UPRISING: Riot or Resistance: Media Framing Shapes Public View

The role journalists play can be indispensable if movements are to gain legitimacy and make progress, writes Danielle K. Kilgo. 

Protesters outside of a burning Minneapolis police precinct. (AP, John Minchillo)

By Danielle K. Kilgo
Indiana University

A teenager held her phone steady enough to capture the final moments of George Perry Floyd’s life as he apparently suffocated under the weight of a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck. The video went viral.

What happened next has played out time and again in American cities after high-profile cases of alleged police brutality.

Vigils and protests were organized in Minneapolis and around the United States to demand police accountability. But while investigators and officials called for patience, unrest boiled over. News reports soon carried images of property destruction and police in riot gear.

The general public’s opinions about protests and the social movements behind them are formed in large part by what they read or see in the media. This gives journalists a lot of power when it comes to driving the narrative of a demonstration.

They can emphasize the disruption protests cause or echo the dog whistles of politicians that label protesters as “thugs.”
But they can also remind the public that at the heart of the protests is the unjust killing of another black person. This would take the emphasis away from the destruction of the protests and toward the issues of police impunity and the effects of racism in its many forms.

The role journalists play can be indispensable if movements are to gain legitimacy and make progress. And that puts a lot of pressure on journalists to get things right.

My research has found that some protest movements have more trouble than others getting legitimacy. My co-author Summer Harlow and I have studied how local and metropolitan newspapers cover protests. We found that narratives about the Women’s March and anti-Trump protests gave voice to protesters and significantly explored their grievances. On the other end of the spectrum, protests about anti-black racism and indigenous people’s rights received the least legitimizing coverage, with them more often seen as threatening and violent.

Forming the Narrative

Decades ago, scholars James Hertog and Douglas McLeod identified how news coverage of protests contributes to the maintenance of the status quo, a phenomenon referred to as “the protest paradigm.” They held that media narratives tend to emphasize the drama, inconvenience and disruption of protests rather than the demands, grievances and agendas of protesters. These narratives trivialize protests and ultimately dent public support.

Here’s how this theoretically plays out today:

Journalists pay little attention to protests that aren’t dramatic or unconventional.

Knowing this, protesters find ways to capture media and public attention. They don pink “pussy” hats or kneel during the national anthem. They might even resort to violence and lawlessness. Now the protesters have the media’s attention, but what they cover is often superficial or delegitimizing, focusing on the tactics and disruption caused and excluding discussion on the substance of the social movement.

We wanted to explore if this classic theory fit coverage from 2017 – a year of large-scale protests accompanying the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

To do so, we analyzed the framing of protest reporting from newspapers in Texas. The state’s size and diversity made it a good proxy for the country at large.

In all, we identified 777 articles by searching for terms such as “protest,” “protester,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Women’s March.” This included reports written by journalists in 20 Texas newsrooms, such as the El Paso Times and the Houston Chronicle, as well as syndicated articles from sources like the Associated Press.

We looked at how articles framed the protests in the headline, opening sentence and story structure, and classified the reporting using four recognized frames of protest:

  • Riot: Emphasizing disruptive behavior and the use or threat of violence.
  • Confrontation: Describing protests as combative, focusing on arrests or “clashes” with police.
  • Spectacle: Focusing on the apparel, signs or dramatic and emotional behavior of protesters.
  • Debate: Substantially mentioning protester’s demands, agendas, goals and grievances.

We also kept an eye out for sourcing patterns to identify imbalances that often give more credence to authorities than protesters and advocates.

Overall, news coverage tended to trivialize protests by focusing most often on dramatic action. But some protests suffered more than others.

Reports focused on spectacle more often than substance. Much was made of what protesters were wearing, crowd sizes – large and smallcelebrity involvement and flaring tempers.

The substance of some marches got more play than others. Around half of the reports on anti-Trump protests, immigration rallies, women’s rights demonstrations and environmental actions included substantial information about protesters’ grievances and demands.

