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Stories of Victims or Stories of Survivors?
A Framing Analysis of
the News Media Coverage of Burn Injuries
Nicole Elise Smith,
Park Fellow Doctoral Student
Stories of Victims or Stories of Survivors?
A Framing Analysis of the News Media Coverage of Burn Injuries
This study explored how the news media are telling the stories of
burn injuries. The study was approached from the perspectives of
framing theory and the social model of disability. In the analysis of
U.S. print news coverage from 1990 and 2000, the research found that
disabling language was prevalent and that media frames highlighted
the sensational aspects of burn care and recovery in telling the
stories of those who have sustained a burn injury.
Stories of Victims or Stories of Survivors?
A Framing Analysis of the News Media Coverage of Burn Injuries
The study of disability within the journalism and mass communication
field is a relatively new area of interest. Scholars in our field are
just beginning to examine the issues surrounding disability and how
disability is included both within the news and entertainment media.
Disability research is a diverse area, spanning disciplines from the
social sciences to the medical field. There are multiple perspectives
from which disability can be studied within the journalism and mass
This research investigates the use of media frames in the news
coverage of burn injuries. Agenda-setting theory purports that the
media do not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about.
Some researchers argue that as a second level of agenda-setting, how
the media frames issues impacts the public agenda (McCombs and Bell,
1996). Under this second level, known as framing theory, research
examines the "transmission of attribute salience" and "the role of
the news media in the framing of issues and other objects in the
public mind" (McCombs and Bell, 1996, p. 106). Additionally, this
research is approached from the perspective of the social model of
disability, which maintains that it is not the physical impairment,
but rather the ways in which society responds to those with
impairments, that is the cause of social exclusion and oppression
The purpose of this study is to explore how the U.S. print news media
frame the stories of those who have sustained a burn injury. In the
United States alone, approximately 2.4 million burn injuries are
reported per year (Burn Survivors Online, 2005). Approximately
650,000 of the injuries are treated by medical professionals while
75,000 are hospitalized (Burn Survivors Online). Of those
hospitalized, 20,000 have major burns involving at least 25 percent
of their total body surface (Burn Survivors Online). Between 8,000
and 12,000 patients with burn injuries die, and approximately one
million sustain substantial or permanent impairment resulting from
their burn injury (Burn Survivors Online). Burn injuries are second
to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of accidental death
in the United States (Burn Survivors Online).
Academic research has done little in the way of framing studies of
disability; therefore, more research, such as this study, is needed
in our body of knowledge. The research will now turn to a review of
the relevant literature.
Media Portrayals of Disability
A substantial body of media disability research has focused on news
media coverage and entertainment media portrayals of people with
disabilities. Both are vital areas for researchers to pursue as
previous research has continually indicated that the media, both news
and entertainment, have considerable influence on the public's
positive and negative stereotypes of minority groups (Greenberg &
Brand, 1994; Lester & Ross, 2003). As the current study is interested
in news media coverage of disability, the literature review will
focus on that body of work.
An area of analysis within media coverage of disability is the use of
language used to describe people with disabilities. Patterson and
Witten (1987) have defined disabling language as "language that (a)
perpetuates myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities, (b)
uses nouns instead of adjectives to describe people with
disabilities, or (c) uses demeaning or outdated words or phrases in
reference to persons with disabilities" (Lynch, Thuli, & Groombridge,
1994, p. 18). Beginning in the 1980s, the Associated Press, along
with other journalism groups, campaigned for the use of people-first
language such as "a person who uses a wheelchair" rather than
"wheelchair-bound person" in an effort to change the use of demeaning
terminology (Nelson, 2000, p. 188). This change in language shifts
the focus to the person rather than to the physical impairment (Lynch
et al., 1994).
In a study examining public perceptions of people-first language,
researchers found that the majority of respondents indicated some
preference for people-first language (Lynch et al., 1994). Although
about one-third of respondents could not detect a difference between
the people-first and disability-first language, the researchers
conclude that medical personnel, as guided by editorial and media
practices, "have an obligation to promote in every way possible,
including language use, that people with disabilities are not defined
by the disability" (Lynch et al., 1994, p. 22). Additionally,
researchers suggest that much more work is needed in this area (Lynch
et al., 1994).
Although limited in scope, news media content has previously been
examined for the use of disabling language. In a comparison of
newspapers in Canada and Israel, Auslander and Gold (1999) examined
the nature of the terminology, the content of the article, and the
article context. The researchers found that inappropriate terminology
was prevalent in the press of both countries; however, more positive
coverage was found in stories focusing on individual persons and
children and stories of physical and social rights, such as mobility
(Auslander & Gold). Davies (1994) concludes, "The way people are
represented in language and the media can influence how they are
perceived, and disabled people are often stereotyped in negative ways" (p. 15).
In a descriptive study, Nelson (2000) showed how the media have had
an instrumental role in both sustaining negative stereotypes and
building a growing sense of community among those with disabilities.
In Stage 1, The Dark Ages of Disability, negative portrayals of
disability dominated media content; therefore, the media was largely
responsible for perpetuating negative stereotypes (Nelson). After
WWII, the media slowly realized that some societal groups were being
denied their Constitutional rights, which led to the development of
Stage 2, Awareness of Rights (Nelson). However, while the press was
highlighting stories of abuses, television, which was becoming a
rapidly dominant medium, was perpetuating negative stereotypes of
people with disabilities (Nelson). In Stage 3, Mobilizing to Action,
the media experienced a growing sense of the injustices suffered by
those with disabilities, and the press began to play an instrumental
role in bringing about public awareness of these injustices (Nelson).
A major victory for those with disabilities was won in 1990 with the
passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, during
this time period "movies and television began generally to show more
realistic and sympathetic portrayals of those with disabilities"
(Nelson, p. 186). Nelson attributed this change to the growing sense
of community and self-awareness among people with disabilities that
they were people first and that they were not defined by their
disabilities (pg. 187).
Another significant change occurring in the media, which is of
particular importance to this study, was an effort to change the use
of demeaning terminology (Nelson). As mentioned earlier, the media
began to use descriptive phrases such as "a person who uses a
wheelchair" rather than "wheelchair-bound person" (Nelson, p. 188).
