"The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy," by Brian L. Ott & Eric Aoki


Ott, Brian L. and Aoki, Eric. "The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder." Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.3 (2002): 483–505.

Reviewed by Jamie Skerski, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University, Bloomington

Ott and Aoki offer a poignant critique of the media coverage surrounding the horrific beating and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard, demonstrating both the constitutive and transformative potential of symbolic forms. Their compelling essay productively advances Kenneth Burke’s theories of symbolic action, terministic frames, and the comic corrective. The authors argue that the mass media’s tragic framing of Shepard’s death was the driving force behind the public vilification process that transformed Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, into convenient scapegoats, thus alleviating a sense of collective guilt and responsibility for our individual participation in a homophobic society. The vilification process becomes clear through the authors’ careful attention to the changing news coverage between Shepard’s death and McKinney’s trial. As Ott and Aoki write, "in the first few days after the attack, the public was forced, if only temporarily, to confess the prevalence of homophobic attitudes across the country" (491). That is, Shepard’s death directly confronted Americans with its homophobia—what had become the last socially acceptable prejudice.

Initially, the public anguish over the murder led to renewed debates over the importance of instating hate crime legislation. However, as time passed, "Slowly, almost unnoticeably, discourse in the news media was shifting from the country’s homophobia to that of the perpetrators, where it was being recoded as a character flaw rather than a wide-scale institutional prejudice" (492). As the trial approached, McKinney and Henderson were symbolically transformed. At first, they were two men with whom we might identify and recognize, but now they were dehumanized as isolated villains: they became "two very sick and twisted people" rather than men who could have lived next door (492). This mediated transformation and dehumanization created a symbolic distance between the public and the killers; we could no longer find identification with these villains and were relieved of any social culpability. While the actual trial may have served as a sense of social closure in the public mourning of Matthew Shepard, Ott and Aoki argue that the media coverage of the killers fostered an overly simplistic symbolic resolution to the story, reinforcing a heterosexist order and eliminating "the self-reflective space that might serve as the basis for social and political change" (494).

Beyond simply demonstrating the tragic frame of the murder and the problematic social implications, the authors also provide that very self-reflective space the media lacks in their indictment. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this essay is its productive capacity in re-constituting the public as critically reflective participants in the social order. Advocating Burke’s notion of the comic frame, the authors call for momentum in the direction of maximum consciousness—"self-awareness and social responsibility at the same time" (497). Rather than merely rejecting the media coverage with an attitude of pure debunking, they present productive and socially responsible critique, prompting a unique sense of critical reflection in the reader. The authors demonstrate their own constitutive and transformative potential – you cannot walk away from this article unmoved.

Ott and Aoki’s politically charged analysis thoughtfully engages theoretical concepts in ways that welcome the newcomer to Burke while remaining provocative to those thoroughly-versed in Burkean perspectives. This essay exemplifies Burke’s relevance to contemporary social relations, yet it leaves room for further elaboration. For example, the authors do gesture to the ideological implications embedded in dramatic forms, yet miss an opportunity to explore the value of Burke for theories of hegemony. The dehumanization process which transformed the killers from knowable subjects to incomprehensible monsters represents a complex hegemonic absorption technique of violation and repair that calls for further exploration.