In contrast, Dakota Pipeline and anti-black racism-related protests got legitimizing coverage less than 25 percent of the time and were more likely to be described as disruptive and confrontational.

In coverage of a St. Louis protest over the acquittal of a police officer who killed a black man, violence, arrest, unrest and disruption were the leading descriptors, while concern about police brutality and racial injustice was reduced to just a few mentions. Buried more than 10 paragraphs down was the broader context: “The recent St. Louis protests follow a pattern seen since the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson: the majority of demonstrators, though angry, are law-abiding.”

As a consequence of variances in coverage, Texas newspaper readers may form the perception that some protests are more legitimate than others. This contributes to what we call a “hierarchy of social struggle,” in which the voices of some advocacy groups are lifted over others.

Lurking Bias

Journalists contribute to this hierarchy by adhering to industry norms that work against less-established protest movements. On tight deadlines, reporters may default to official sources for statements and data. This gives authorities more control of narrative framing. This practice especially becomes an issue for movements like Black Lives Matter that are countering the claims of police and other officials.

Implicit bias also lurks in such reporting. Lack of diversity has long plagued newsrooms.

In 2017, the proportion of white journalists at The Dallas Morning News and The Houston Chronicle was more than double the proportion of white people in each city.

Protests identify legitimate grievances in society and often tackle issues that affect people who lack the power to address them through other means. That’s why it is imperative that journalists do not resort to shallow framing narratives that deny significant and consistent space to air the afflicted’s concerns while also comforting the very comfortable status quo.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 16.

Danielle K. Kilgo ia assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “UPRISING: Riot or Resistance: Media Framing Shapes Public View

  1. June 3, 2020 at 08:54

    I’m not sure that I accept the idea of “media framing.”

    Too many think of the major media as separate actors who may choose to wrongly influence the public or not, who may shade or distort events or not, who may honestly report or not.

    America’s major media are just tools of the power establishment, a set of corporations in a corporate/wealth-directed state.

    They couldn’t do anything differently if they somehow wanted to.

    They are as dependent as that young man in the street was with the policeman’s knee on his neck.

    Few recognize the way corporate media are indistinguishable from old state media, such as those of the old USSR.

    A newspaper publisher or a broadcaster who suddenly decided to be as scrupulously honest as possible about important matters would quickly suffer dire consequences.

    Adverting revenue cut off. Access in Congress and the White House cut off. Cut off from any important leaks or other information. Access to federal agencies cut off. Licence renewals endangered. Merger or other business requests denied on trumped-up excuses.

    In other words, a great wave of severe pressure from powerful actors, the kind of activity America regularly engages in against governments it does not like, as we see with Venezuela or Bolivia or Cuba.

    It would be a journalistic death sentence. Indeed, a corporate death sentence.

    American journalism cannot possibly reform itself. Or do anything much differently than it does. It is as free as a fly trapped in amber.

    Until the very way America is governed changes – and what are the chances of that? – American journalism will remain just what it is, an elaborate outlet for official views, propaganda, and disinformation.

    At least that’s what it is when it comes to vital topics, like war and political corruption. All the other stuff published or broadcast – from sports scores to election results – are authentic, their authenticity only helping the other stuff “go down,” like fruit flavoring for a pill.

  2. Pablo diablo
    June 2, 2020 at 16:56

    Whoever controls the media, controls the dialogue.
    Whoever controls the dialogue, controls the agenda.

