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Framing Private Lynch: Establishment and tenacity
of the hero frame during war
Submitted to: Mass Communication and Society, Student Paper Division
AEJMC National Convention, San Antonio, August 10-13, 2005
By Josh Grimm
School of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin
12100 Metric Blvd. #1124
Austin, TX 78758
(512) 835-9095 (h)
(614) 738-8061 (c)
[log in to unmask]
Framing Private Lynch: Establishment and tenacity
of the hero frame during war
Following the rescue of Jessica Lynch, a soldier captured during the
invasion of Iraq, media outlets incorrectly sensationalized events
surrounding her capture, imprisonment, and rescue. Using Lule's
components of a hero, newspaper articles and news transcripts were
analyzed for these attributes, and a Web forum was studied to gauge
reaction. A hero frame was present in the press and, for at least a
portion of the population, the frame was a stubborn one.
Framing Private Lynch: Establishment and tenacity
of the hero frame during war
In April of 2003, the advancing troops in Iraq were slowed by
sandstorms and deterred by the lack of the celebrating, liberated
citizens. Then, Private Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old from Palestine,
West Virginia, was rescued, a week after she was captured when her
convoy took a wrong turn a week earlier. Described in Rambo-esque
terms, media outlets laid out the events surrounding her capture with
great enthusiasm, explaining how she suffered multiple gunshot and
stab wounds as she emptied her weapon into the attacking Iraqi
soldiers. Once taken prisoner, she was slapped around and
interrogated, but in a daring nighttime raid a commando unit
infiltrated the hospital where she was being held and rescued the
young blonde woman. A hero was born.
Almost immediately, initial details disappeared as news organizations
learned that the rumors of Lynch's battle to the death had been
greatly exaggerated and yet, tales of her brutal capture and the
daring nighttime raid persisted. It was not until a critical,
investigative piece appeared in The Guardian and on the BBC that the
real story was pieced together. Lynch was not shot or stabbed—her
extensive injuries were sustained when the vehicle crashed. When she
tried to fire her gun, it jammed, and Lynch went unconscious soon
after the crash. In the hospital, the doctors "gave her three
bottles of blood, two of them from the medical staff" because they
were out of blood at the time (Kampfner, 2003: p. 3). According to
the BBC, even the rescue story was dramatized—no resistance was met
in the hospital and doctors said the soldiers were firing blank
rounds with the camera rolling. The result was a new entry "in
American folklore" (Kampfner, 2003: p. 2).
American journalists built on this story and eventually even Jessica
Lynch confirmed that she had been treated well and did not fight to
the death. Less than seven months after her capture, Lynch's book
topped the New York Times bestseller list. A week earlier, nearly 15
million viewers tuned in to NBC's made-for-TV movie about her
story—impressive numbers, considering "The Elizabeth Smart Story" was
being shown at the same time on CBS. Undoubtedly some disappointed
viewers tuned in expecting to see Lynch mowing down Iraqi soldiers in
a fight to the death, and yet even with the media saturation of what
really happened, the myth of Jessica Lynch has survived. This study
will examine not only the persistence of the initial story, but also
examine reporting to see how news outlets handled the situation.
While framing as a theory began in the early 1970s, it gained
attention in Todd Gitlin's The Whole World Is Watching, which
examined media coverage of the New Left movement. In it, Gitlin
(1980) defines framing as "persistent patterns of cognition,
interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and
exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse,
whether verbal or visual" (p. 7). Today, one definition of framing
is "selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and
making connections among them so as to promote a particular
interpretation" (Reese, 2003: 7). However, the definition is broader
because, as the field has developed, different perspectives have
resulted in specific interpretations of framing. While firmly
grounded in the theory, several key approaches emerge with slight yet
significant deviations from one another in regard to methodology,
unit of analysis, and key assumptions regarding framing (Reese, 2003).
