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June 24, 2020, 12:22 p.m.
Reporting & Production

It’s time to change the way the media reports on protests. Here are some ideas.

“People kept sharing these videos that were coming up and it was unambiguous what was going on. We weren’t looking at a stream of videos of violence erupting or clashes breaking out. We were looking at cops, attacking people.”

It was Slate that arguably broke the media logjam.

For nearly a week, there had been nationwide protests after a bystander released video showing that George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident, died as a local police officer knelt on his neck. And for almost a week, national media made editorial choices, mirroring a framework social scientists have dubbed the “protest paradigm,” that often failed to frame the events of the day accurately.

The paradigm traces its origins to at least the 1980s, when researchers looked at how the media covered anti-war protests. It’s the idea that “the press contributes to the political status quo by reinforcing whatever the government thinks,” said Danielle Kilgo, a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

In essence, when it comes to protests, this means that the media is biased toward the status quo. Dr. Kilgo noted that while this idea can “seem a little conspiracy theory,” this is generally how it plays out in practice. A 2010 study that analyzed 40 years of protest coverage in five major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, found that the papers depicted protests — even peaceful ones — as nuisances rather than as necessary functions of democracy. To illustrate this point, the study pointed to a 1992 Seattle Times story that described a protest thusly: “The demonstrations began with a University of Washington protest and march from the campus that snarled traffic on Interstate 5 yesterday afternoon.”

Centering protest coverage around the impact on traffic, local businesses, and property is one way that the protest-as-nuisance framing manifests. And according to the study, that “annoyance” framing increased over time — newspapers were more likely to frame a protest as a nuisance in 2007 than in 1967. The study also found that protests over liberal causes were framed as nuisances more often than protests over conservative causes.

Why does this matter? The role of protest is to publicize grievances from people who typically exist outside of traditional power structures. It’s why freedom of assembly is written into the Constitution, along with freedom of the press. And the role of journalism is to hold powerful people and institutions accountable to the broader public. But that’s not possible if the way we report on protests is biased from the start.

It’s a bias that creeps in, for example, when we use passive voice to describe how people in positions of authority, such as police officers, are behaving but use active voice to describe protestors’ behaviors.

The protest paradigm helps explain why, on May 31, WUSA, the Washington, D.C. CBS affiliate, tweeted, “Pepper spray caused a short stampede in Lafayette Park during a peaceful march honoring George Floyd” — suggesting that the pepper spray somehow acted of its own accord. (WUSA eventually took down the tweet.)

You also see this bias in headlines from The Washington Post’s “A night of fire and fury across America as protests intensify” to The New York Times’ “Appeals for calm as sprawling protests threaten to spiral out of control.” These headlines focus exclusively on the violence of the protests. They don’t tell us where the violence is coming from.

So when Slate published a story with the headline “Police erupt in violence nationwide,” it was almost startling in its forthrightness. The story resonated, being shared widely on social media in and in private text groups, because it was the first national report that made plain what people were seeing in videos.

“People kept sharing these videos that were coming up and it was unambiguous what was going on,” said Tom Scocca, Slate’s politics editor, who edited the story. “We weren’t looking at a stream of videos of violence erupting or clashes breaking out. We were looking at cops, attacking people.”

Dr. Kilgo finds the media’s use of the word “clashes” especially problematic, because she said it creates a false image that protesters are lining up to battle with police or authority figures. And, by extension, it places the blame on protesters for any ensuing violence.

“By saying police and protesters ‘clash,’ you don’t give an accurate description of what instigated what,” she said.

After Slate published its story, other publications began taking a similar tilt. A headline from The Verge, for instance, was “The protest was peaceful — then the cops arrived.

Coverage has also shifted as widely circulated videos make it clear that, in many places, police officers are the ones instigating the violence. Journalists of color around the country are speaking out about the racial discrimination that remains inside newsrooms, and the ways it plays out in news coverage. NBC News sent a memo stating that police unions should no longer be used as a source of information about law enforcement without prior approval. The Times, which long seemed reluctant to use the word “racist” to describe Trump, recently used the word to describe his language.

But when it comes to helping the public understand the present moment, news coverage is still uneven.

Sometimes, coverage fails to highlight the goals of the protests. Organizers in many cities called for the defunding or abolishment of police from the start, but that fact was often an afterthought in news coverage until the Minneapolis city council pledged to disband the city’s police department, after nearly two weeks of protest. Even then, some outlets reported on the pledge in ways that were delegitimizing. The New York Times, writing about the city council’s statements, reported, “Protesters’ cries to defund or abolish the police are often not meant literally.” But Minneapolis-based organizations such as Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, and MPD 150 have been campaigning for years for a “police-free” Minneapolis.

It was also a surprise to some readers to learn that there were actual organizations behind the protests. Many publications were slow to begin examining those organizations and the people coordinating the protests.

“Public protests are just one small piece of what social movements do,” said Jackie Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Social movement organizers expend time and effort analyzing what’s happening and creating strategies “for thinking about how to bring about the changes that they’re seeking. Those stories get missed, so the larger public really remains ignorant about what it means to be politically active in a social movement.” It’s not all just marching in the street.

There are steps that reporters and newsrooms can take to break free from the paradigm. The first is addressing selection bias. Early this month, Tanzina Vega, now the host of WNYC’s The Takeaway, tweeted, “Thinking about the NYT editor who asked me “what the $#!?@” #BlackLivesMatter was going to accomplish as I pitched a story about the movement’s early days. Behold 2020.” This month, the Times noted that the movement had successfully shifted public opinion: “In the last two weeks, American voters’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much as it had in the preceding two years.”

News organizations should also watch out for a tendency to cover only the most extreme protests. The first anti-lockdown protests, with images of gun-toting individuals screaming at police officers, got more media attention than coronavirus protests in which people laid body bags in front of Trump properties — even though those early anti-lockdown protests did not represent the views of the majority of people in the United States and, perhaps most critically, were undertaken by people who had not been particularly harmed by the lockdowns.

Once news organizations do decide to report on protests, they need to be cognizant of how they do it. That can start with excising the passive voice. There’s no need to revert to language like “police-involved shooting” when the facts of the case are plain: A police officer shot someone. Contextualizing protests both in scale and intent is also useful to the reader. (There’s been little coverage that quantifies the proportion of protests that are violent versus those that are peaceful.) And news organizations should be careful how they frame things. Calling a protest peaceful suggests that the default is a violent one. Mentioning that a Black man was unarmed suggests that the default is an armed Black man.

Finally, Dr. Kilgo stressed, “It’s really important to note that racism is at the heart of these protests.” And many journalists, she said, “don’t know how to talk about racism.”

Last year, Dr. Kilgo published a study about the representation of protests in Texas newspapers. She found that when the papers covered protests centered on racial issues, such as discrimination against Indigenous and Black people, they did so in ways that suggested the protestors’ grievances were illegitimate.

“The norms that are established, are generally established by white, relatively affluent people,” Kilgo said. “And so the hesitancy that you see in criticizing police or codifying what racism is, it’s coming from their discomfort.”

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter primarily focused on climate climate change and its impact on humans. She has worked for The New York Times, Popular Science, and InsideClimate News.

Photo of Black Lives Matter painted on streets in San Francisco by Christopher Michel used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 24, 2020, 12:22 p.m.
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