  3. Aaron
    June 2, 2020 at 12:09

    From what I’ve watched on CNN and MSNBC, the protest paradigm is alive and well. The thrust of their coverage has shifted to the spectacle of the poor business owners and the audacity of the protestors to break some windows, and ignoring the status of the officers in question and the specific demands of the protests. And it’s even worse than that, and more hypocritical, watching Don Lemon grill black leaders and basically forcing them to condemn and elaborate on how terrible it is that there is some looting, and how counterproductive it is, and then it’s time for a commercial break, the result and impression for the viewers? It’s a kind of subtle shift to get them to focus on the inconvenience this is causing the business owners, and to invalidate the anger and causes of the wilding, and at the end of the day, really the author is correct, it’s to reinforce the status quo. As dramatic and these protests are, one gets the feeling, that nothing will substantially change, guaranteeing more atrocities, and therefore more protests and unrest for Cuomo and Lemon to “cover” every night. It’s the spectacles that keep them employed and making more money. I really think it’s been established that Trump has made the cable news channels tons of money, and I think almost all of them secretly wanted Trump to win, and still do, because it’s their bread and butter, all of their indignation actually feels like it’s pretense. Does anyone doubt, that for example a Jill Stein presidency with a healing, peaceful, halcyon period with little drama would be the worst thing for cable news viewership? Sure, Brian Williams will chat for a couple of minutes with Cornel West, but would anybody tune it to watch Brian Williams if there weren’t dramatic spectacles going on? Like his field reporter getting slightly grazed by a bottle rocket? Not really.
    If Trump is president, and there is non-stop spectacle, all I’m saying is “cui bono?”

  4. Dennis Rice
    June 2, 2020 at 11:43

    If you get caught doing a Wall Street crime, a corporate crime, a political crime, you’re still a “good ole boy” even after you’re convicted. A one year sentence and then a little probation. There’s a corporation, a law office, a job waiting for you somewhere. But an average dude who steals a six-pack of beer for the third time and gets caught, and it’s five years minimum and five years probation.

    Good article.

  5. AnneR
    June 2, 2020 at 11:12

    Recalling – vaguely – what the Glasgow Media Group wrote some nearly 50 years ago about media bias, what lies behind it, the words used and what is emphasized and what ignored or downplayed, one of the main things that stuck in my mind over the years was that where the journalists/reporters are located during a protest, demo matters, to some extent at least: behind Po-Lice lines or with the demonstrators/protestors.

    And it is no surprise at all that the reportage (so to speak) on such as the so-called “Women’s March” of a few years ago got such attractive coverage: Feminism – led by White women for white women, usually of the bourgeoisie – has been around and more or less accepted for some 50 years. NOT so equality for African Americans, Native Americans – not hardly, not in any way. Therefore any upsurge of their rightful anger – yes, often expressed in less than acceptable ways for paleskins; but then, the palies have not the deep frustrations, fears, daily traumas, segregation, profiling and so on and on to live with.

    Revolutions are not quiet peaceful events. Real change does not happen cap in hand, begging for it.

    And African Americans and Native Americans righteously need complete change that brings true Equality at every level of their lives.

  6. Sam F
    June 1, 2020 at 20:56

    Mass media bias originates in its control by money power, not predicted by the framers of our Constitution.
    A new Amendment is essential to restrict its funding to limited registered individual contributions, and it must be structured and monitored for accuracy, and to balance representation of viewpoints and societal groups. Such regulations need not be intrusive as some fear, because other aspects of public service operations are fairly regulated.

    Another essential component of public information is what I call the College of Policy Debate, intended to conduct moderated textual debates of policy issues in all regions, protecting every viewpoint, in which all views are challenged and must respond, and all parties must come to common terms. The CPD will produce commented debate summaries available to the public with quizzes, discussion groups, and a dramatized low level to educate those unwilling to study.

    Without that rational analysis and access to the core debates, citizens are no more than the fools of oligarchy opportunists, demagogues, and scammers. We can only hope that as poverty and dissension become prevalent, democracy will be recycled and restored. Meanwhile we should explore new institutions like the CPD.

    • June 2, 2020 at 09:27

      “We can only hope that as poverty and dissension become prevalent, democracy will be recycled and restored. ..”

      Sam, I hope we find a better way than burning down the building so we can build a better one.

      You have referred to a College of Policy Debate. George Kennan, in his last (I think) book described something similar for creating policy. His thought was to depoliticize policy making which can’t work and may not even be a very good idea.

      But you frequently refer to election reform which is critical but how we get there with the cards stacked as they are is difficult to foresee. The general public, which we profess to care about and often portray as victims has been so corrupted that viewing the Super Bowl is far more important than getting involved in our political process. Still, without election reform we are in trouble. Nothing is more important and nothing the corporate world and political bosses want less.