This change in terminology was regarded as affording a greater sense
of dignity to those with disabilities (Nelson). Stage 4, The
Revolution of Technological Community, which includes advances such
as email, chat groups, and bulletin boards, has helped the disability
community find enhanced means of communication that have led to a
stronger sense of community (Nelson). Nelson concludes that "the
notion of community has had a bonding effect on those with
disabilities" and that "the media have been instrumental in bringing
about changes in American society—both good and bad" (p. 192).
This portion of the literature review has demonstrated the
influential role that the media have both outside and within the
disability community. From the outside, the media have the ability to
influence audience stereotypes of people with disabilities. Although
research is just beginning to examine disabling language, previous
studies have indicated that inappropriate language is prevalent in
the media. From within the disability community, Nelson demonstrated
that a "growing sense of community among those with disabilities has
been linked to the media" (p. 180). The literature review will now
address the theoretical foundation for this research.
The Social Model of Disability
The fundamental assumption of the social model of disability is the
distinction between the terms disability and impairment. Disability
has been defined as "the disadvantage or restriction of activity
caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little
account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes
them from the mainstream of social activities" (Oliver, 1990, p. 11).
Impairment, conversely, refers to some bodily defect that usually
constitutes a "medically classified condition" (Barnes, Mercer, &
Shakespeare, 1999, p. 7). Put another way, "It is society which
disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed
on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated
and excluded from full participation in society" (UPIAS, 1976, p. 3).
This model maintains that it is not the impairment, but rather the
ways in which society responds to those with impairments, that is the
cause of social exclusion (Oliver, 2004).
One of the key aspects of the model is the switch in focus of what
actually causes limitations for someone with an impairment (Oliver,
2004). While the medical model of disability focuses on the physical
impairment as the limiting factor, the social model of disability
focuses on the economic, environmental, and cultural barriers
encountered by people with impairments (Oliver, 2004). Examples of
these types of barriers include "inaccessible education systems,
working environments, inadequate disability benefits, discriminatory
health and social support services, inaccessible transport, houses
and public buildings and amenities, and the devaluing of disabled
people through negative images in the media—films, television, and
newspapers" (Oliver, 2004, p. 21).
A second key aspect of the model is that "it refuses to see specific
problems in isolation from the totality of disabling environments"
(Oliver, 2004, p. 20). For example, the problem of employment for
someone with an impairment is not simply an issue of the job market;
it encompasses transportation, education, and culture (Oliver, 2004).
This aspect of the model illustrates how those with physical
impairments have become a socially oppressed group (Barnes & Mercer,
2004). This type of social oppression can be equated to the social
oppression of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and gays and
lesbians (Barnes & Mercer, 2004).
One of the criticisms of the social model of disability is that it
focuses on the collective or public oppression, while it ignores the
personal oppression of those with impairments (Oliver, 2004; Thomas,
1999). In an effort to address this criticism, Thomas (1999) proposed
the social relational model of disability, which is an extension of
the traditional social model. In Thomas' model, "disability is seen
as a form of social oppression that operates at both the public and
personal levels, affecting what people can do as well as who they can
be" (Reeve, 2004, p. 83). The social relational model includes the
economic, environmental, and cultural barriers; but, more important,
it also includes the psycho-emotional aspects of oppression that can
occur through imagery, cultural representations, and interactions
with others (Reeve).
To illustrate, a person in a wheelchair not only battles ongoing
physical barriers, he or she also faces an ongoing battle with the
reactions of others, such as being stared at or being interrogated,
which can lead to internalized oppression (Reeve). This aspect of
psycho-emotional oppression can be dependent on the noticeability of
a physical impairment. A person who is unable to hide a visual
impairment is likely to be labeled disabled by others, which can be a
psycho-emotional aspect of oppression. Conversely, although someone
who is able to physically hide an impairment may be less likely to be
stared at by others, they are forever at risk that their impairment
will be revealed, which can also be a psycho-emotional aspect of
oppression (Thomas, Reeve). As such, although an impairment may not
cause direct, physical disability, it is the reactions of others that
can directly affect psycho-emotional well being and "indirectly
restrict activity" (Reeve, p. 87). Given this understanding, the
social relational model of disability addresses both the
socio-structural barriers and the psycho-emotional barriers that lead
to the oppression of someone with an impairment.
The social model of disability maintains that it is the ways in which
society responds to people with impairments, rather than the
impairment itself that is the cause of social exclusion for people
with disabilities (Oliver, 2004). The social relational model of
disability, which extends the traditional social model, also includes
the psycho-emotional aspects of oppression that can occur for people
with disabilities (Reeve). One of the barriers encountered by those
with impairments is the devaluing of people with disabilities through
negative media images (Oliver, 2004). Given this understanding, this
research study seeks to understand how the U.S. print news media are
telling the stories of those who have sustained a burn injury. For
this investigation, framing theory will be used to analyze the
relevant news texts.
According to some researchers, the theory of framing developed as a
dimension of agenda-setting theory (McCombs & Reynolds, 2002; McCombs
& Bell, 1996). Within agenda-setting, the media present issues as
salient. Additionally, each of these issues, as presented by the
media, varies in terms of attributes presented. As a second level of
agenda-setting, the media framing of issues impacts the public
agenda. Framing theory was first articulated in 1980 by Gitlin
(McCombs & Bell). Gitlin (1980) studied how a television network
portrayed a student political movement during the 1960s. Gitlin
(1980) found that based on how the news media presented the scope of
the problem, other proposals for dealing with the problem, and the
level of detail of the tactical moves of activists and officials, the
news media trivialized the student political movement.
In further analysis of the impact of attribute salience, Entman
(1993) suggests that frames have the ability to call attention to
some aspects while obscuring other elements, which could lead
audiences to have different reactions. Entman (1993) said, "To frame
is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more
salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a
particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral
evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described"
(p. 52). Additionally, the theory assumes that frames are constructed
through all aspects of news stories. Also according to Entman (1991),
"By providing, repeating, and thereby reinforcing words and visual
images that reference some ideas but not others, frames work to make
some ideas more salient in the text, others less so—and others
entirely invisible" (p. 7).