Before examining differences in approaches to framing, we must first
acknowledge the similarities. Framing "is a way of giving some
interpretation to isolated items of fact," often placed in a frame of
reference familiar to the audience (McQuail, 2000: p. 343). Entman
(1993) explained that frame functions include defining the problem,
diagnosing causes, making moral judgments, and suggesting
remedies. While "a single sentence may perform more than one of
these functions…many sentences in a text perform none of them"
(Entman, 1993: p. 52). While acceptance of a frame by the audience
can be altered by the prominence and repetition of words and images,
cultural saliency and simplicity are also important in its
establishment (Entman, 2004). However, framing theory does not
primarily focus on the reaction of the audience but rather the
presentation of the frame—the existence of a frame generally implies
its transmission. If the frame "emphasizes in a variety of mutually
reinforcing ways that the glass is half full, the evidence of social
science suggests that relatively few in the audience will conclude it
is half empty" (Entman, 1993: p. 56).
Due to "vague conceptualizations, the term 'framing' has been used
repeatedly to label similar but distinctly different approaches"
(Scheufele, 1999: p. 103). McCombs and Ghanem (2003) focused
(naturally) on the connection between framing and agenda-setting by
emphasizing a more empirical approach. Because agenda-setting
research "examines the transfer of framing salience between the text
(as interpreted by the researcher) and the receiver (public)," the
more quantitative approach was to eliminate "much of the imprecision
and misunderstanding in framing scholarship" (McCombs, 2003: p.
89). Also along the empirical thread, Tankard (2003) used the list
of frames approach, which operated under the assumption that
information that could be coded should be categorized into
identifiable frames. On the other end of the spectrum, Reese &
Buckalew (1994) examined the militarism of local television news
during the Gulf War with a much more qualitative approach, relying on
specific examples and miniature timelines to demonstrate the
different types of frames.
A plethora of other framing approaches exist, whether it is Messaris
and Abraham (2003) explaining the impact of visual images on frames
or Hertog and McLeod (1995) examining different news frames regarding
the portrayal of anarchist rioters. However, most pertinent to this
study is the intriguing (and growing) field of value-effects framing.
Nelson and Wiley (2003) approached framing in the context of
values. Framing "is best reserved for messages that don't supply new
information, but rather restructure or reinterpret existing
information" (p. 256). This is largely true because all frames
affect (at some level) the core values of the viewer/reader, and
those frames relying on existing data do not require as much effort
A value is "a positive attitude toward some general state of affairs,
even if that state of affairs is an unattainable ideal" (Nelson &
Wiley, 2003: 249). This could be a very broad concept, such as
equality or freedom, and it does not necessarily have to be an
attainable ideal. These values swarm beneath the surface; "nearly
every contentious issue…exposes an entrenched value conflict" (Nelson
& Wiley, 2003: p. 252).
People "who encounter an issue framed in ethical terms become more
likely to view not only that issue but also other issues…as connected
with basic moral principles (Shah et al., 2003). A majority of work
in the area of value-framing has been done through the measuring of
political attitudes—a particular frame on certain issues primes
individuals, thus making them more accessible for politicians
(Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Zaller, 1992; Nelson & Wiley,
2003). Naturally, most people are internally conflicted on political
issues. What is most interesting is that, when faced with a moral
dilemma that challenges beliefs, individuals sample from their own
available cognitions, over-sampling those which are easily brought to
mind (Metzger, 2000; Shah et al, 2003).
Lule's (2001) latest book does not specifically mention frames,
focusing instead on recurrent, mythological stories that appear in
the news. When reporting on the brutal murder of an innocent
bystander, Lule was surprised to find the tremendous amount of
interest from the public about the random act of violence before
realizing that "readers did not need information" about the
incident—the event was of interest as a story, not facts (Lule, 2001: p. 12).
Joseph Campbell's (1972) concatenation example states that he has
found "legends of virgins giving birth to heroes who die and are
resurrected" just about everywhere (p. 9). Campbell (1960) also
explained that "No human society has yet been found…in which such
mythological motifs have not been rehearsed in liturgies; interpreted
by seers, poets, theologians, or philosophers; presented in art;
magnified in song; and ecstatically experienced in life-empowering
visions" (p. 2). Carl Jung asked, "Has mankind ever really got away
from myths? One could almost say that if all the world's traditions
were cut off at a single blow, the whole of mythology and the whole
history of religion would start over with the next generation" (Lule,
2001: p. 17).
