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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Death Penalty: How Newspaper Coverage Has Perpetuated Negative Stereotypes about Female Violence & Gender Roles

  • Author(s): Kraybill, Jeanine E.
  • et al.

On July 5, 1934, Nellie Madison was sentenced to death by the state of California for first-degree murder, becoming the first woman in the state to receive the death sentence. Her trial sparked a media frenzy. Being married five times and rejecting her Irish-Catholic background posed a threat to the status quo. This was reflected by newspaper coverage of the case. The Los Angeles Times reported on her “matrimonial adventures” and presented a negative view of her unconventionality. Much of their “reporting” focused on Nellie’s past relationships, looks, demeanor, and non-traditional female role. None of this had to do with the charge of murdering her husband. In the years and decades that followed, other women in the state of California were charged with murder and sentenced to death. The press coverage of these women often focused on aspects not related to the crime. Instead, their coverage focused on their past, sexual promiscuity, physical appearance and non traditional role as women. This paper will examine six female death penalty cases (spanning from 1934-2004) in the state of California, as covered by the Los Angeles Times. This examination will expose how the newspaper’s coverage of these cases has not changed largely overtime, hence perpetuating negative stereotypes about female violence and gender roles. It will also demonstrate that society tends to assign unattractive and negative traits to females who commit acts of violence, in order to rationalize the use of the death penalty. This paper will integrate content analysis in its discussion.

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