In additional explanation of framing theory, Scheufele (2000) says
that framing theory is based on "prospect theory," which is the
assumption that "subtle changes in the wording of the description of
a situation might affect how audience members interpret this
situation" (p. 309). To clarify, he adds, "framing influences how
audiences think about issues, not by making aspects of the issue more
salient, but by invoking interpretive schemas that influence the
interpretation of incoming information" (Scheufele, p. 309). What
adds to this effect is that media frames created by journalists
aren't necessarily conscious decisions. Instead, another assumption
of the theory is that framing tends to be based on "subtle nuances in
wording and syntax" that are most likely unintentional and,
therefore, difficult for journalists to predict and control
(Scheufele, p. 309).
In summary, framing theory asserts that not only do the media present
certain issues as salient; they also present those issues within the
context of certain attributes. This attribute salience arises from
all aspects of the news story, including overall narrative, word
choice, images, and exclusions. Given the combination of these
factors, the audience will then interpret the issues as
important/unimportant based on the attribute salience. Additionally,
the theory operates under the assumption that the presentation of
frames within the news media may not always be intentional.
Literature Review Summary and Research Questions
Scholars have shown that the media have the power to create public
stereotypes, both positive and negative, of people with disabilities.
Given these findings, a framing study is a valid way to understand
how the news media are presenting the stories of those with
disabilities. More specifically, this research will use the social
relational model of disability, which assumes that the
psycho-emotional oppression of people with disabilities can occur
through imagery and cultural representations, such as those in the
news media, as a foundation for approaching a framing study of
disability. The stories of people who have sustained a burn injury
are particularly unique to investigate from the perspectives of
framing theory and the social relational model of disability.
Although there are many people that are left with physical
impairments due to a burn injury, the majority of those who sustain a
burn injury are left not with an impairment, but rather with physical
scars. So although these scars may not cause physical impairments,
there is a social stigmatization associated with having scars on
one's body. In essence, many burn survivors simply become disabled
based on the element of psycho-emotional oppression as shown by the
social relational model of disability. This research explores how the
U.S. print news media frame the stories of burn injuries in an effort
to learn if the news media are contributing to the psycho-emotional
oppression of people who have sustained a burn injury. Based on this
understanding, the research questions for this study are:
• Are the news media using disabling language (as defined by
Patterson and Witten) in telling the stories of people who have
sustained a burn injury?
• What are the news media frames presented in the stories of people
who have sustained a burn injury?
• Are the news media frames used in telling the stories of burn
injuries contributing to the psycho-emotional oppression of people
who have sustained a burn injury?
This study collected data through a qualitative, framing analysis of
print media news stories. Since this study aimed to investigate a
specific aspect of news media coverage—the language and the media
frames used in the stories of those who have sustained a burn
injury—it was not appropriate to use a random sample. This study,
therefore, selected only those texts that were rich in the data
appropriate to the study. Relevant texts were located through the
Lexis-Nexis Academic database using "general news" and "major papers"
as the source. The phrases "burn survivor" and "burn victim" were
used as search parameters within the headlines, lead paragraphs, and
terms. On face value, it may not appear than there is much difference
between the phrases burn survivor and burn victim; however, within
the fields of burn care and recovery and for those people who have
sustained a burn injury, there is a considerable difference between
the two terms. According to Amy Acton, executive director of the
Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, there is a technical as well as a
symbolic difference between the two terms (personal communication,
March 4, 2005). In the technical sense, victim refers to a fatality.
Survivor, on the other hand, refers to someone who has sustained
injury, but is in the process of recovery (personal communication,
March 4, 2005). On the symbolic level, victim refers to one who has
given up or to one who has no control over his or her situation and
is in a vulnerable place; survivor, conversely, signifies someone who
has not just lived through their injury, but has reclaimed his or her
life and is thriving despite the injury (personal communication,
March 4, 2005).
Using the search phrases "burn survivor" and "burn victim," all U.S.
newspaper articles containing either of those phrases from the years
1990 and 2000 were located. In total, 77 articles were analyzed.
For 1990, a total of 11 articles were analyzed—two articles used the
phrase "burn survivor," while nine articles used the phrase "burn
victim." For 2000, there was a significant increase in the total
number of articles located and analyzed. A total of 66 articles were
analyzed—six articles used the phrase "burn survivor," while 60
articles used the phrase "burn victim." The rationale for choosing
the two years for analysis stemmed from the 1990 passage of the
Americans with Disabilities Act. As the Act was passed in 1990, and
as was shown in the literature review that in the late 1980s news
outlets were beginning to understand the importance of avoiding
demeaning technology, 1990 will be used as the first baseline of
data. The rationale in then analyzing 2000 coverage was to compare
the two time periods to understand if there was a difference in the
language and media frames used in telling the stories of people who
had sustained a burn injury in the ten years since the passage of the Act.
Once the relevant news texts were located, I first analyzed the
selected articles to determine if the news media were using disabling
language as defined by Patterson and Witten in telling the stories of
those who have sustained a burn injury. As discussed in the
literature review, Patterson and Witten (1987) defined disabling
language as "language that (a) perpetuates myths and stereotypes
about people with disabilities, (b) uses nouns instead of adjectives
to describe people with disabilities, or (c) uses demeaning or
outdated words or phrases in reference to persons with disabilities"
(Lynch et al., 1994, p. 18).
After initial analysis for disabling language, I studied the texts
using an in-depth, framing analysis. Previous researchers have
approached framing analysis from a variety of perspectives. Gamson
(1989) and Gamson and Modigliani (1989) assert that the media use
specific framing devices—metaphors, exemplars, catchphrases, symbols,
and visual cues—to tell stories. Iyengar (1991) has approached
framing analysis from the perspective of thematic or episodic media
coverage of news stories, while Entman (1993) described media framing
as a four-part process in which the media (1) define problems, (2)
diagnose causes, (3) make moral judgments, and (4) suggest remedies.