Myth is not unreality, a false belief, or an untrue tale. To compare
news and myth does not suggest that news regularly passes down untrue
stories of doubtful origins. Instead, these news stories merge with
myths to "offer sacred, societal narratives with shared values and
beliefs, with lessons and themes, and with exemplary models that
instruct and inform"—not to mention reinforce the ideals and beliefs
inherent in every culture (Lule, 2001: p. 18). Thus, when Reese
(2003) explains that frames "distill and call up a larger world of
meaning," the same could be said of these mythical outlines (p.
13). Lule (2001) explained, "Every society needs stories that
confront the ultimate issues of the human condition…every society
needs myths" (p. 15). Lule then outlines seven master myths that
appear in the news: the myth of the victim, the scapegoat, the hero,
the good mother, the trickster, the other world, and the flood. Lule
does point out that not all news stories will fit into a specific
myth, emulating Freud's (alleged) cigar statement with "sometimes a
fire story is just a fire story" (p. 18). However, in the case of
Jessica Lynch, the hero myth is clearly the frame.
As it is in the classical mythology tradition, Lule (2001) explains,
the hero is born into humble circumstance, initiates a quest or a
journey, faces battles or trials (winning a decisive victory), and
finally returning triumphant. The hero "seems to speak directly to
individual endeavor and accomplishment" (Lule, 2001: p. 100). Being
born into humble circumstances "seeks to explain the hero,"
identifying the social values embodied by the hero (Lule, 2001: p.
91). The quest is a highly-prized goal, and the decisive victory in
a trial or battle provides the test of those embodied values. The
return is simply "a triumphal celebration" (Lule, 2001: p.
96). However, heroics are not for the bashful. The "unsung heroes
are literally that: unsung, uncelebrated, unnoted. The Hero must be
cast in mass-mediated stories that inform and instruct society. The
Hero must be made well-known by the news" (Lule, 2001: p. 101).
RQ1: How long is Jessica Lynch framed as a hero?
RQ2: Does Jessica Lynch's hero frame persist because of continual
framing by the news outlets even after the true story was known?
The retention of the hero myth was examined through an analysis of
the news Web site www.fark.com. An impressive compilation of stories
submitted by the site's members (and approved by moderators), the
site features news of both bizarre and significant events. It also
has a news forum next to each story for elaboration and discussion on
the posted article. Registration is required for submitting
comments, but anyone can view the news stories and the related
comments already posted. While Fark started slowly early February
1999, it has quickly gained popularity. In 2004, Fark received over
350 million page views and the site currently has over 200,000
registered users—this number obviously does not include "lurkers"
since registration is optional (Curtis, 1999). The site's popularity
and accessibility to its complete archives (courtesy of the site's
contract with Google) made it an ideal choice for this study. Any
forums related to the war in Iraq were examined for the appearance of
any comments relating to Jessica Lynch, and the accuracy of those
comments was noted.
For this study, analysis focused on sourcing, presence of background
context (focusing on definitions of key terms), repeated phrases and
themes, and directionality of narrative statements by the
writer. This information was acquired, studied, and analyzed through
the process of a textual analysis.
Textual analysis "examines a given object –a text or group of
texts—as closely and as systematically as possible in order to answer
specific questions" (Larson, 2002: 117). This approach "focuses on
texts and seeks to understand them from a literary point of view and
to understand how they define culture" (Potter, 1996: 62). This
approach was selected because it seeks to "preserve and analyze the
situated form, content, and experience of social action, rather than
subject it to mathematical or other formal transformations" (Lindlof,
2002: 18). As a method, it is ideal for this study because this type
of analysis "avoids the condensation and decontextualization of
meaning which is implicit in grounded theory as well as most
quantitative versions of coding" (Jensen, 2002: 248).
