Case Study: The NFL’s Concussion Calamity

First, download these three articles. Before walking through the discussion below, take a few minutes to read through each, taking notes about the various micro and/or macro frames being used. As you move to the second and third article, start thinking about how the frames compare. What information is being added or removed? Once you’re done, take a look at the discussion below.

Article 1 (Word doc)

Article 2 (Word doc)

Article 3 (PDF)


This lesson addressed the important (and influential) role media play in conveying our news, the ways in which media frame the news, and what that coverage implies about any given topic. Accordingly, the lesson also emphasized the importance of analyzing multiple articles reporting on the same topic to determine the various ways in which a single story is presented and possibly interpreted. This case allows us to practice doing just that. As you have probably heard / seen / read, there has been ongoing (indeed increasing) coverage regarding concussions in the National Football League. The issue is not really the fact that football players are at constant risk to suffer concussions. Rather, controversy has emerged in recent years that the long-term effects from concussions are far worse than originally thought, and it seems the NFL might have known these risks but never disclosed publicly. As a result, 5,000 players have filed legal action against the NFL.


The NFL has reached an initial settlement in which players who have been diagnosed with severe neurological conditions (such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) can receive as much as $5 million to cover medical expenses. A case this big, of course, has captured a lot of media attention. As they say, though, it’s complicated. There has been question over who should pay, for example, and there have been appeals regarding the settlement amount itself. So, the case has been in court, and an important ruling occurred at the end of October 2016.

Macro-Level Analysis

The three attached articles are from three major news sources written within a day of each other. Each article covers the news of the same ruling, but in different ways. As you read, first look at the macro-level of analysis. You’ll notice that the lengths of the articles vary from less than a page to three pages—from 201 words to 749 words to be exact. The images used in telling the story also differ. One article includes a graph showing how common concussions are in various sports. Another has a link to the court filing itself. Similarly, one article has a picture of the presiding judge, another shows a player being hauled off the field, and another includes a picture of a man in a suit with no caption at all. You might ask, “Well, so what?” Ok, consider the headline for the article with the picture of the player being hauled off the field: “NFL’s Latest Concussion Setback Carries Billion-Dollar Price Tag.” Compare that to the headline for the article with the picture of the judge: “Judge Tells N.F.L. to Reveal Some Secrets About Concussions.” Arguably, the first article (at least at first glance) seems to frame the news in terms of impact concussions have on the league and players, while the second article seems to frame the news in terms of the legal details of the case. Both articles, however, include an additional image. The first—we’ll call it the player-focused article—also includes the graph showing rates of concussions across sports, clearly showing the heightened risk in football. The second—we’ll call it the legal-focused article—also includes the link to the court filing. In both cases, these images reinforce the frame of “player-focused” versus the frame of “legal-focused.” And we’ve only looked at the high-level, macro considerations.

Micro-Level Analysis

Now, let’s take a quick look at the micro-level of analysis. As you read each article, note any differences between the terms being used, the types of content chosen, if people were quoted (and the types of people quotes), and the overall tone. For example, what’s different between the lead sentence in article #1, “New York State Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey K. Oing has ordered for the NFL to reveal some of the league's information on how medical officials handled brain injuries over the past two decades,” and article #3, “A judge’s decision to compel the NFL to reveal its knowledge of concussion-related health risks could have far more damaging consequences for the league than whether it will have to cover a pending $1 billion class action settlement to injured players”? Compare both of those sentences to the opening of article #2. As you do, here’s the million-dollar question from the public relations perspective: if someone only looked at the pictures, headline, and first sentence, what would they “know” about the case at hand and how to interpret the news?

Moral of the Story

As mentioned in the lesson, the often-subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between style and content can have a major influence on what the public “knows” about any given topic. Thus, in public relations, while an individual stakeholder’s understanding of news that affects our organization might be limited, it is our responsibility to look at news coverage in concert (all together), to identify all of the ways our news is being reported. Only then can we respond effectively, which is the focus for our next lesson.

Additional Reading

Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.

Entman, R. M. (2004). Projections of power: framing news, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gitlin, T. (1980). The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (pp. 1-16; 46-68).

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.

Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9–20.

Weaver, D. H. (2007). Thoughts on Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 142–147.

Referenced Josh Brown Articles

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