For the framing analysis in this study, I analyzed the texts as based
Entman's (1993) four-part process of media frames: (1) defining
problems, (2) diagnosing causes, (3) making moral judgments, and (4)
suggesting remedies. As with all qualitative data analysis, I looked
for emerging themes and conclusions to arise from within the data.
The goal of the second part of the analysis was to understand how, in
1990 and 2000, the U.S. print media framed the stories of people who
sustained a burn injury.
Although all research has limitations, there are certain inherent
limitations that will arise in qualitative work. First, this study
does not intend to draw generalizable conclusions. That is not the
goal of this study, nor does qualitative research lend itself to
making generalizations. Additionally, as the data were analyzed by
the researcher, there was a certain amount of personal bias that
could have entered into the analysis process. Conclusions,
however, were drawn with the acknowledgement that they were based on
the researcher's interpretation of the data. Despite these inherent
limitations, considering the goal of the research, a qualitative
approach based on framing analysis was an appropriate research design.
The first section of the research findings presents examples of
media use of Patterson and Witten's three dimensions of disabling
language in telling the stories of people who have sustained a burn
injury. Again, Patterson and Witten (1987) defined disabling language
as "language that (a) perpetuates myths and stereotypes about people
with disabilities, (b) uses nouns instead of adjectives to describe
people with disabilities, or (c) uses demeaning or outdated words or
phrases in reference to persons with disabilities" (Lynch et al.,
1994, p. 18).
Language that perpetuates myths and stereotypes about people with
disabilities could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Lester and
Harris provide common examples of media stereotypes: "African
Americans are criminals. Latinos are gang members. Native Americans
are alcoholics. Wheelchair-dependent individuals are helpless. Gays
are effeminate. Lesbians wear their hair short. Older adults need
constant care" (2002, p. 54). For this analysis, language that
perpetuates myths and stereotypes about people who have sustained a
burn injury included references to burn survivors as monsters,
villains, or other beings warranting fear. In the analysis of
articles, there were no direct statements of burn survivors as beings
warranting of fear; however, associations were made and previous
references were included. For example, one article said, "To others…
Pollard is a monster, and it has nothing to do with the frightful
scars that twisted his face into a painful distortion" (Bortnick &
Hetchcock, 2000, p. A04). In this example, Pollard is not directly
being called a monster, but the stereotype of burn survivors as
monsters is clearly present. In another article, "The 18-year-old
Texan… went through high school being called Freddie Krueger, the
scarred slasher in the movie 'Friday the 13th'" (Sullivan, 2000, P.
A19). Again, the text is not directly calling the person a villain,
but it is restating—and thereby reaffirming—a previous stereotype to
which this person was often subjected.
For this study, the last two dimensions of Patterson and Witten's
definition of disabling language—language that uses nouns instead of
adjectives to describe people with disabilities or uses demeaning or
outdated words or phrases in reference to persons with
disabilities—were considered together. In looking just at the
headlines of the articles under analysis, there were numerous uses of
nouns instead of adjectives to describe people who sustained a burn
injury. Examples follow:
Bully's burn victim overcoming the odds (Frankel, 1990, p. 2A).
Burn victim home after treatment (Moritsugu, 1990, p. 1).
Painful, difficult recovery for burn victims (Gest & Fine, 2000, p. 30).
Burn victim hospitalized in critical condition (Burn victim, 2000, p. 5B).
Boyfriend was jealous, burn victim says; burning case expected to go
to jury today (Darby, 2000, p. B2).
Tiny burn victim fights to survive (Clark, 2000, p. B-1).
For a week at camp, young burn victims' scars don't set them apart
(Jansen, 2000, p. 01B).
Burn victim soothes pain by sharing stories (Rotzoll, 2000, p. 24).
In all of these headlines, the phrase "burn victim" was being used
as a noun to represent the person who sustained a burn injury,
thereby exemplifying the second dimension of Patterson and Witten's
definition of disabling language. Additionally, as shown earlier,
there are differing implications between the phrases "burn survivor"
and "burn victim." While victim refers to someone who has given up or
to one who has no control over his or her situation, survivor
signifies someone who is reclaiming his or her life and is thriving
despite the injury. Consider the following example from an article
about a program called "Scared Straight," which is a rehabilitation
program for teenagers who have been caught starting fires. The
program's sessions included talks from burn survivors and prison
visits with the intent of steering at-risk youth from a life of
crime. The article said:
"At this particular class, three burn victims have come to talk about
their injuries. One is a teenager who was injured and later jailed
after a pipe bomb he was playing with exploded. Another is a young
woman whose face was scarred when a fire flashed through her home.
The third is [a man], who doesn't look like a burn victim with his
clean-shaven head and cowboy buckle. But then he takes off his shirt"
(Ensslin, 2000, p. 5A).
The paragraph opens by calling these three volunteers burn
victims—the connotation being that they have led a life of suffering.
Yet the article clearly demonstrates that these three individuals
used their personal tragedy as a means of helping to prevent future
tragedy. Given this, survivor seems to be a more accurate term. In
consideration of this example, and as based on the third dimension of
Patterson and Witten's definition of disabling language, the
prevalent use of the phrase "burn victim" in the analyzed articles
exemplifies the use of demeaning and outdated language.
Media Frames in the Stories of Burn Survivors
The second section of the research findings presents examples from
the text analysis of the selected articles as based on Entman's
(1993) four-part process of media framing in telling the stories of
people who have sustained a burn injury. Entman (1993) described
media framing as a four-part process in which the media (1) define
problems, (2) diagnose causes, (3) make moral judgments, and (4)
(1) Defining Problems
In defining the problem of a burn injury, the analyzed texts focused
on the gruesome aspects of the injury itself, the medical treatment,
and the potential for lasting physical disfigurement of a burn injury.
In the analyzed texts of the stories of burn survivors, the media
tended to focus on the gruesome aspects and pain of a burn
injury—both of which can be sensational aspects. For example, "… his
face was melted away by sulfuric acid…" (Bortnick & Hetchcock, 2000,
p. A04). In the story of a plant explosion, the gruesome aspects and
trauma of burn injuries were highlighted. After escaping the plant,
one survivor was quoted as saying:
"'A couple of guys I know on the response team came up to me. I told
them, don't touch me. Don't touch me.' One guy said, 'Man, let me get
your gloves off.' I said, 'Man, that ain't my gloves. That's my
skin'" (Rendon, 2000, p A1).
