Before the Court and in the Press: Newspaper Coverage of Creationism and School Prayer Movements' Legal Framing

James E. Stobaugh, Sean Huss


During the last century, social movement organizations have mobilized around what role religion should play in school. These struggles have focused on teaching creationism and evolution in the science classroom and the appropriateness of school prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Court cases like Scopes and Engel are infamous in American history, while others are much less well-known. This project explores media coverage of social movements that do not engage in typical protest activity and instead choose to operate in more institutional contexts. This paper will begin by presenting the coverage patterns of each movement across the twentieth century, illustrating how the media's focus is primarily influenced by movements either initiating legal action, being compelled to appear in court, or reacting to judicial proceedings. Next, it will present a typology of coverage that these legal-based movements received. A movement's legal framing is carried in and through the media, and sometimes, the framing is all that is reflected in media attention, making this type of reporting so attractive to movement organizations. The legal constraints over framing and legitimate actors account for some of the media exposure, which was likely to be equitable in tone and quantity to both the creationism and school prayer movements. To understand media coverage of social movements, scholars must begin to account for the cycles and patterns of coverage likely to occur when a movement ends up in court.

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Studies in Media and Communication      ISSN 2325-8071 (Print)   ISSN 2325-808X (Online)

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