Pandemic Protests, Part Three: The Media

Robert Brooks Contributor
Pandemic Protests, Part Three: The Media
Read Time: approx. 1:35

This post is the third installment of a multi-part series dedicated to trying to understand what’s causing the recent unrest in our country. Click here to read Part One, and here to read Part Two.

On Monday, May 25, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier recorded former Minneapolis police officer David Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before he died. The video subsequently went viral sparking massive unrest around the country. The initial footage, along with videos of burning cars, shattered store fronts, and bloody bystanders has played on an endless loop across the airwaves over the past week. The front pages of newspapers are covered in images of the fallout. The general public’s opinion about these protests are continuously shaped by the media, meaning journalists and the outlets they represent can be indispensable if movements are to gain legitimacy and make progress. Through extensive research, Danielle K. Kilgo, an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Indiana University, has found “that some protest movements have more trouble than others getting legitimacy.” For example, “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.” Here’s why:

Forming the Narrative: What’s at play is a phenomenon referred to as “the protest paradigm,” which was coined by scholars James Hertog and Douglas McLeod who identified how news coverage of protests contributes to the maintenance of the status quo. As Kilgo notes, “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.” In a nutshell, the protest paradigm asserts the following: 1) Journalists don’t cover dramatic or unconventional protests. 2) As a result, demonstrators find ways to capture the media’s attention. They wear pink hats or kneel during the national anthem. 3) If this doesn’t work, they wade into violence and lawlessness. 4) Media coverage begins, snowballing into a story that is “superficial or delegitimizing, focusing on the tactics and disruption caused and excluding discussion on the substance of the social movement.” The new narrative revolves around the chaos, not the original intention of the demonstrations. This new, distracted narrative is the one we see on endless loops.   

Prior Examples: “In coverage of a St. Louis protest over the acquittal of a police officer who killed a black manviolencearrestunrest 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.”

A Broken Business Model: This pattern repeats itself thanks to the modern-day media business model which is broken. Journalists are pressured by their employers to break news, not “break-down” and analyze the news. Being first appears to matter more than being accurate because modern-day media revenue depends on Search Engine Optimization. Basically, if you break a story, Google’s algorithms place it higher in their search feed. This drives more views and clicks to the webpage. More views and more clicks mean more money. Incendiary images and inflammatory headlines grab our attention so journalists opt for word-choice that shifts the focus away from the original intent of the protest to the chaos and destruction that garners more clicks and views.

Lack of Diversity: Danielle K. Kilgo found that, “Implicit bias also lurks in such reporting.” For example, “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.” This leads to less perspective about a multitude of issues.

Flag This: In summary, it’s important to not lose sight of the original intent of these protests. Although they are set against the backdrop of a boiling culture war and there are outside agitators trying to hijack them for their own perverted purposes, the real message from most demonstrators is that something needs to change. To that end, George Floyd’s younger brother took the loudspeaker Monday “to condemn the looting and rioting that followed his brother’s death. He did not want fire and violence to obscure the deeper meaning that could be realized from his family’s tragedy,” the LA Times reports. “I’m not over here blowing up stuff,” he said, impassioned. “What are y’all doing? You’re doing nothing. That’s not going to bring my brother back.” His final words were, “Educate yourself and know who you vote for. That’s how you’re going to get it. It’s a lot of us,” he said. “Do this peacefully.” If you missed these moving words from Floyd’s brother, and instead have seen only destruction and chaos, that’s an example of how the “protest-paradigm” is playing out in real time.