In another article:
Mathis was 12 and at a sleepover when his friend's mother sent the
boys outside for the night so she could entertain. The boys built a
camp fire, and as his buddy bent to spark the dying embers with
gasoline, whoosh. When the fire ignited his pants, Mathis stood and
ran, a human candle. He remembers a blanket being thrown on him, he
remembers falling into the drainage ditch as the icy water rushed
past, his left arm swelling like an obscene balloon. Pop. The skin on
his arms, chest and face melted, the rawest blister opening as all
skin fell away (Sullivan, 2000, p. A19).
In another article, a 10-year-old boy recalled first returning to
consciousness after his burn injury:
'The first thing I remember was tremendous pain. The next thing I
remember I was lying in bed and my mom told me I didn't have any feet
anymore. I didn't believe her because I had phantom pain and it felt
as though I still had feet,' Caper said. There still were nerves that
once had connected to his hands and feet. Those nerves told the brain
he still had extremities, but he didn't (Rotzoll, 2000, p. 24).
In regard to medical care, the texts mentioned two aspects of the
medical care of someone who has sustained a bury injury: the first is
the life-sustaining physical medical care, while the second, yet no
less important, is the psychological medical care for someone who is
adjusting to and learning to cope with a future life with a physical
disfigurement and often an impairment, such as a loss of limb. While
psychological medical care was mentioned and will be addressed in a
later section of the findings, it was rare, and certainly second to
stories of physical medical care. The media also seemed to focus on
the immediate physical care as it presented a more sensational story
than long-term, psychological care.
The description of the daily routine of caring for burn patients in
one article said, "The students—all sedated and on pain
medication—are placed on steel stretchers and hosed down. Their burns
are cleansed, and loose, dead tissue is removed. The skin removal, a
meticulous and painful process called debridement, is necessary to
prevent infection" (Gest & Fine, 2000, p. 30).
In a more graphic media description of debridement,
Joel [an 8-year-old burn survivor who is referring to the burn care
for him and his brother, Caper] said the worst pain of all was when
they were hosed with salt water. While Caper was so injured he had to
lie on a special bed, Joel was able to stand upright in a 5-foot-high
tank while the salt-water solution was sprayed on him. 'That hurts.
Very, very bad,' Joel said. Some of the burned skin same off, some of
it hung there in tatters. Their grandmother sat by their beds and cut
off the hanging skin with scissors (Rotzoll, 2000, p. 24).
In a story about a 7-month-old girl who was submersed and held in hot
water by her mother's boyfriend, the media highlighted the traumatic
injury and recovery the baby had endured. The article said:
[The doctor] said that in third degree burns as deep as Elsa's, the
skin is like 'a giant culture medium. Her wounds would soon become
grossly infected.' For any chance at life, almost all her skin has to
be removed. Even the unburned patch on her scalp has been removed and
transplanted to cover her chest. In 10 days, her scalp skin will
grown back, only to be taken off to cover another area of her body,
and again and again until al of her body is covered with her own skin
(Clark, 2000, p. B-1).
Once the burned skin has been removed and the new skin has been
grafted in place, the physical care and pain does not end for burn
survivors. An article about a survivor of a plant explosion explained:
[A burn survivor] described his therapy sessions as 'like bending
your finger as far back as you can the other way until you're ready
to scream, and then hold it. They don't do it to each finger; they do
every joint. Almost everybody goes out of there crying. You go out of
there in tears.' The biggest misconception about being discharged
from the hospital is that some people think you're cured. '[For a
burn survivor] when you get out of this place you're just getting
started' (Rendon, 2000, p A1).
Another article addressed the pain associated with the physical
rehabilitation following skin grafting. The article said, "Candi will
have to go to [the hospital] three times a week for physical therapy.
[Her mother] already administers physical therapy to her daughter
three times a day, which is painful for the child. 'She screams,' her
mother said" (Moritsugu, 1990, p. 1).
In addition to physical rehabilitation, burn survivors must also wear
pressure garments for months, or maybe even years, depending on the
extent of the injury. The media highlighted the restrictive nature of
these garments. For example, "He was swathed in an elastic pressure
garment covering all but his toes and fingertips for all but one hour
a day for a year, and he was unable to straighten his arms for two
years" (Fenning, 1990, p. 1). Another article said, "Candi's face,
pressed behind a plastic mask, shows evidence of the skin grafts that
cover most of her body. She wears the mask and a tight stocking-like
body suit nearly 24 hours a day" (Moritsugu, 1990, p. 1).
In regard to psychological medical care, it was rare for an article
to mention psychological treatment for burn survivors. Although it
was a brief article, one article did focus on psychological aspects;
however, the article also emphasized the physical trauma and
potential for disfigurement. The article began:
Burns can scar a victim's body for life. They can also scar the mind
and spirit. 'Burns can be extremely painful and extremely
disfiguring,' said Dr. Thomas Esposito, a trauma surgeon. 'They cause
a great deal of problems with patients' self-image. There may be a
loss of ears, noses, fingers, toes. Once the burn is treated, the
cosmetic results from skin grafts sometimes leave burn victims with a
patchwork-quiltlike appearance on various parts of their bodies, both
from the donor sites and the graft sites,' he said. Esposito said
burn patients need medical help for pain and disfigurement, and they
also need psychological support from their families and friends
(Rotzoll, 2000, p. 25).
Additionally, the analyzed texts emphasized the lasting, physical
disfigurements and impairments that can accompany a burn injury—often
another sensational aspect. For example: "'Would you like to look
like this?' Romero said, holding up his pale hand. The fingers curl
and point in different directions. 'Playing with matches is the worst
thing you can do,' Romero said. 'Everything in your life will
change'" (Ensslin, 2000, p. 5A).
In another example: "Despite being severely disfigured by a fire that
burned away his nose, lips, eyelids and fused his hands into
fingerless stumps, 4-year-old Jimmy Rosales has an indomitable
spirit. The little Nicaraguan boy… recently told his father he was
happy, saying, 'Daddy, when I get new hands, I'll be able to grab
things again'" (Molina & Weber, 2000, p.5).
