Date of Award

Spring 5-2016

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Barbara Johnstone


2 Ab s tract This dissertation explores the ways in which narratives about decisive events coales ce in news media discourse, and how they function rhetorically. Specifically, this study examines how journalists frame stories about police brutality, how those frames construct versions of public narratives, and how those narrative versions can be used i n discourse about issues of civic concern such as support for new community policing policies or opposition to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. I show how journalists’ choice of semantic frames (e.g., racism, police - community relations, or criminal justi ce) helps to shape readers’ understanding of the events and contributes to the formation of a narrative icon , a word , name, or short phrase that, absent narrative detail, indexes particular versions of a broader cultural narrative. This research is motiva ted by questions about the reciprocity between prior knowledge, audience expectations, and public discourse, and how those combine to shape or reinforce cultural values and communal identities. To explore these questions, I draw on scholarship in narrative theory, frame semantics, intertextual analysis, and argument. I analyze over 1,700 newspaper articles published in the Los Angeles Times , Los Angeles Sentinel, Pittsburgh Post - Gazette, and New Pittsburgh Courier between 1991 and 2013 concerning incidents of police brutality, including Rodney King and Jonny Gammage, a Black man who died following a traffic stop in Pittsburgh, PA. My findings suggest three primary functions of narratives in news media discourse: as background information, as examples used to establish or illustrate a rule, or as points of comparison . For each of these functions, I consider how journalists’ micro - linguistic choices frame the events in line with the values, concerns, and fears of readers. In that way, journalists suggest the m ost important story elements and thus perpetuate specific ways of thinking about incidents of police brutality. Moreover, as consistent references to specific story elements, these frames contribute to the formation of a narrative icon, which becomes rheto rically available for use in public arguments. In other words, journalists can interpolate the narrative versions indexed by the icon into unrelated stories using discursive constructions such as “the Rodney King incident.” When this happens, readers are e xpected to fill in the missing narrative details by drawing on their background knowledge. The findings of this project have important implications for the study of media discourse, but their broader value lies in what they can tell us about how backgrou nd knowledge takes shape and is used as a resource in public argument. In particular, critical appraisal of narrative icons suggests that readers are expected to access a trove of cultural knowledge to fully understand news stories and the sociocultural implications of the events described. In doing so, journalists and readers jointly construct and reinforce communal identities and establish credibility.