT or readers, represents a tidal wave of a shift from USAT or WSJ Facebook “likes.” The boxes provide links to a live blog on, the complete text of the speech, and the Republican response. I nibbled at the live blog. Doing so led me to troves of comments by a vast army of NYT bloggers and tweeters.  A Facebook hyperlink is bait.

Concluding discussion

            Examining three newspapers (and their Facebook pages) over a three day period does not “prove” anything meaty; it provides an appetizer. The study is anecdotal, not hard social science, but nonetheless revealed important trends. As for RQ1, neither USAT nor WSJ could match the NYT for breadth and depth of coverage of SOTU or addressing its gun control agenda (nor do they likely have the sheer number of reporters.) The WSJ had six editorials during the three day period, and not a single one even mentioned guns. The Times seemed to be openly keeping the issue a national discussion as an agenda-setting goal about gun control and safety – not gun rights. USAT participated in the discussion and seemed to agree with NYT, but not as vehemently. As for RQ2, as Downs predicted, the NRA and other gun rights positions were by and large marginalized, though Ted Nugent’s presence at SOTU was news in all three publications, derided the most by the NYT. As for RQ3, I found no vilification of Obama on guns; mostly just criticism of his economic policies in the WSJ. The Facebook frames of the three newspapers were “interesting” more than “conclusive” in any way; Twitter would have probably led to more findings and a livelier discussion. The inquiry invites further study into gun framing in other news media sources and over a longer period of time – particularly when a major shooting tragedy is not on the minds of media consumers. In general, USAT was the most neutral, and stereotypes about the NYT as “pro Obama” and “pro-gun control” and the WSJ as “anti-Obama” seemed fairly apt.

And I gave all three newspapers a fair shot.


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