Picturing Kennedy: Photographic framing in the 50-year commemorative coverage

November 22, 2013 marked 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Given the prominence of the Kennedy family and the historical significance of the Kennedy assassination, it is not surprising that the 50-year anniversary of the assassination prompted a flurry of commemorative coverage, from televised specials in the weeks leading up to the anniversary to front page stories on the anniversary itself. This type of coverage has been termed “commemorative journalism,” with research showing that commemorative journalism helps audiences create meaning in the remembrance of the historically significant event. In shaping collective memory of the significant event, commemorative journalism is generally characterized by the use of photographs, especially those that are known to be iconic.

JFK_limousine

As we remembered JFK 50 years later, a just published research article of mine, with co-author Hannah McLain, analyzed how print news visually framed collective remembrance through commemorative journalism. Given the critical role of photographs in commemorative journalism, visual framing is a natural line of inquiry for the study of the 50-year commemorative coverage of the JFK assassination. And given the public and media interest in Kennedy family, the 50-year mark presented an ideal time with which to continue scholarly study of media coverage of this historically significant event. The nature of the topic also provided the opportunity to make a unique contribution to media scholarship through study of the theoretical intersection of commemorative journalism, visual framing, and photographic iconicity through the lens of media coverage of the 50-year remembrance of the JFK assassination.

We conclude that, ultimately, this is the story of the assassination of a beloved American president. But, today, 50 years later, the story is still much more than the moment of the assassination itself. And this was represented in the visual framing of the 50-year commemorative coverage. Visual framing shapes a story; it has an impact on how audiences perceive and interpret a story. The visual framing told the story of a beloved president, his assassination and the aftermath, and the remembrance of JFK. Iconic photographs were certainly present in the commemorative coverage, but they did not represent the entirety of the 50-year coverage.

However, compared to previous studies of commemorative coverage, this coverage did little, if any, “looking forward.” Findings showed that “remembrance” was the dominant visual frame; while these were new (rather than historic) photos and placed the historic event within a modern context (one of the theoretical constructs of commemorative journalism) the focus of the photos remained on “remembrance,” thus “looking back.” In addition, while close to half of the 901 photos were new (rather than historic), most were photographs of original 1963 media or of local people “recalling the day.” Thus, while they were technically “new” photographs, they were not focused on “looking forward.” Rather, they were still focused on “looking back.”

Perhaps this is because of the nature of the story. The assassination of JFK is an historical story. While 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina certainly have historical value, they are also stories of recovery, re-building, and, ultimately, “moving forward.” Certainly in 1963 the story of the Kennedy assassination had an element of re-building, such as the transfer of presidential power or an increased focus on security; but 50 years later, the story has no real relevance—or tangible application—in regard to “moving forward.” This finding is a new contribution to the literature on commemorative journalism; the nature of the historical event may have a large influence on the extent to which the commemorative coverage balances historical perspective with modern relevance.

Another key finding must be considered: The focus in the 50-year commemorative coverage on “looking back.” This is, perhaps, due to the sheer volume of iconic images from this historic event. Another value our research is found in its emphasis on the intersection of commemorative journalism and photographic iconicity. One could make the argument that no other singular event (perhaps the 1969 lunar landing is a close second) captured and created as many iconic images. Images from the JFK assassination dominate collective memory: the arrival at Love Field and the motorcade; Jackie crouching over her husband and then frantically searching around the moving vehicle; the funeral; and the grief of the American people. And then there are, by definition, the true iconic photographs: Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One; a young son saluting his father’s coffin; and the Oswald assassination.

Finally, it is necessary to reflect on this finding: the largely prominent photographic frame of the original 1963 media coverage. Nearly 17% of the analyzed photos depicted images of historic media coverage of the Kennedy assassination, including photos of historic front pages, magazine pages, AP teletype, and television screens. While these were generally new photographs, they were photographs of historic moments. This finding reinforces Zelizer’s supposition that the American media consider the “shaping” of public remembrance of the Kennedy assassination a “strategic accomplishment.”

In the 50-year commemorative coverage, we found that the American news media emphasized the visual frame of the media coverage itself. The American media continue to devote great attention to the Kennedy assassination itself, but also to their own role in the telling—and subsequent shaping of public understanding—of the assassination story.

Dahmen, N. S., & McLain, H. (2016). Kennedy anniversary photos tell story of beloved leader. Newspaper Research Journal. DOI 10.1177/0739532916648950

Image credit: https://goo.gl/7n6Kh2

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