Although the above des describe Rosales as having an indomitable
spirit, the framing exemplifies the boy's physical disfigurement.
Additionally, one is left wondering what happened to that spirit when
the 4-year-old learned that there is no medical technology capable of
giving him back the hands he once had.
The analyzed media texts also highlighted the social isolation and
taunting that burn survivors may be subjected to as a result of the
lasting physical effects of a burn injury—aspects that can also lead
to sensational media language:
When she daydreams, 12-year-old Latoya Eskridge has only flickering
memories of the day an electrical fire engulfed a room in her home,
severely burning much of her body. Ten years later, however, the
rough scar tissue blanketing her face and body serve as an unwavering
reminder of the fire—often eliciting stares and finger-pointing from
strangers and other children who have never before encountered a burn
victim (Jansen, 2000, p. 01B).
In regard to attending a camp specifically for children who are burn
survivors, the article quoted Latoya as saying, "'Here, I'm not just
the kid with all the scars,' said Latoya, who also lost all the
fingers on her left hand in the fire, 'I'm special in a good way when
I'm at camp'" (Jansen, 2000, p. 01B).
In another example: "John landed in a gas puddle [after a car
accident]. He has grown up a patchwork boy of square skin grafts,
ragged burn scars and surgical incisions made to stretch his pale
scarred skin. John starts a new middle school in the fall and doesn't
know how he feels about that. 'It will depend on how many people hate
me,' [John said]" (Sullivan, 2000, P. A19).
A further section of the same article related the story of another
young burn survivor: "When they left the house, his mother would
cover his ruined skin with her coat. She didn't send him to school,
and eventually overwhelmed, she left…. kids called him crispy critter
and butt face, because of the skin grafts…" (Sullivan, 2000, P. A19).
The above examples show how the media defined the problem of a burn
injury. In defining the problem, the media often used sensational
language to frame the issue as one of pain and gore in regard to the
injury itself, the medical treatment, and the lasting effects.
(2) Diagnosing Causes
Although burn injuries happen to individuals from all socio-economic
and ethnic backgrounds, in framing the stories of burn survivors, the
media tended to emphasize poverty or minority status as the
foundation for a burn injury to occur. For example,
Jimmy [Rosales] was injured by a fire in his native Nicaragua that
killed his 2-year-old brother. The family has been homeless since
then… Beatriz DeLopez, who is president of Central American relief,
has been working with the Rosales family and other needy children in
the region to get them help from the United States. DeLopez and her
organization are trying to raise money to help build a new house for
the Rosales family so Jimmy will have a stable home… (Molina & Weber,
Another article about two brothers who both sustained massive burn
The day their odyssey of pain began was April 19, 1990. It was Easter
vacation, and there was nothing to do for a couple of young boys
living with their mother in the projects of Galesburg [Illinois].
Caper went across the road to the junkyard and poked around a bit,
then went home. Joel wanted to go there, too. First Caper said no,
he'd get in trouble. But an hour later he was bored again and agreed
to take his 8-year-old brother back with him (Rotzoll, 2000, p. 24).
After detailing the accident and the boys' recovery, the article
added: "Their mother, who eventually had six children by three
fathers, couldn't manage looking after her injured sons. They wound
up in separate foster homes" (Rotzoll, 2000, p. 24).
Another article led with the death of two people, "Alexandria police
say that a woman and a man who burned to death Feb. 11 were homeless
and were apparently living in a makeshift shelter… The two were
intoxicated when they died... A small shack they had apparently built
was damaged by fire" (1 Burn Victim Idenitifed, 1990, p. D8).
In addition to highlighting low socio-economic status, the media also
associated low socio-economic status with violence against women and
children as a cause of burn injuries. For example:
The seventh-grader has been at Children's [hospital] with severe
burns on her face, head and hands since Aug. 31. She was sent home
from school early that day with head lice, and the neighbor who cared
for her while her parents worked treated it by washing Stephanie's
hair with gasoline. The neighbor told investigators she rinsed out
the gasoline, but a gas stove later ignited the fumes. Prosecutors
are considering whether to file charges against the neighbor. The
[girl's family] have no medical insurance; a fund has been set up to
help cover the family's expenses (Burn victim to be treated in
Boston, 2000, p. B-03).
In an article about a 7-month-old girl who was submersed and held in
hot water by her mother's boyfriend, the media highlighted the low
socio economic status of the family as well as the violence against
the child. The article said, "Waiting outside the burn unit, Elsa's
mother is trying to understand how this could have happened. She had
left the baby with her boyfriend to run an errand, and when she
returned she found Elsa 'red and just lying there on the couch.' The
baby's father is in prison" (Clark, 2000, p. B-1).
Another article said:
David Aupont, the 12-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., boy witnesses say was
set on fire for refusing to smoke crack, is recovering from
life-threatening burns as money and good wishes continue to pour in.
Witnesses say David was walking to school March 7 when a 13-year-old
bully ordered him to smoke crack. When David refused, the bully, who
has been charged in juvenile court, dragged him into a garage, tied
his hands behind his back, beat him with a bat, threw gas on him and
set him on fire (Frankel, 1990, p.2A).
The lead in the story of a criminal trial against a man who lit his
girlfriend on fire said, "Before he soaked her with gasoline ad set
her ablaze, Raymond Shaw issued a chilling warning to his girlfriend.
'If I can't have you, no one else will" (Darby, 2000, p. B2). The
article later added that the woman was a single mother and that the
couple had a history of domestic abuse.
In diagnosing causes, these examples highlight the media's framing of
the cause of burn injuries as lower socio-economic or minority
status. Additionally, media frames related lower socio-economic or
minority status with either child or domestic abuse as the foundation
for a burn injury to occur.
(3) Making Moral Judgments
Sadly, many burn survivors are children. The primary causes of burn
injuries to children are accidents or intentional physical abuse. In
the case of accidental burns, there were instances of the media
making moral judgments by placing blame on the children themselves,
as illustrated in this lead: "Caper Brown was 10, and he was bored.
