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Death Penalty: How Newspaper Coverage Has Perpetuated Negative Stereotypes About Female Violence & Gender Roles

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Death Penalty: How Newspaper Coverage Has Perpetuated Negative
Stereotypes about Female Violence & Gender Roles
Tonya Rice
Capella University
MPA 5416– Quantitative and Qualitative Research [ January 25, 2013 ]
Dr. Gangl

Introduction of the Problem
Chimene Keitner argues that, “the uncritical resort to sex-role stereotypes pervades the trials, sentencing’s, and media reactions to women who receive the death penalty” (Keitner, 2002). Often, women who face the death penalty are portrayed in a negative light, for example, they are portrayed as deviant and/or unwomanly by the media. The media tends to focus on gender stereotypes, such as the notion that women are and should be having more virtuously than men and aspects that are not related to the crime and/or charge. In doing this, the media reinforces negative images of women and female violence. Since society and the media have difficulty understanding women who commit violent acts, they tend to emphasize certain characteristics of these women in order to dehumanize them. Under this mind set, society and the media/press is essentially arguing that normal women, who fit into traditional female gender roles, do not commit violent acts; and therefore, those who do are unwomanly or somehow deviant. As a result, the females that do commit violent acts are viewed negatively and the only way to understand their behavior is to cast them to the periphery of society and expose everything about them that goes against the status quo, such as their multiple relationships/marriages or perceived deviant activity. As Keitner further states, “on a general level, the condemnation of women who, in addition to committing criminal acts, also transgress other sex-role stereotypes, reinforces ideas of deviance and normalcy that can confine women to traditional roles of passivity and helplessness” (Keitner, 2002). This examination will look at six death penalty cases in the state of California, spanning from 1934-2004. Utilizing content analysis, this paper will examine how females facing the death penalty have been negatively portrayed by the media, specifically the Los Angeles Times. In doing this, I argue that the Los Angeles Times coverage of female death penalty cases has not changed over the seventy year period examined, and in their portrayals of these women, they’ve often focused on aspects not necessarily related to the crime and/or charge. Instead, their coverage of these cases has focused on the women’s past relationships and activities, sexual promiscuity, physical appearance, demeanor and non traditional role as females in society. Therefore, this paper examines the following research questions: * How has the Los Angeles Times coverage of female murder defendants facing the death penalty in the state of California changed or not changed over time? * Is what the Los Angeles Times covered about the defendants relative to the case? * Has the Los Angeles Times coverage of these cases perpetuated negative stereotypes about female violence and gender roles?
These research questions have important implications. “For example, if the Los Angeles Times coverage of these cases has not changed over time and is still representing women who commit violent acts in a negative light, then stereotypes about female violence and women’s perceived gender roles are and will continue to be perpetuated. Moreover, women who commit violent crimes have the potential to be “othered” by society in such a way that justifies sentencing them to death. If this continues, more females who commit violent crimes have the potential of facing the death penalty” (Keitner, 2002). Also, if aspects of the crime that are not related to the case continue to be a focus, then trying to understand the motive behind the crime itself and the origins and implications of female violence becomes secondary. Overall, if the press continues to “other” and reinforces negative stereotypes about women in their coverage, then women are tried in the court of public opinion and gender stereotypes will continue to win these court cases.

Keitner, C. I. (2002). “Victim or Vamp? Images of Violent Women in the Criminal Justice System”, Columbia Journal of Gender and the Law, 11(1), p. 38.

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