Religious Freedom Versus Children's Rights : Challenging Media Framing of Short Creek, 1953
Salt Lake City, UT
University of Utah
The media's ability to frame a news story, or to slant it in a particular direction and thereby shape public perceptions, is a powerful tool with implications for material effects in society. In this thesis, a Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis of the words and photographic images used in the framing of Life magazine's September 14, 1953 article, "The Lonely Men of Short Creek," is combined with contextualization of the story within the historical, sociological, and regional settings that may have affected its ideological content. This provides insights into Life's editorial perspectives and potential audience response. "The Lonely Men of Short Creek" is an account that some writers have suggested contributed to a laissez-faire attitude towards the polygamist community of Short Creek, Arizona, in which a failure to enforce state laws allowed child sexual abuse to continue unhindered there for the next half century. This analysis of Life's account demonstrates its overall sympathetic framing of Short Creek in 1953, particularly of male community members, and the construction of a narrative with significant absences and misrepresentations that obscured or concealed darker themes. Life's construct has in certain aspects been replicated today in what some consider to be the "definitive" account of the story, which repeats a persistent tale of religious persecution, compromised constitutional rights, and an overbearing state's "kidnap" of the children of an apparently innocent and harmless rural polygamist community. Such a narrative has deflected attention from an alternative frame--that of a community charged with multiple crimes, including the statutory rape of children manipulated by adults within a religious ideology that demanded plural "wives." This thesis contends that in 1953, these children were overlooked, or ignored in a fog of often taken-for-granted US national ideologies and editorial perspectives relating to religious freedom and the "sacred" nature of the family in the post-Korean War and Cold War era. Such findings raise questions about the ethics of partisan framing of news stories in which alleged victims are implicated, acceptable limits of religious and family rights, and the often un-interrogated national ideologies sometimes used to justify harmful or criminal behaviors.