In the wake of a tragedy, audiences may question the motive of a well-known journalist who meets with a high-profile actor to discuss their side of the story when their culpability for a major crime has been called into question. Arguably, in this context, there is a greater risk that the media will either knowingly or unknowingly manipulate public opinion and perpetuate biases by solely amplifying the voice of the most powerful person involved in the incident.
This article endeavors to explore the effect of agenda setting and framing at play in George Stephanopoulos’s interview with Alec Baldwin regarding the Rust shooting incident. This article also seeks to illuminate how ABC News drew attention to the subject matter of the shooting and framed the incident in ways that might influence public opinion, create biases, and distort the truth about responsibility for the shooting which caused Halyna Hutchins’ death. Finally, this article questions whether ABC News and Stephanopoulos were reporting news or creating news with its primetime special Alec Baldwin Unscripted and discusses the negative implications of the latter.
Pertinent Media Theory
Within the context of mass media, there is a framework for establishing media bias and examining its effect on public opinion that considers the elements of first level agenda setting, second level agenda setting (also known as attribute setting), and framing.
First level agenda setting refers to legitimate news items, such as current issues, subject matter, and objects. Second level agenda setting considers the attributes, properties, aspects and characteristics of those first level items. Both subjects and their attributes, for example, can shape an agenda according to their salience and can subsequently shape public opinion. Framing, along with agenda and attribute setting, explains how issues which receive extensive and special coverage by the media become more important to consumers, while those issues which are ignored tend to lose credibility and relevance in the minds of viewers. Inherent in the agenda and attribute setting process, as well as framing, is the risk of intentional or unintentional media bias and distortion of the truth.
The media plays a pivotal role in providing knowledge about events about which most people have no first-hand knowledge. Those charged with gathering and disseminating news make difficult decisions about the prominence of the position of each story. Despite efforts of even the most conscientious journalists, news reports are often unintentionally distorted and thus flawed beliefs can provide the basis for public opinions. On the other side of that coin, however, some important studies have found that elite news agencies intentionally influence the play of topics in the news agenda for less than altruistic reasons.
Researchers have found strong correlations between the amount of attention that news media outlets pay to celebrities or political figures and both the salience and public’s attitude towards these people. Put plainly, the more media reports there are about Celebrity X, the more the public thinks Celebrity X is important, and the more negative reports there are about Celebrity X, the more the public views Celebrity X negatively. The same holds true for positive reporting.
The criticism below evaluates the likelihood that similar types of frames were used to influence viewers opinions about Baldwin and whether the use of certain phrases and images were repeated to shift viewers’ perspective of responsibility away from Baldwin to suggest that he was a victim, and not a perpetrator of the tragedy. Though Baldwin repeatedly denied victimhood during the interview, he did it so frequently that it’s questionable whether he did it precisely to conjure up the idea of himself as merely another casualty of the shooting. Further, the criticism below also evaluates whether the use of frames focusing on the pulling of the trigger, the bullets, and the Rust script itself during the ABC News interview suggests that Baldwin was another victim, and whether concentrating on these elements elevated the salience of such.
Unscripted and Support for the Application of These Theories
In an hour long special, ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos assisted actor and producer Alec Baldwin in telling a single-sided story of the Rust movie set shooting. Stephanopoulos is arguably one of the top anchors for ABC News, and a co-anchor for Good Morning America. He is a household name in America, a well-known political commentator, and former advisor and communications director for former President Bill Clinton. There is little doubt that the choice of Stephanopoulos as interviewer weighed heavily in the decision-making process to air the primetime special. His clout as a journalist and a political commentator would surely set the tone of the interview as both serious and legitimate in the minds of those who consumed it upon airing—as well as to those who later consumed highlights through news media, social media outlets, and streaming services.
Like Dan Rather during his heyday, Stephanopoulos clearly can influence what media critics call ‘pack journalism.’ His clout and political connections alone likely elevated attention to the subject matter more so than even Baldwin himself or the sensationalistic nature of the story. After the episode of Unscripted aired, almost every other major news outlet followed suit in its coverage of the subject matter, and many simply regurgitated what was stated during interview. A few networks criticized the piece, but in doing so, still garnered it more attention after it had become less relevant and less salient in the month or so after the Rust shooting was first reported.
