Botched Executions and the Media: The Case of Oklahoma's 2014 Botched Lethal Injection of Clayton Lockett

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This thesis examines the phenomenon of botched executions in relation to their media representation and how this may influence public opinion on the death penalty. The 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma was used as a case study. The overall thesis explores whether the representation of Lockett’s execution in the media has changed compared to how botched executions have been represented in the past, drawing from that conclusion whether Lockett’s execution could be a key factor in moving public sentiment regarding capital punishment in the United States. The first chapter finds that public support of the death penalty has historically fluctuated and that sensationalism and not challenging the killing state can be defined as the two most important and overarching factors of newsworthiness of death penalty cases. These factors are used in the second chapter to explain why Lockett’s case received so much media attention. The second chapter also concludes that botched executions have historically moved sentiment from one execution method to another, but that they were generally represented as misfortunes in the media and have therefore not moved public sentiment on state killing in general. The final chapter finds that Lockett’s execution has shown a departure from this misfortune narrative in the media, but that balanced reporting and blaming the method instead of the general practice of state killing remain present as well. This leads to the overall conclusion that there is improvement in how widely the media covered the case but that there is still a lot to gain in the way they represented it. Lockett’s case could nevertheless be the start of a new era of death penalty support in the U.S., but it remains to be seen if structural change is really possible in the future or whether Lockett will just be another exception.
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