Attributing Responsibility When Police Officers are Killed in the Line of Duty: An Ethnographic Content Analysis of Local Print News Media Frames

Jeff Gruenewald, Natalie Kroovand Hipple
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The line-of-duty death of a police officer challenges the public’s shared views of social order and morality. Local news media help audiences make sense of these tragedies. This study examines how attributions of responsibility are framed in local print news stories, guided by the question, “How do news stories frame the cause of death when police officers are killed in the line of duty?” We conducted an ethnographic content analysis of stories about line-of-duty deaths published in Indianapolis, Indiana newspapers between 1872 and 2019. Six frames promoting causal explanations for police officer deaths emerged from our analysis: moral depravity, gun availability and lethality, the nature of the job, unaddressed mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, and officer failings. While line-of-duty deaths have been consistently framed as a result of individual and societal moral depravity over time, we also find that officer deaths have more recently been framed as simply being part of the job. We discuss our findings within the broader framing of social problems literature, recognizing how frames shift over time and conflate social issues to maintain their salience.


Gruenewald, J., Hipple, N.K.  (2021). Sociological Forum, 36(N2).  doi: 10.1111/socf.12682.