Year of Publication

2016

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Communication and Information

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Dr. Elisia L. Cohen

Abstract

This dissertation examines two cases of fatal police-involved shootings of Black men in order to expose the power structures perpetuated through racist media narratives assuming the officers’ behavior was justified and the unarmed men the officers killed somehow were complicit in their death. In reporting on police-involved shootings, mainstream media practices that privilege elites and officials as primary sources of information may produce a dominant media narrative that masks the marginalization and mistreatment of minorities at the hands of these officials and their institutions. The two cases under consideration here examine the “floating signifier” of race in media coverage of (1) the shooting death of Walter Scott at the hands of North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC on April 4, 2015 and (2) the off-campus shooting of Samuel Dubose at the hands of University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing on July 19, 2015. Using critical discourse analysis, the purpose of this dissertation is to offer critical inquiry into these media narratives as a necessary tool for dismantling these hegemonic media structures.

The dissertation analyzes the narratives of these cases as presented in mass media to show how, if left unchecked, allowing elites and officials (particularly when they are representative of the individuals in the case) to define the narratives of such events can lead to misrepresentation of the narrative of the events. Only when video evidence disputing the police officers’ version of events did mainstream journalists begin to question the veracity of the officers’ claims their decisions to shoot these men were justified. The analysis examines the shifting discursive positions of the police, public officials, and media representatives over time in response to new (video) evidence and argument from the #BlackLivesMatter social protest movement members.

The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the implications of this media environment and its semiotic practices on those groups concerned with seeking change around issues of police violence and abuses of power. For social movements like Black Lives Matter, a sympathetic or alternative media space that gives publicity to counter narratives is necessary to challenge mainstream media hegemony.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.13023/ETD.2016.402