Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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Architecture, Urban Design, and Media Narratives: The Relationship between Material and Media Space in U.S. Mass Killings
William Aungst, Ashley Walter

Last modified: 2018-01-17


On August 1, 1966 a young man rode his bicycle on the campus of University of Texas. Nearby students and faculty watched as he fell off of his bike, and onto the ground. As they tried to help him up, they too were struck down. For the next 80 minutes, a lone shooter opened fire atop a 27-story tower, killing 12 people and wounding over 30 in total. On April 16, 2007 another college student killed 32 people and wounded others at Virginia Tech University. Sandy Hook Elementary school became immortalized as one of the deadliest school shootings on December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including 20 children in Newtown Connecticut. Since 1966, thousands of people have been killed or injured in mass killings in the United States. The majority of these killings have been executed in public places, and spaces reserved for mass entertainment, like movie theaters and music festivals. Research has found that public mass shooters in the United States were “more likely to attack in schools, factories/warehouses, and office buildings” – architectural spaces commonly inhabited[1]. For each mass shooting, detonation of a homemade bomb, and vehicular attack on pedestrians, we narrativize the incident through the inclusion of scene and setting: open parks, community centers, university campuses, movie theaters, and sidewalks. Architecture and urban design function to shape our lived experience, and serve as the setting for each mass killing covered by the media.

As more people live in or around urban centers, we spend most of our time indoors or travelling in vehicles to our next constructed destination. From the house to the car, the car to the office, our communicative lives are structured by what our architectural setting allows. Coupled with the increased exposure to media, we are almost always living in a constructed, designed, and mediated context.  The relationship between how we perceive architecture and design in public spaces and media coverage of mass killings over time is more relevant than ever before, as each passing year expands the narrative of mass killings to include more and varied public spaces. To date, scholarly research focused on mass killings in the United States has largely ignored architecture/urban design‘s role in media coverage. This research in progress seeks to examine how architecture and structure are framed in media coverage.

This narrative analysis will attempt to answer the questions below using the New York Times and local newspapers from the town in which the event occurred. The primary research questions are:

How does the media coverage use architecture/urban design in the narrative of public mass killings?

How has this narrative changed from 1966 until 2017?

How has architecture/urban design and public signage changed in public spaces overtime, in the aftermath of public mass killings?

While some research has been done on architecture/urban design’s role in communication[2], connecting media narratives to these designs has been largely overlooked. Most of our lives are spent in a constructed and mediated context. As new public spaces become the scene of mass killings, it is important to understand media narratives and its portrayal of public spaces.







[1] Lankford, Adam. "Mass Shooters in the USA, 1966–2010: Differences Between Attackers Who Live and Die," Justice Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2015): 360-379.


[2] Jackson, Nancy. "The Architectural View: Perspectives on Communication." Visual Communication Quarterly 13, no. 1(2006): 32-45.


Gumpert, Gary, and Susan J. Drucker. "Introduction: The Transmogrification of the Geography of Place.” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 25, no. 2 (2008): 91-93.



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