Carnegie Mellon University

Police Brutality in News Media: Narratives and Narrative Icons as Argumentation and Markers of Communal Identity

Author: Doug Phillips
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2016

Although the news often follows a pre-established story structure defined by institutional actors or predetermined events (Lawrence 1996), “dramatic” events offer journalists opportunities to reframe public problems or re-engage neglected issues. As they make connections across stories and issues, journalists need to reference earlier events (Richardson 2007; Bell 1991). One particular type of shorthand reference that journalists use is what I am calling a narrative icon, a word, name, or short phrase that lacks the detail of a “complete” narrative (Labov & Waletzky 1967) yet that indexes particular versions of a broader cultural story.
In this dissertation, I examine how news stories about decisive events coalesce in media discourse, and how they function rhetorically. Specifically, I examine how journalists frame stories about police brutality, how those frames construct versions of public narratives, and how those narrative versions can be used iconically.
As a case study, I analyze 310 articles from the Los Angeles Times that mention Rodney King from 1991-2013. Following a macro-structural approach to newspaper discourse (van Dijk 1985), I show how journalists’ micro-linguistic choices frame each story and what those frames suggest are possible means of a Rodney King narrative icon. Further, I show how the same or similar narrative icons, such as “the Rodney King incident,” can be used to index different versions of the King story and to perform different rhetorical work. In short, I find that the King story is used as both a marker of communal identity and as support in arguments about issues of civic concern, such as political elections or new community policing policies.
The findings of this project suggest that newspaper readers develop background knowledge in part through sustained discourses about an event or set of events. More importantly, this background knowledge is an important rhetorical resource: journalist can index this knowledge to enhance their own credibility and readers must draw on this knowledge to fully make sense of current events. In both cases, indexing or accessing shared background knowledge constructs communal identities and perpetuates cultural masterplots (Abbott 2008).