The analysis was performed on the following newspapers: Washington
Post, New York Times, New York Post, Washington Times, Columbus
Dispatch, and Cleveland Plain Dealer. For these publications, an
"article" was defined as continuous editorial content with a single
theme organized under a headline (Weispfenning, 1994). The
Washington Post was selected because it ran the story that told the
story of Jessica Lynch's firefight, which was then picked up and run
in newspapers across the country. The New York Times was chosen for
its reputation and status as an intermedia agenda-setter (Grossberg
et al., 1998). The Washington Times and the New York Post were
examined to see if newspapers with more conservative standpoints
treated the framing of Jessica Lynch any differently (Alterman,
2003). The Columbus Dispatch and Cleveland Plain Dealer were
selected for a small sampling of how newspapers without national
circulation handled the issue. Bacon's Newspaper Directory (2003)
listed the Cleveland Plain Dealer as Ohio's largest daily newspaper
with a daily circulation of 386,322 (Sunday circulation of 492,712)
while the Columbus Dispatch had a daily circulation of 245,946
(Sunday circulation of 372,935).
Transcripts from NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and
the CBS Evening News were also analyzed for content. For the purpose
of this study, a news story was a broadcasted segment of news
designed to inform about a person, place, or event. Jessica Lynch's
rescue was filmed in night-vision as troops raided the hospital,
providing media outlets what Oscar Gandy (1982) would call
information subsidies. Providing media outlets with resources will
generally increase the chances of a story being aired or written
(Leon Sigal, 1973, Grossberg et al., 1998; Kemper, 2004). Ratings
were also a factor. Nielsen results from April 2003 show that NBC's
Nightly News won the evening news ratings race, averaging 11.4
million viewers, followed by ABC's World News Tonight with 9.9
million and the CBS Evening News with 7.5 million (Johnson,
2003). The combined viewership of these network news programs was
nearly 29 million people.
Using the search term "Jessica Lynch" on LexisNexisTM, news stories
and articles were collected that were released between March 2003 and
November 2003. Lynch was captured in late March of 2003, marking the
beginning of the search parameters, and the release of Lynch's
biography, the made-for-TV movie, and her first interviews were
released in November of 2003, ending the media blitz. As per the
definition of a television news story, news teases were eliminated
from the results. For the newspapers, articles, columns, and
editorials were included, but because of the brevity and rare
occurrence, letters to the editor were not. Ultimately, a total of
132 pieces from the newspaper and 38 from the network news programs were used.
Each article was also looked at contextually to ensure that it was
Lynch being described. The content was also examined for repetition
of certain words and phrases across the life of a story because it
shapes the meaning by telling readers what the important story
elements are and how to think about them.
The Fark Internet forums revealed that the Jessica Lynch myth is
still at large. Lynch references were speckled throughout the
comment sections. While a majority of the comments adhered to the
facts, occasionally one or two would appear in a thread that followed
at least one of two misconceptions: that Lynch fired on Iraqis after
her convoy was attacked and that Lynch was shot during her capture.
Even after Lynch's book had been released, the NBC movie, and
multiple interviews in which Lynch stated she did not shoot or get
shot, the legend continued. On November 11, 2003, one user wrote,
"Have a little mercy guys, I'm sure that if you got shot a whole
bunch of times in the back…you'd feel that you were owed
something." The next day, in a different comment section, a
different user spoke of Lynch, expressing disbelief that she was
"shot just because some guy with a mustache gave the order." On
December 12, 2003, an outraged user wrote, "In the eyes of the world
community, it is fair. How many other countries were up-in-arms over
the Iraqis treatment of Jessica Lynch? NONE!" (capital letters used
in original post) The user continued, writing, "If we had done the
same to an Iraqi soldier, the UN would call a (expletive) emergency
Security Council Meeting."
Months later, on April 29, 2004, yet another user wrote, "I bet
Jessica Lynch (And I use her for the recognition factor) liked being
shot for fun."
Obviously, because it is a public forum rather than a personal Web
site, people responded to the users errors with brief explanations
and links to pertinent news stories. In such news groups (especially
those which encourage debates) it is not unusual to witness people
"trolling," a unique Internet term referring to individuals who post
blatantly inflammatory material to get a reaction from other
users. However, what is interesting is that, in the cases of the
incorrect Lynch postings, the poster either left the forum or
apologized for the mistake (often offering thanks for the correction
before continuing with the argument). Out of all the comment
threads, once a poster was corrected that person never again posted
an incorrect comment about Lynch.
