Accounting for death : press coverage of the 1981 Northern Irish hunger strike
O Maolchatha, Aogan
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During 1981, 10 inmates of the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland went on hunger strike in pursuit of "political prisoner status." Their action was an effort to establish the legitimacy of the use of violence to achieve political goals. It was also a direct challenge to the official interpretation of the Northern Ireland conflict as "criminal" rather than "political" violence. Using newspaper accounts of the hunger strike in the Irish Times, the London Times, and the New York Times, this study,investigates the role of the media in defining the issues underlying this protest. On the basis of qualitative and quantitative analyses of these data, it was found that these newspapers differed significantly both in terms of the characteristics of their coverage and concerning the explanations they provided for the protest itself. The Irish Times was the most willing to challenge the official account of the hunger strike by consistently publishing stories which emphasized the sincerity and determination of the hunger strikers. It also emphasized the high social costs of the violence. Although the New York Times gave less credence to the hunger strikers' claims than did the Irish Times, it nevertheless maintained that there was a significant political dimension to the conflict. The Times adhered most closely to the official account of the hunger strike, portraying it as a propaganda exercise rather than as an effort to promote the legitimacy of political violence. The implications of these findings for theories of legitimacy and theories of the media are also considered.