So he walked across the street to a junkyard and did dumb stuff, so
dumb it triggered a fire that cost him his arms, his legs, his ears,
his lower lip and very nearly his life" (Rotzoll, 2000, p. 24). The
lead of another article also placed blame on the child: "The
3-year-old girl was burned over 90 percent of her body May 15 after
she set her bed on fire with a cigarette lighter" (Moritsugu, 1990, p. 1).
In two articles about burn camps an element of blame was also placed
on young burn survivors. An article about a burn camp in the Pacific
Northwest said, "This is summer camp for burn survivors, for the kids
who ran when their clothes caught fire and for those who couldn't
escape… when the bed, or the nylon blanket or the bathwater burned
them" (Sullivan, 2000, p. A19). Another article about a Texas burn
camp said, "[Margery] was different. When she was 4 years old, she
caught her pajamas on fire playing with matches and burned 30 percent
of her body. Her scars are a legacy of pain" (Griffin, 1990, p. 4).
The previous examples illustrate how the media made moral judgments
in regard to burn injuries. In the case of accidental burn injuries
involving children, the analyzed articles framed the issue by placing
blame on the children themselves, thereby making moral judgments
about burn injuries and people who sustain burn injuries.
(4) Suggesting Remedies
In the articles analyzed, the media did not emphasize remedies in
regard to burn injuries. Although prevention was mentioned
occasionally, it was not a standard for all articles. Other remedies,
such as psychological care and medical research, were included, but
they also did not receive a strong media focus. Overall, however,
psychological care and medical research were framed as remedies.
The articles about burn camps for children were the primary articles
in which the psychological needs of burn survivors were addressed. A
1990 article focused on the importance of burn camps and the efforts
of one burn survivor to begin a camp in Florida. The article included
a quote from the survivor, "'It's so important that children have a
place to go where they can feel normal,' Ms. Pierson said" (Griffin,
1990, p. 4). A brief article about a fundraiser for sending kids to
burn camp said, "The camp provides an opportunity for youngsters to
interact with other burn victims and to cope with public reaction to
burn scars" (Firefighter team to play, 2000, p. B3). Another article
about burn camp said, "the camp was designed as a haven for young
burn victims struggling with both growing pains and the stigma of
their physical injuries" (Jansen, 2000, p. 01B). An additional brief
article about another burn camp said, "The camp tries to help kids
with the social and emotional scars that severe burns can create"
(Camp for soothing, 2000, p. 1B).
In regard to medical research, a January 2000 study in the Journal of
the American Medical Association received attention in only two
newspapers: USA Today and The Times-Picayune. The study, which
investigated the quality of life for children who had sustained a
massive burn injury, was based on interviews with 80 burn survivors,
who had sustained burns to at least 70 percent of their body as
children. While the USA Today article was about 1,000 words, the
Times-Picayune article was only about 200 words. Both articles
mentioned that the study was prompted due to ethical concerns about
quality of life given that technological advancements now allow
doctors to save most children who are severely burned. The USA Today
article quoted Robert Sheridan, one of the study's coordinators as
saying, "'We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing in
saving these children'" (Villalva, 2000, p. 8D). The Times-Picayune
Technology has now enabled doctors to save children burned over more
than 70 percent of their bodies, raising ethical concerns about the
life these children may lead. 'It has been argued that the results
are so dismal that these children should be allowed to die with
dignity,' doctors from Shriners Burn Hospital for Children and
Harvard Medical School in Boston wrote" (Young burn victims succeed,
2000, p. C08).
Although each article reported slightly different statistics from the
study, they both reported the same overall conclusion. The brief
Times-Picayune article ended with a quote from the study: "'These
data show that treatment of massively burned children is not
routinely followed by poor quality of life'" (Young burn victims
succeed, 2000, p. C08). The USA Today article, which included much
greater detail and also included quotes from young burn survivors,
indicated that the research study concluded that "survivors of
massive burns can have a good life despite cosmetic and functional
impairments" (Villalva, 2000, p. 8D). Unlike the Times-Picayune
article, the USA Today article also mentioned that there are people
who are "concerned that many people will be mislead by the study's
conclusions" and that "'there are those survivors who will fall
through the cracks'" (Villalva, 2000, p. 8D). Additionally, the USA
Today article included preliminary results from another medical study
that agreed that "most burn survivors do relatively well" (Villalva,
2000, p. 8D). However, the study also found that, "Preliminary
results indicate that the degree of the loss and trauma will affect a
person's recovery: The more devastating the injury, the less
favorable the outcome will be" (Villalva, 2000, p. 8D). The USA Today
article also included a sidebar listing Web sites and books available
to help burn survivors cope with loss and grief. In all articles
analyzed in both 1990 and 2000, this was the only mention of such resources.
Suggesting remedies did not receive media emphasis in the analyzed
articles. Psychological care did emerge as a media frame, but, as was
mentioned previously, it received far less focus than did physical
medical care. And although a medical study was released in 2000 that
could have implications for burn recovery and care, it was only
mentioned in two articles. Additionally, the remedy that emerged from
the media frames in those two articles essentially said that people
who have been severely burned do not necessarily have a poorer
quality of life; therefore, the lasting physical disfigurement
associated with a burn injury is, after all, not a real problem.
The findings presented in this research paper came from the text
analysis of the 1990 and 2000 print media stories of those who had
sustained a burn injury. The findings presented examples of media use
of Patterson and Witten's three dimensions of disabling language.
Additionally, the findings section presented examples of the media's
frames in defining the problem, diagnosing causes, making moral
judgments, and suggesting remedies in the news stories of people who
have sustained a burn injury.
As previous research has indicated that the news media have both the
ability to influence public stereotypes of people with disabilities
and that the news media can contribute to the psycho-emotional
oppression of those with disabilities, this research explored how the
news media are telling the stories of burn injuries. The research
first asked: Are the news media using disabling language, as defined
by Patterson and Witten, in telling the stories of people who have
sustained a burn injury?