Unscripted aired during the time of day when audiences are arguably still the largest, as the term ‘primetime’ in its full program title indicates. Though today news is accessible through many media outlets all day long, the marketing of Unscripted as a primetime special event was likely intentional in order to convey a message that the story was significant. ABC News’ decision to show Unscripted during this time slot over another story assigned Unscripted a position of greater prominence. According to the agenda setting theory, those who viewed Unscripted would likely recognize the media’s ranking and would have consequently decided on a parallel ranking of importance in terms of the subject matter or incident in their own minds. ABC News’ broadcasting of Unscripted not only created a news cycle which elevated attention to the Rust shooting incident, it also elevated Baldwin’s voice and arguably framed the incident to impact public attitudes and opinions about the matter. Using agenda-setting and framing, the primetime special possibly afforded salience to certain attributes over others using thematic frames such as responsibility, fault, and victimhood, and set an agenda with dominant word-choices such as “cold gun,” “bullets,” and “trigger” in exploring these dominant themes.
Baldwin was a lead actor and one of the producers of the Western drama Rust. In response to the tragedy, a producer has anonymously stated that “[m]ore than anything, it is actually the producer’s job to know what’s going on on your set.” During the interview, however, Baldwin claimed that he is confident that he was not at fault for the shooting. He later doubled down on his claim, telling Stephanopoulos that “[s]omeone is responsible for what happened, and I can’t say who that is… But I know it’s not me.”
Baldwin and Stephanopoulos focused on the concepts of ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility,’ arguably using them as thematic frames as the interview progressed so that certain attributes would stand out while others would be relatively ignored or downplayed. In creating a theme of responsibility, Stephanopoulos constructed questions which elicited responses (sometimes in the form of rhetorical questions) from Baldwin which allowed him to thwart appearing responsible in any way for the death of Hutchins. Baldwin and Stephanopoulos planted the seed for viewers to think about, share, and self-investigate the question of ‘who is responsible’ but through a smaller lens. Stephanopoulos’ questions and Baldwin’s answers concentrated heavily on one phase of the entirety of the incident, upon which responsibility can and should be assessed. The phase that was given prominence during the interview was from the time Baldwin held the gun up until the time it fired. Questions about his role as producer and the larger picture were overshadowed by this phase of the incident.
The interview is approximately one-hour long, but substantively speaking, it was closer to 15-25 minutes in length. Many of the questions posed were leading, and Baldwin’s answers reverberated Stephanopoulos’ statements disguised as questions. For example, at one point Stephanopoulos asks or states: “It wasn’t in the script to pull the trigger.” Baldwin then retorts, “It wasn’t in the script for the trigger to be pulled.” The repeated use of the words “trigger” and “script” suggests that they would be dominant attributes in the second level agenda setting process. By focussing on words like “trigger” and “script” more heavily than on words like ‘recklessness’ or ‘negligence,’ Baldwin was able push his version of how responsibility should be measured. Actors do what’s in the script unless they are directed to do otherwise. If pulling the trigger was not in the script, then Baldwin’s own statement that he didn’t pull the trigger arguably becomes more credible to viewers. Judging responsibility from this phase alone would thus demonstrate that Baldwin bears no fault. These attributes, as well as other specific words and phrases were highlighted such as “cold gun,” and “bullets,” thereby providing a framework by which viewers would subsequently measure responsibility in a way which would exculpate Baldwin.
During portions of the interview, Baldwin asked more questions than he answered. For example, he poses the following, both to the program’s host and to the audience: “Where did that bullet come from?” and “Who brought the bullets on the set?” Again, accentuating “bullets” narrows the scope of the question of responsibility. It also suggests that the public ought to demand answers from investigators. After the interview ended, it’s not difficult to see how there might have been public pressure to determine the source of the bullets and shift blame accordingly, so that the producers, including Baldwin, would bear no responsibility.
Even the use of the term Unscripted in the title arguably framed the interview in a positive and perhaps misleading light. The term “unscripted” suggests that moral principles were being employed by both Stephanopoulos and Baldwin. The word “unscripted” carries with it the connotation that Baldwin did not prepare his answers in advance. Many viewers, at least the ones who understood the term as more than just a clever play on words, would have viewed Baldwin’s interview as more altruistic if unscripted. The interview, however, was pre-recorded on November 30, 2021 and aired on December 2, 2021, so the use of the term “unscripted” is misleading in the absence of proof that answers and questions were not altered or cut from the segment that aired.
