September 6, 2001

Journalism professor has book
published after years of research


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Research has always been something Dr. Marlin Shipman enjoys, especially when the research unfolds into a murder mystery.shipmannew.jpg (60478 bytes)

Shipman, who joined Arkansas State Universityís College of Communications faculty in 1981, began research concerning the death penalty in 1990 when Arkansas resumed executions.

After years of research, the journalism professor looks forward to having his first book published in the spring. The book, "Newspaper Coverage of Women Executed in the United States 1850-2001," appropriately concerns media coverage of female defendants who have been executed in the United States since the mid-19th century.

"I became interested, because to my knowledge there were no books about the media coverage of the death penalty," Shipman said. "As I got further into the research process and read cases with women defendants it seemed natural to move my research in that direction. The death penalty is very controversial anyway, and with women defendants, even more so. Some cases seem so much like a mystery novel. Trying to pare all the information down for a book has been difficult."

One case Shipman mentioned in particular concerned a woman who was a mass murderer in the 1930s in Ohio. Shipman said when he approached the local newspaper about researching the articles, they welcomed him to go through all the materials they had, but warned that their case file on murderess Anne Hahn was as extensive as that of O.J. Simpsonís.

Another aspect of research that proved interesting to Shipman were the patterns that were evident over periods of time. For example, Shipman said the coverage of black female defendants was considerably less than that of others, no matter what part of the country he was researching. There was still more execution coverage for white defendants.

Shipman, a 1997 recipient of the prestigious Distinguished Teaching and Service to Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, also stated that very little coverage existed of slave executions during the 1800s, before the abolishment of slavery. However, one case proved to be an exception.

"No other execution in Virginia of a woman received quite so much coverage as a slave who killed the wife and child of her master, and then bludgeoned him. He survived, but law enforcement in Virginia definitely made an example of the slave," Shipman said.

Some material for that particular case was more difficult to get because it was so old. The execution hanging of the slave occurred in Richmond, Va., in 1850. When Shipman went to the University of Virginia for information, he nearly struck a research roadblock.

"I found out that about half the yearís newspapers had been lost or destroyed. It just so happened that everything with the particular case happened in the last six months of the year, and the material was still available, which was fortunate for me."

Shipman employed various research methods while working on his book. He cited Margarett Daniels, who works in inter-library loan in the Dean B. Ellis Library, as a significant source of assistance. He also traveled to several states for research including Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, and utilized numerous historical societies and libraries.

The former newspaper editor stated that recent cases were more readily available on microfilm and Internet. Shipman noted, however, the reader or researcher doesnít get to see story placement when using a newspaperís archival system on the Internet, and that is a downfall for that form of research.

One pattern Shipman noted that has changed significantly since the mid-1800s, is the way the media cover such cases.

"In the 19th century female defendants were often described as demons or fiends," Shipman said. "The press didnít know how to handle a woman who was so evidently breaking the social norms. Women were expected to be nurturing."

In many instances he found members of the press often would not separate opinion from fact.

"Itís hard to say how much coverage affected trials. There are complaints from defendants almost as far back as Iíve researched into the mid 1800s. Often, confessions would be published before the defendant would even be tried or indicted. Papers would run verbatim transcripts of the confession.

"The access that reporters had to defendants was fantastic, it was enormous. In one case, a reporter was able to go into a cell three hours after the arrest took place. So much of the mediaís access has been changed due to Supreme Court rulings about criminal defendantsí rights."

The award-winning professor, who is also the recipient of numerous grants, said he looks forward to writing more books. He acknowledged that research is extensive and tedious, but fun.

And as expected from a long-time professor, Shipman continues to incorporate his research findings into the classroom.

He said that when teaching about law and press in class, some Arkansas defendants mentioned are from his studentsí hometowns, which piques their interest.

And after all, isnít that what a good mystery should do?

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