      Writing while being bombarded with senseless and mindless violence because of four cops and a dead victim is mind boggling. Does anyone believe the inciters and the rioters give a damn about George Floyd? And how did they decide that the death of George Floyd is any worse than the violent deaths on our streets. So far Baltimore has 110 of them.

      Always read your comments which have something important to say.

    • Sam F
      June 2, 2020 at 17:21

      Herman, I too hope that it is not necessary to take down the federal building to make a better one, although we have not found the way. It does appear that some federal structure must be changed significantly.

      If Kennan’s idea was to depoliticize policy making (I will look that up), I agree that it appears unworkable. The CPD is to depoliticize only the mutual education of viewpoint groups to facilitate rational democratic policymaking, which is a separate process of consensus building, negotiation, bargaining, etc.

      Getting to election reform, such as an amendment to restrict election funding to limited individual donations, is not a clear path. Perhaps a presidential power-grab to send Congress home and hold new elections until laws pass; or to force the amendment out to the states until it is ratified. Perhaps hope for a destabilizing factor (depression, military defeat, or international embargo) to tip the balance into a period of secessions, rebellions, or military fragmentation sufficient to break the grip of oligarchy, but with uncertain results.

      The present violence, although triggered by one murder, does have the limited but broader cause of reducing police violence. That is indeed out of control due to many state judges shrugging it off as a simple solution to enforce laws. I agree that the real problems are deeper, not even limited to the abandoned working class and poor, and hope that anger thus roused leads to the real reforms needed, but am not sure the leadership is there.

  7. Jared
    June 1, 2020 at 19:10

    There is an explanation for the “hierarchy of struggle” that isn’t explored here. When protests demands converge with the interests of any faction of the ruling class, they are provided more legitimacy. When they are antagonistic to ruling class interests, they are de-legitimized. This is as would be expected under Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model. They focused their analysis on the reporting of international events, but let’s see how well it holds up concerning 2017 media coverage of protests in Texas.

    Why under the propaganda model would BLM protests be de-legitimized? BLM is a protest against the brutality of the modern American police state. Both factions of the ruling class, represented by the Democratic and Republican parties, have engaged in law-and-order politicking for decades and both factions supported the creation of a multi-billion dollar private prison industry. Destroying or significantly dismantling the prison-industrial complex is against the interests of the corporate donors represented by each party.

    What about the the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests? Why were those de-legitimized? The ruling class is deeply interested in expanding petroleum production. Delaying or preventing a pipeline is a hugely expensive inconvenience for a lot of powerful people.

    But some protests were treated differently. Why under the propaganda model would the Women’s March and the anti-Trump protests be supported by some press (Democratic-aligned) but not other press (Republican-aligned)? In this case, the protests aligned with a definite partisan goal of the Democratic Party faction of the ruling class: the removal of Trump.

    The same can likely be said of the immigration protests as Democratic Party complaints with Trump, quite rightly, often focus on his attacks on immigrants. It would be interesting to see the same analysis of immigration protest coverage from the Obama-era, particular when it had become news that he was deporting tens of thousands of unaccompanied children. Regardless, easy immigration is a policy goal of neoliberalism as a method of depressing wages (it is also a goal of any person who believes human beings have the natural right to go where they please without being brutalized by the state), and in that regard does represent a policy goal of a faction of the ruling class. But it must be pointed out that there is an immigration-prison-complex as well, which does mean that a great many immigration demands run quite counter to the interests of powerful oligarchs. One might expect inconsistent or partisan coverage in such a situation.

    I believe I have exceeded the post-length limit. Apologies. It seemed necessary to complete the argument. My main goal here is try and show that the press’s inadequacies are a bit more complex than newsrooms having too many white people in them. I do not see how the press-is-too-white model can even explain the more favorable legitimizing coverage of immigration protests.

    • AnneR
      June 2, 2020 at 11:15

      Totally, Jared, totally right.

Comments are closed.