In addition to the agenda setting at play using the above attributes and framing effects, Stephanopoulos sought to use tone and visual images to support the theme of victimhood. As mentioned above, Baldwin repeatedly pointed out that he was not trying to appear as a victim, but the melancholy background music and the sympathetic emotional outbursts told another story. Using a bleak tone and portraying an emotionally fragile Baldwin, while strategically amplifying Baldwin’s voice over the other actors and crew members made him appear less culpable. Arguably, Stephanopoulos used these tactics to create a positive impression of Baldwin, though neutrality might have been the better goal for a journalist behaving in a socially responsible manner.
The episode of Unscripted, and the media’s handling of the Rust movie shooting generally, is precisely the type of story which scholars might use to conduct an empirical study on the effects of agenda-setting and framing to determine bias and influence on public opinion. The news media must be cognizant of these theories and attempt to compensate for possible distortions in order to ensure that consumers receive the most accurate, fair, and non-biased news—especially during a pending criminal investigation. Unscripted arguably has the potential not only to influence public opinion, but also influence those in positions of power in the District Attorney’s office, as well as the courts. Two high-profile figures such as Stephanopoulos and Baldwin broadcasting an exculpatory interview plausibly sends a powerful message that the court of public opinion should replace a real court of justice and reach the verdict that Baldwin bears no responsibility for the Rust shooting.
It has long been posited by scholars that agenda setting and framing effects in the media have consequences that go beyond opinions and attitudes of those in the public, and, in fact, can likely influence behavior. These implications should give journalists pause, and cause them construct their coverage in a manner that avoids compromising the integrity of any possible criminal investigations or pending civil litigations. Perhaps the goal of journalism should be to amplify pertinent and corroborated information, instead of amplifying one voice over another. More specifically, responsible journalism should entail refraining from using frames to bolster the voice of an elite Hollywood star, as doing so may make it outweigh any other valid perspective in the court of public opinion. What the media amplifies has significant repercussions on what people talk about, share, and investigate. As highly-acclaimed media and technology critic Danah Boyd once said, “Now, more than ever, we need a press driven by ideals determined to amplify what is most important for enabling an informed citizenry.”
Whether Stephanopoulos was adhering to objective journalism with his interview of Baldwin is questionable. Arguably, it can be said that he was assisting Baldwin in creating a better narrative for himself just as an uncomfortable spotlight was being shone onto his actions in the run-up to the Rust shooting. After all, Baldwin could have simply said what he did to Stephanopoulos on his own Twitter account. However, Stephanopoulos lent credibility and projected his perspective better and more convincingly than Baldwin could have done alone, and it appears that this decision went unchecked by any moral authority in the ABC news agency. When news agents behave in ways which call into question their intentions, this erodes public trust in the network and the media generally. To avoid the appearance of nefarious intent, a system of checks and balances within news agencies is needed to prevent future interviews such as this one from taking place, especially during a criminal investigation involving a high-profile figure. Elites often find it difficult to resist the pervasive influence of frames, however, and in the unfolding of new events, elites have great influence in establishing the initial frames. Stephanopoulos had great experience as a political adviser to Bill Clinton, and he was particularly adept at using frames and agenda-setting when he was suppressing Clinton’s private transgressions from being public fodder—at least up until the Monica Lewinsky story broke. The host’s experience in this arena on its own should have prompted ABC News to consider the ethics of whether Unscripted would compromise the search for the truth, whether it would backfire and reflect poorly on the news agency and Stephanopoulos, and whether it would have any legal consequences for Baldwin.
About Celeste Hedequist
Celeste Hedequist is a lawyer and advocate in Massachusetts. As a self-motivated individual, and someone who values education, Celeste holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from Boston College, a Master’s of Public Health in Environmental Sciences from Columbia, and a Juris Doctor from the Boston University School of Law. She combines her passion for law, advocacy, and the environment to assist in opportunities for locally and abroad.
Alongside her professional achievements, Celeste is also an avid traveler and has ventured across the United States and various parts of the globe with her husband and children. Her travel blog recounts her family’s experiences with the different people and cultures they have encountered on their visits.