While there is not a significant body of work specifically examining
the representation of public opinion in newsgroup comments, the
Internet is still a medium. A vast majority of radio station
listeners will never call a radio station, just as a large number of
newspaper readers will never write a letter to the editor. Granted,
interactivity on the Internet is easier, but as Rice (1999) explains,
the average user "must put forth more effort to integrate and make
sense of the communication," adding that "interactivity and choice
are not universal benefits; many people do not have the energy,
desire, need or training to engage in such processes" (p.
29). Despite the uncertainties, it is safe to say that, if one
person is posting a comment, somewhere, someone else agrees.
Despite the fact that the news media created the legend of Lynch, the
false details dissipated almost immediately. Some outlets
specifically said Lynch did not fire her weapon or get shot while
others simply omitted "gunshot wounds" from the list of
injuries. Regardless, by April 6th the media examined had corrected
the mistake. Even though writing styles differed between the
conservative news outlets (Washington Times, New York Post) and the
traditional outlets (New York Times, Washington Post), the facts
remained the same. Those facts were also reported correctly in the
two Ohio newspapers, but it is interesting to note that combined, the
Columbus Dispatch and Plain Dealer still did not have as many
articles as any of the national papers, even though Ohio borders
Lynch's home state of West Virginia. In fact, of the seven pieces
that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, only one was an actual news
article about Lynch—the others were either editorials or gossip in
the Accents & Arts section on NBC's Jessica Lynch movie. This is
noteworthy because, while other papers were constantly reinforcing
that Lynch was not captured in a blaze of glory and gunfire, the
Dispatch was not presenting an alternate frame. In fact, it was not
presenting a frame at all. Whether or not this is a trend of
regional newspapers could only be determined by more research, but
the only news article carried was a front-page description of Lynch's
heroic battle—ensuing clarifications were made on the opinion page.
The word "hero" was used (in relation to Lynch) 29 times while
"brave" was also used twice. The references are spread across all
media in the sample, and there are two distinct spikes where most of
the words are concentrated: April (around the time of her rescue) and
a slightly larger one in July (around the time she returned home to
Palestine, WV). It is possible that, when readers and viewers saw
the wording in July, "hero" was associated with her actions in
April. However, that would be suggesting a lot of interpretation
from casual readers and thus, without survey or interview
information, this result must be left as inconclusive.
Most striking was not the presence of the word hero, but of the hero
itself. The adherence to Lule's framing model of the hero myth
across the news media sampled is intriguing. Lule's (2001) first
stage in the development of the master frame of the hero is an
explanation of the humble beginnings. The newspapers focused on this
more than the television news programs, possibly due to the
format. Regardless, the frame was transmitted as the simplicity
Lynch's hometown of Palestine, West Virginia was emphasized. A
friend of the Lynch family explained that, during Jessica's first
trip to Charleston, "she kept saying that this is what New York City
must be like," adding that Lynch was "nothing but a wholesome West
Virginia country girl" (Jehl & Blair, 2003: p. 1). World News
Tonight interviewed a local resident that said, "You know, we live in
Little Mayberry here, and then, when this right here happens, well,
you know, we wake up and Mayberry's in the real world" (Shipman,
2003). The New York Post introduced her as "a simple country girl
who enlisted to try to escape the poverty of her town" (Sheehy, 2003:
p. 10). The Washington Post described Palestine as "the tiny West
Virginia town that ran out of yellow ribbon but never hope" (Jones,
2003: p. 1). Another article from the Washington Post describes
Lynch as "plucky enough to make the high school basketball team
despite her petite 5-foot-4 frame; gutsy enough to survive basic
training without a complaint, making even her sexist big brother
proudly admit that he had underestimated the strength and
perseverance of women" (Jones, 2003: p. 1). The news media painted a
Rockwellian picture of a small-town country girl from the heartland,
leaving the simple life for adventure in the army.
Lule's next step in completing the master frame was the quest. This
was the most simple, hence the least-stated—her mission was obviously
that of the U.S. military: the occupation of Iraq. When deployed
with her unit to Kuwait, her resolve was evident and "her spirits
were high…she said: 'we need to do it. I'm not afraid to do it'"
(Yardley, 2003: p. 7). The Washington Post (2003) reported Lynch
enthusiastically explaining that, "Most people never get out of Wirt
County, and I'm going to another country" (Jones, 2003, p. 1).
