Framing the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.: A Comparative Analysis of Mainstream and Alternative Newspaper Coverage, 2007-2008

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This case study examined through qualitative textual analysis how a group of mainstream and alternative publications framed their coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. during the historic 2008 U.S. presidential primary campaign when Wright was the pastor of Barack Obama, who emerged from the campaign to become the nation's first black president. Prior to the campaign's conclusion, Obama parted ways with Wright as a result of heightened news coverage of statements Wright had made about the nation's politics and treatment of black people.

The study analyzes 216 news stories, commentaries and editorials produced by The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and The Washington Post, which are mainstream daily newspapers, as well as the Chicago Defender, Washington Afro American and The Christian Century, which are alternative news publications. The analysis of their coverage of Wright was further explored by the use of two framing theories to determine what values might have influenced the ways journalists made sense out of Wright's religious speech and practices. Mark Silk's "Unsecular Media" theory posits that journalists typically rely on a set of religious values to frame their reports of religious issues and figures. Herbert Gans' "Enduring Values" theory posits that journalists typically rely on mainstream secular values to frame their reports of news subjects.

The study's findings showed that on the whole the mainstream publications included in the sample produced coverage that strongly correlated with Gans' secular theory, which holds that subjects often become news worthy because they deviate from mainstream values associated with moderatism and ethnocentrism. The study's comparative analysis concluded that coverage of Wright produced by journalists working for alternative publications consistently reflected values identified by Silk, whose original study was only focused on mainstream publications. The present study's findings demonstrated that mainstream journalists rarely relied on religious sources to produce their reports while many of the writers for the alternative press were themselves religious officials or experts. The study points out ongoing challenges faced by the mainstream press in covering religion as well as the challenges religious figures face when they become the subject of coverage.