«Frank R. Baumgartner, Suzanna De Boef, and Amber E. Boydstun Department of Political Science The Pennsylvania State University University Park PA ...»
Issue-Definition and Policy Change
Capital Punishment and the Rise of the “Innocence Frame,” 1960–2003
Frank R. Baumgartner, Suzanna De Boef, and Amber E. Boydstun
Department of Political Science
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park PA 16802
Baumgartner is corresponding author; Frankb@psu.edu
Prepared for submission to the American Journal of Political Science
December 7, 2005
Framing Capital Punishment
Media framing is an established force in the political science literature, one repeatedly shown to influence public attitudes. Framing also affects policy outcomes, of course, and we demonstrate these effects in the case of the death penalty using a maximum likelihood Error Correction Model predicting the number of death sentences annually on the basis of homicides, media framing, and other factors. Our framing measure comes from a comprehensive content analysis of New York Times coverage of capital punishment since 1960. Most notably, we document the rise of the powerful new “innocence” argument that has revolutionized the debate and led to the reversal of a trend toward greater death penalty application; since the rise of this frame the number of death sentences has decreased by over one-half. The annual number of death sentences is strongly linked to changing issue-definitions surrounding capital punishment—more so even than to homicides.
Framing Capital Punishment Introduction Framing matters, as empirical research has shown. Scholars have demonstrated that the way an issue is defined, or framed, powerfully affects the audience’s perception of the issue (Druckman 2001, Jacoby 2000, Nelson et al. 1997a and b, Nelson and Oxley 1999, Pollock 1994, Terkildsen and Schnell 1997, Tversky and Kahneman 1986). The link between framing and public policy is also strong, as various scholars have shown. In their analysis of pesticides and nuclear power, Baumgartner and Jones (1993) offered systematic illustrations of how shifts in media framing tracked with shifts in public policy on these issues. Schneider and Ingram (1993) focused on target populations; Riker (1986) discussed the role of framing in constructing legislative coalitions. Here, we offer statistical evidence in the case of the death penalty that supports these earlier findings and ideas. In contrast to previous studies, we develop a statistical model of the impact of framing on a clearly defined policy outcome—the annual number of death sentences in America—and we demonstrate strong effects even while controlling for other relevant factors.
In this article we follow the recent history of the capital punishment debate with an emphasis on framing and we demonstrate the tight linkages between framing and public policy outcomes. In the political science literature on framing and policy outcomes, it is often difficult to measure policy outcomes clearly, but not here. The number of individuals sentenced to death in a given year is a strong indicator of policy, and it is measured perfectly through publicly available sources. We demonstrate statistically that this number is more strongly associated with changing issue-definitions than with underlying levels of criminality. This is true both of the period during which increasing numbers of people were sentenced to death and during the recent period when the numbers have been declining.
Framing Capital Punishment We present several types of results. To begin, we show uncontestable evidence that public discussion of the death penalty has been altered by a new and unprecedented focus on the possibility of errors in the system, an eventuality with which no one is comfortable. The “innocence frame” has resonated more than previous arguments, bringing together a cluster of previously existing, but distinct, arguments into a single frame likely to have greater effect on public discourse than the same arguments considered separately. We develop some new techniques of dynamic content analysis to show the various changes that have occurred in elitelevel issue-definition surrounding this issue. Attention has focused on different dimensions of the debate during different historical periods. Through a comprehensive analysis of the content of over 3,600 stories relating to the death penalty in the past 45 years, we trace these substantive shifts in the nature of the debate. We develop new techniques to trace the dynamics of issueframing. And we demonstrate the unprecedented power of the new “innocence” frame.
Finally and most importantly, we link shifting frames of media discussion of the death penalty to actual results. We present a statistical model explaining the number of death sentences annually and show the dramatic impact of the rise of the innocence frame, even controlling for other factors such as previous levels of sentencing, the number of homicides, and the number of states with capital punishment. A decline of approximately 175 capital sentences annually can be associated with the framing effects that we document here.
A Theory of Dynamic Framing and a Method of Measurement Many have noted the importance of framing and issue-definition on public policy. From Schattschneider (1960) to Cobb and Elder (1972) to Kingdon (1984) to Baumgartner and Jones (1993) such a focus has been a staple in studies of agenda-setting. Baumgartner and Jones were the most systematic in tracing the level and tone of news coverage to particular issues over time.
Framing Capital Punishment They showed for example that news coverage toward the pesticides and nuclear industries was sometimes overwhelmingly positive, but later switched to be overwhelmingly negative. Public policy, they argued, was closely related to these shifting foci of public discussion—where there were “waves of enthusiasm,” government actions supported the development of the industry;
where “waves of criticism” were apparent, officials attacked and regulated those same industries (Baumgartner and Jones 1993, 84). “Good news” and “bad news” have policy consequences.
Policy issues are much more complex than only positive and negative, good and bad, or any other single dimension; more recently the focus in the empirical study of issue-definition has moved to the analysis of how multidimensional issues are simplified in public debate so that only a few dimensions are the object of significant discussion. The multidimensional nature of policy debates has been the object of attention from dozens of scholars ranging from Riker (1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1996) to Schneider and Ingram (1993) to Stone (1988, 1989) to Poole and Rosenthal (1991), who note that no matter how complex the underlying set of issues, congressional responses can be arrayed along one or two dimensions. Bryan Jones discussed these issues in some detail in developing a model of decision-making based on multidimensional choice (2001).
