Jennifer Petersen, an associate professor of media studies at UVA, recently published Murder, the Media, and the Politics of Public Feelings.

Jennifer Peterson
In your book, you write about how the media response to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard shaped public discourse and eventually influenced the law. Can you share an example with us?

One of the key things that shaped the public response to Shepard's murder was its discussion as a hate crime, a description that originated with the local police rather than reporters. Network TV news, major U.S. newspapers and news magazines covered the murder very differently from earlier anti-gay hate crimes. It was treated as a much more important story.

Shepard became a national victim and a symbol of anti-gay violence through news narratives and images.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the news presented Shepard as someone similar to readers and viewers, noting that he could have been "your" neighbor or son. These identifiers encouraged readers to feel close to Shepard or even identify with him.

The emotional tenor of the coverage of Shepard's murder is striking when compared with that of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, in the same year. Most coverage of Byrd's murder conveyed its brutality and horror, but it did not encourage strong identification with Byrd, but rather more distanced feelings of sympathy or pity. The black-oriented press, on the other hand, described Byrd in terms similar to those the mainstream press used for Shepard, noting that Byrd could have been "your" brother or father.

One of the key points I took away from my research is that emotion is always part of news—and political discourse—whether or not reporters and politicians intend it to be. The differences between the coverage of the murders of Byrd and Shepard do not hinge on how facts were reported or which experts were called upon for explanation, but on the different relationships the news established—or assumed—between the men and news audiences.

Where do you get your news? How are print, TV, radio and online media sources different in the way they approach stories?

I mainly get my news from online sources—both traditional and nontraditional news outlets—and radio. Print news typically offers longer, more in-depth news because space is not a constraint in the same way that time is for radio and TV news. TV news is famously built more around visuals. These technical and logistical factors affect what news outlets focus on and how stories are told. However, they are often telling the same stories.

The biggest differences right now are due less to medium and more to revenue streams and institutional identity and culture. Network TV news attempts to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but cable news outlets—especially recently with the proliferation of cable news channels—often attempt to appeal to niche audiences, which in some cases are defined in terms of political ideology.

Big news outlets and alternative news are very different from each other. Alternative news often operates outside of typical commercial structures and pressures. It uses different sources and often does not adhere to the norms of professional journalism, opting instead for opinionated analysis and more personal reporting.