American Atrocity Revisited: National Identity, Cascading Frames, and the My Lai Massacre

Charles M. Rowling, Penelope Sheets, Timothy M. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


This study draws on the “cascading activation” model of press-state relations to explore U.S. political and news discourse surrounding the 1968 My Lai Massacre. We systematically analyze White House, military, congressional, and news communications and draw upon scholarship in social psychology to assess why the press might challenge certain frames in response to My Lai but indiscriminately echo others. In particular, within these communications, we examine how serious and widespread the actions at My Lai were conveyed to be, how the circumstances were portrayed, how the actors involved in the incident were characterized, and the extent to which America’s core values were questioned. Our findings suggest that the Nixon administration employed frames designed to downplay the severity of the My Lai incident, highlight extenuating circumstances faced by those directly involved, denigrate the alleged low-level perpetrators, and bolster the national identity. These frames were then largely echoed in the press, despite consistent and forceful challenges by congressional Democrats. These findings, we argue, align with the cascading activation model, and we build on it by highlighting the underlying importance of “cultural resonance” in the framing process. We reflect on the theoretical and practical implications of these patterns and, in doing so, engage the broader scholarly debate over the process through which U.S. news coverage aligns with the communications of government officials, particularly in moments of national dissonance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)310-330
Number of pages21
JournalPolitical Communication
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 3 2015


  • My Lai
  • cascading activation
  • cultural resonance
  • framing
  • national identity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science

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