The results of the study indicated that in both 1990 and 2000 the
U.S. print news media used disabling language in telling the stories
of people who have sustained a burn injury. Consider the following
news lead: "Burns can scar a victim's body for life. They can also
scar the mind and spirit" (Rotzoll, 2000, p. 25). In this example,
the outdated and demeaning term victim is being used despite the fact
that the sentence is referring to people who have survived a burn
injury. It seems that the lead could have read, "Burns can scar a
person's body for life." This simple change in language creates a
sentence that is not only more accurate, but also less
After initial text analysis for disabling language, the analysis
turned to Entman's (1993) four-part media framing process in which
the media (1) define problems, (2) diagnose causes, (3) make moral
judgments, and (4) suggest remedies. This part of the analysis
answered the research question: What are the news media frames
presented in the stories of people who have sustained a burn injury?
In considering Entman's guidelines for framing analysis, there were
no significant differences in the media frames between the 1990 and
2000 articles. In defining the problem, the analysis found that
the media placed particular emphasis on the gruesome aspects and pain
as well as the lasting physical disfigurement of a burn injury. While
the media did mention psychological medial care, a much greater
emphasis was placed on the graphic details of the physical medical
care involved in treating a person who has sustained a burn injury.
In the media diagnoses of the causes of burn injuries, explosions,
fires, and car accidents were mentioned; however, in framing the
stories of burn survivors, the media tended to emphasize lower
socio-economic or minority status as the underlying cause for someone
who sustained a burn injury. Additionally, media frames linked lower
socio-economic or minority status with violence against women and
children as underlying causes for burn injuries. What was most
evident in regard to moral judgment were the instances of the media
placing blame on the young children who sustained a burn injury.
Granted, there is an age at which a child should know that fire can
be dangerous; however, there were analyzed articles made references
to children under the age of five starting fires or lighting
themselves on fire. One could argue that in no way does a 3-year-old
who has access to a lighter understand the possible repercussions of
playing with that lighter. The media did not emphasize remedies in
regard to burn injuries; although psychological care and medical
research were framed as possible remedies.
Finally, the research asked: Are the news media frames used in
telling the stories of burn injuries contributing to the
psycho-emotional oppression of people who have sustained a burn
injury? This research argues that it is not physical impairments that
are disabling most burn survivors today. Instead, the disabling
limitation facing burn survivors is the public stigma associated with
having a burn injury and that the news media frames used in telling
the stories of burn survivors are reinforcing the public stigma,
thereby contributing to the psycho-emotional oppression of people who
have sustained a burn injury. Consider the following example:
"Nearly 70 young burn victims, ages 7 to 17, roam the camp's grounds,
enthusiastically taking on a laundry list of activities found at a
typical summer camp. Even those with amputated limbs or fingers can
go canoeing, launch water-balloon wars, learn karate, ride horseback,
splash around in the water or ascend a 40-foot climbing wall and a
high ropes course. 'We don't have any limitations here,' [the camp
co-director] said. 'Whatever it is, we'll work around it'" (Jansen,
2000, p. 01B).
This example is indicative of disabling language through media use of
the phrase burn victim. The article in this example is about the
perseverance of young survivors, who, in addition to having endured
insurmountable physical trauma and pain, are learning to live life as
a person with a lasting physical disfigurement. Yet the article
refers to them as victims. Considering the implications of the social
relational model of disability, it is disabling language such as this
as well as media frames that emphasize the sensational aspects of
burn injuries that create psycho-emotional oppression.
Additionally, the findings of this study have implications for burn
survivor advocacy groups. The study's findings indicate that either
these advocacy groups are not getting their messages of survival to
the media or that the media is not responding to these messages. As
such, burn survivor advocacy groups should consider conducting an
evaluation of their media materials and media relations practices.
Additionally, future research could consider how the media are
responding to the messages of other medical or survivor advocacy groups.
Of all 77 articles analyzed, only one article emphasized the
difference in the phrases burn survivor and burn victim. What is even
more interesting about this finding was that it was a 1990 rather
than a 2000 article. The article said: "Ms. Pierson is a burn
survivor herself. She stresses the word survivor. 'We're not victims,
we're survivors,' she said. 'We've been to hell and back and made it.
We survived the flames'" (Griffin, 1990, p. 4). It seems only right
that the media should reflect this distinction in telling the stories
of those who have not only faced the flames but survived the flames.
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Young burn victims succeed. (2000, January 24). The Times-Picayune, p. C08.
 In 2001, The Research and Training Center for Independent
Living, a national organization designed to address advocacy,
services, and interventions that enhance independent living for
people with disabilities, published the sixth edition of its
guidelines for the media and others who write and report about people
with disabilities. These guidelines "explain preferred terminology
and offer suggestions for appropriate ways to describe people with
disabilities based on input from more than 100 national disability
organizations" (Life Span Institute). These guidelines have been
reviewed and endorsed by media and disability experts across the
country and portions of the guidelines are included in the Associated
Press Stylebook (Life Span Institute). Although these guidelines
provide terminology for a variety of disease and disabilities, no
terminology guidance is provided for anything relating to burn injuries.
 Although more than 77 articles were located initially, not all
articles used the phrase burn survivor or burn victim in reference to
the stories of those who had sustained a burn injury. Additionally,
some articles were found to be duplicates, and only articles from
print media sources within the U.S. were used.
 Although the Americans with Disabilities Act does not have any
specific provisions for the use of terminology, the passage of the
Act marks a distinct time period in which the government and the
media were becoming succinctly aware of the rights of those with disabilities.
 As a form of quality assurance, a hard copy of all articles was
kept as well as the analysis notes.
 This particular topic is of personal interest to me as I am
active member of the burn survivor community. Although this research
is of personal interest to me, academic research has done little in
the way of framing studies of disability; therefore, more research
such as this is needed in our body of knowledge.
 Several of the examples Lester and Harris site are provided
here, not to lend credence to these stereotypes as truth, but to
provide examples of the types of media stereotypes in question.
 The only notable difference between the 1990 and 2000 articles
was the sheer difference in the volume of articles written between
the two time periods. While Lexis-Nexis located only 11 relevant
articles in 1990 using either burn survivor or burn victim as search
phrases, 66 articles were located in 2000. This clearly indicates a
stronger focus by the news media on burn injuries in the year 2000.