The mourning papers: death, religion and American newspapers, 1690-2002

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Sillars, Leslie Darren

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Historians of journalism have paid comparatively little attention to the relationship between religion and the non-religious content of American newspapers. Because death brings deeply-held religious values to the surface, stories involving death are a good place to begin investigating the relationship between journalism and religious, philosophical and cultural currents in society. This study examines stories that reported a fatal event sampled at roughly 30-year intervals from major newspapers in five American cities: Boston, New York, Charleston, S.C., Chicago and San Francisco. It traces how journalists, reflecting and contributing to religious trends in American society, over time became less and less likely to interpret death in terms of the Reformed Christianity that was prevalent in the eighteenth century and more likely to interpret death in the context of social and economic theory and science. It also illustrates some of the many different ways that news values and news decisions flowed out of the religious and philosophical contexts in which they were made, and how these decisions changed with the changing times. Of all the thousands of ways to die, this study found that journalists interpreted almost all deaths in one of nine different contexts: crime, executions, natural disasters, military/political, disease, old age, accidents, suicide and obituaries/public figures.