In their most recent work Jones and Baumgartner (2005) have developed a model focusing on the implications of bounded rationality and the implications of “attention-shifting.” This is when individuals or organizations move their focus from one dimension of a debate to another. They argue that attention-shifts are inevitable in any complex decision-making environment and that these shifts explain the punctuated-equilibrium nature of public policy response. Most policies, most of the time, follow a strongly inertial, status-quo oriented track, but are occasionally upended through fundamental reconsiderations of how to approach the issue: attention-shifts. We Framing Capital Punishment believe that the death penalty may be undergoing such a transformation at this time, and hence we study it in considerable detail here.
The death penalty itself is the object of a voluminous literature and we do not propose a comprehensive analysis of the topic (see Banner 2002 for an excellent recent overview; see also Bedau 1997, Haines 1996, Jost 2001). We focus here on demonstrating quantitatively the important shifts in attention that have occurred in media coverage of the death penalty, the impact of these shifts on the overall tone of coverage, and finally the impact of the tone of discussion on public policy outcomes. We begin with a simple content analysis of New York Times coverage of the topic since 1960. 1 Our comprehensive coding system allows us to go into much greater detail than others have done before to show the shifting topics of public attention, and we show how feasible it is to incorporate multi-dimensional coding into content analysis.
We use the New York Times index because the Times represents the closest we can find to a single national source for public policy stories. Our main interest is in how coverage shifts over time, so we are less concerned with how the Times may differ from other newspapers in its editorial stance on the death penalty or coverage of the issue; the key question is how coverage changes over time. To test the robustness of our findings using the Times, we also reviewed coverage in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. Although there is only a partial correlation of.53 between the two series overall (1960-2003), both show the same dramatic rise in attention in recent years coinciding with the rise in the innocence frame. In the year 2000, both the Times and the Readers’ Guide printed a higher number of articles—235 and 106, respectively—than in any previous year, both dominated by arguments against the death penalty.
On the use of the New York Times as an indicator of media coverage, see Woolley 2000; Althaus, Edy, and Phalen 2001; Soroka 2002.
Framing Capital Punishment Further, we develop a new statistical method, evolutionary factor analysis to measure the strength and resonance of emerging issue-definitions. This allows us to distinguish among arguments that are isolated or short-lived versus those that resonate with others, last a long time, and therefore have the potential to have a major impact on the debate. In other words, evolutionary factor analysis gives us a sharper assessment of the potency of the new innocence frame as compared to previous definitions. The techniques we develop for the case of the death penalty may be widely applicable and may help move the literature on issue-definition forward in important ways.
Media coverage of the Death Penalty The death penalty has long been understood and discussed in the media in terms of constitutionality and morality. Since the mid-1990s, however, a new issue-definition has arisen, and dramatically. This is the “innocence” frame, or the idea that no matter what one thinks about the morality of capital punishment, we should ask whether the justice system is capable of administering the penalty across thousands of individual judicial proceedings with no errors.
The idea of flaws in the system, of innocent people being on death row, of the wrong people possibly being executed, has transformed the debate. In 1996 thirty articles appeared in the New York Times concerning capital punishment; the bulk of these reported opinions, news, or events leading toward the application of the death penalty. In 2000, 235 articles appeared and the overwhelming majority of them were critical. In just a few short years, the issue was reframed to focus on errors, mistakes, and the possibility of executing the wrong person.
Figure 1 shows the number of stories in the New York Times relating to capital Framing Capital Punishment punishment from 1960 to 2003.2
A total of 3,692 stories appeared during this time, with substantial peaks of coverage in 1976–77, just after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after the 1972 decision invalidating state capital punishment laws, and then again in 2000. During these two periods, the newspaper carried over 150 articles per year: More than one story every other day. The figure makes clear that the issue emerged onto the media agenda in the 1970s; there was little coverage, less than one article per week, before 1972. Coverage has grown substantially in recent years even though there has been no monumental Supreme Court decision such as those of 1972 and
1976. Rather, more recent coverage, especially that peaking in the unprecedented levels of coverage in 2000, has related to various challenges to the system based on juvenile offenders, the mentally handicapped, and the concept of “innocence.” The number of front-page stories has grown as well: From just one in 1960, there were two in 1970, four in 1980, eight in 1990, and 19 in 2000.
Capital punishment raises many different dimensions of debate, from constitutionality to morality to efficacy and others. We coded each story for the presence of a comprehensive list of 67 different arguments, clustered into seven main themes or dimensions. We will show in this section how the component arguments have waxed and waned over time, how the topic of We coded every
listed under the heading “capital punishment,” noting whether or not the abstract mentioned any of an exhaustive list of 67 different arguments. Thanks to Cheryl Feeley for doing the bulk of this work for her Senior Thesis and for allowing us to use and update the data she collected. See Baumgartner and Boydstun 2005 for a description of the coding process.
Framing Capital Punishment discussion is systematically related to the tone of the debate, and how the tone of the debate has shifted in response to the shifting topics of discussion. We begin in Figure 2 with a simple presentation of the number of stories mentioning the most prevalent arguments.