Lule's third component in the mythological hero frame is triumph in a
decisive trial or battle which, in this case, was Lynch fighting off
Iraqis like Crocket at the Alamo. In a Hollywood movie preview
fashion, the Plain Dealer (2003) reported that Lynch was "trained as
a supply clerk" but "became a combat tiger" when the convoy came
under attack (p. 8). The lone news article of the Columbus Dispatch
reported, "Lynch fought fiercely and shot several enemy
soldiers…firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition" (Wilson,
2003: p. 1). "Lynch…continued firing at the Iraqis even after she
sustained multiple gunshot wounds" explained the Washington Post,
adding, "She was fighting to the death" (Schmidt & Loeb, 2003: p. 1).
"The return" was her dramatic rescue from the hospital by Special
Forces. It was described as "a classic joint operation done by some
of our nation's finest warriors, who are dedicated to never leaving a
comrade behind" (Raddatz, 2004). The New York Times reported that
the soldiers "were pros" and explained that, "Because these guys
train together and work together, they were able to get in there
quickly" (Shanker & Broder, 2004: p. 10). The New York Post's
description included adjectives as the headline exclaimed that a
"daring midnight ballet brought back Pfc. Jessica from the enemy's
evil clutches" (Lathem & Sujo, 2003: p. 10). The phrase "daring
nighttime raid" was used in virtually all the media sampled. The
return could possibly be interpreted as Lynch's return to Palestine,
W.V., which was marked with the most references to the word
"hero." However, this is highly unlikely since, by that time, the
media's frame of Lynch as a mythological hero had all but crumbled.
Evidence suggests that the frame was not only presented, but was
persistent as well. There are numerous possibilities as to why the
image of a female Rambo stuck in the minds of some people. The fact
that Lynch was a young, white female undoubtedly played a role, and
the preponderance of action-adventure movies in the culture offered,
as Shah et al. (2003) described, a basis of comparison and a
cognitive point of reference for understanding what had
happened. However, it is possible that, instead of this being a
continuation of the American torrid affair with violence, framing
played a greater role than was previously thought. The hero myth is
a classic one, duplicated many times over. The frame of the hero, by
association, provided saliency to the hero's quest—in this case, it
gave a population uneasy about a preemptive strike a reason to back
the war in Iraq.
No one questioned Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, Hercules's
mission to destroy the Hydra or, more aptly, Odysseus's war against
Troy. Myths provide a sense of moral clarity, of right and wrong,
and by placing Lynch in the mythological role it gave credence to the
quest. Even as late as Febuary 2003, polls showed less than
universal support within the United States for invading Iraq. A New
York Times/CBS News poll was conducted in a nationwide telephone
survey of 747 adults and a margin of sampling error of plus or minus
four percentage points. Support for the invasion of Iraq was around
sixty-six percent. However, even after all the attention President
Bush and his staff had given explaining the rationale behind
attacking, "fifty-nine percent of Americans said they believed the
president should give the United Nations more time" while
"sixty-three percent said Washington should not act without the
support of its allies, and 56 percent said Mr. Bush should wait for
United Nations approval" (Tyler & Elder, 2003: p. 1). None of these
concerns was addressed and about a month after the article was
written the invasion was underway.
Despite the passage of time and an overall sense of responsibility by
the news media in correcting the facts surrounding her capture, the
hero myth of Jessica Lynch remains. A factor could have been the
lack of news attention paid to the adjusted accounts of Lynch under
fire as evidenced by the Columbus Dispatch. Casual readers glancing
at the front page, or even just the lead of the story would latch
onto Lynch's apparent desire not to be taken alive, and that view
would not be challenged if the reader did not turn to the editorial
page. However, emphasis must not be placed on what was omitted, but
rather what was not. The hero frame existed in some form in all
Historicized in the context of popular but far from overwhelming
support for the invasion of Iraq, the strange attachment to the
initial story of her capture is easier to understand.
Grasping for clear-cut righteousness in a time of moral uncertainty,
people grabbed onto the Jessica Lynch frame of mythical heroism and
apparently, some people just do not want to let go.
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