Date of Award

Summer 7-15-2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Journalism & Mass Comm.

First Advisor

J. Richard Stevens

Second Advisor

Michael McDevitt

Third Advisor

Elizabeth A. Skewes

Abstract

Informal talk between citizens could be considered the glue that holds a deliberative democracy together. In everyday political talk, opinions are formed, formal institutions are criticized so they can be improved, and social change is initiated and advanced. But even informal conversation can be difficult or unproductive when the issue being discussed is heated or controversial, such as debates over gun rights and gun control.

National debates over gun issues increased after the elementary school shooting in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, and residents of Colorado recalled lingering emotional wounds acquired after the 1999 Columbine school shooting in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado and the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Colorado has been the site of multiple mass shootings in recent decades, and most Coloradans have historically ascribed to a libertarian philosophy that favors individual gun rights over gun control. The tensions between these two facts make Colorado an intriguing case study in the gun debate.

This project was designed to examine online discussion of the gun debate to determine if and which elements of deliberation this discussion contained, whether the amount of those elements of deliberation differed whether discussion happened on a local or national level, and how discussion participants were using and framing expertise. This study employs both content analysis and textual analysis of comments on gun issues in the online comments forums of three Colorado newspapers from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013.

Though commenting did not amount to actual deliberation, some elements of deliberation, such as respect and the discussion of solutions to problems, were present more often when commenters were discussing issues on a local rather than a national level. Commenters rejected the legitimacy of experts in favor of technological populism, and the only form of expertise pro-gun-rights commenters considered relevant to the debate was personal knowledge and experience with firearms. Wild West mythology informed the gun debate in Colorado, as many commenters tied guns to a Western American Monomythic fantasy, while others insisted that lingering Wild West fantasies were hindering a rational, contemporary conversation about guns.

Included in

Communication Commons

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