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Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice


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Protest in the Media


Monica Brasted Version of record first published: 05 Aug 2006

To cite this article: Monica Brasted (2005): Protest in the Media, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 17:4, 383-388 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10402650500374645

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Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 17:383388 Copyright # 2005 Taylor & Francis LLC ISSN 1040-2659 print; 1469-9982 online DOI: 10.1080/10402650500374645

Protest in the Media


MONICA BRASTED
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In the early weeks and months of the war in Iraq, there appeared to be little or no opposition to U.S. involvement, at least in the American media. The media gave very limited coverage to those opposed to war and carefully framed the antiwar/peace protests they did cover. A consequence of not seeing the opposition in the media and the threat of being labeled as unpatriotic may have resulted in what Elisabeth Noelle-Newman has labeled the spiral of silence. People who believe their opinion to be in the minority because they do not see it expressed in the media are less likely to speak up due to fear of isolation or rejection. But as the war in Iraq has dragged on, more people have broken their silence and voiced opposition to the war. There is a growing peace movement in the United States and around the world. The issue for investigation is how this movement has been portrayed in the media. he relationship between the media and social movements has been an active area of scholarship for over 40 years. At times, media coverage can assist social movements, and at other times, it can impede them. The media publicity that a movement receives can serve as validation that it is having an impact and that what participants in the movement are doing matters. A key caveat is that movements have little control over how the media covers them. The image conveyed by the media may have little to do with the goals of the movement. Sidney Tarrow has argued that a movement may be able to gain attention, but it possesses little cultural power against the power of the media to shape perceptions. In the process of reporting on social movements, the media adopt a frame. News frames determine what is selected, what is excluded, and what is emphasized. News frames are not evaluative statements. They consist of key words, concepts, and visual images emphasized in the narrative. Journalists use news frames to give order and meaning to phenomena that are transformed into news stories. When it comes to social movements, the news frames dene the group and its goals to the public. Movements are typically seen as disrupting the status quo, and their actions are contrasted with the efforts of societal authorities to

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restore order. Reporters rarely try to explain the reasons for the movements. Instead, journalists argue that they are simply providing a balanced description of newsworthy events and people. According to Gaye Tuchman, the news practices of journalists to ensure balanced reporting actually result in a status quo bias. An example of this is the idea of equal time. Equal time may be provided to a representative of the status quo and a challenger. But in this scenario, the representative of the status quo has the advantage because people are already familiar with his position, hence the term status quo, and by denition the challenger may need more time to fully elucidate her position. Another common journalistic practice is the failure to let statements from those in opposition to the status quo stand on their own. Conversely, there is a heavy reliance in American media on ofcial sources, whose statements generally escape serious critical analysis. These practices, among others, provide an illusion of balanced and unbiased coverage when an inherent status quo bias actually exists. In fact, news coverage of protest is shown to vary from the coverage of the ofcial status quo in a number of important ways. There is a tendency to focus on the protestors appearances rather than their issues, to emphasize violence rather than social criticism, to focus on conict with the police rather than their chosen targets, and to downplay their effectiveness. This kind of coverage constitutes what has been called the protest paradigm. The protest paradigm consists of a set of common characteristics that provide a template for the construction of a protest story. Douglas McLeod and James Hertogs four classications of the protest paradigm serve to illustrate the problem. he rst category of the protest paradigm is the narrative structure. It is common for journalists to cast the protest as a battle between the protestors and the police, rather than as an intellectual debate between the protestors and those they oppose. The emphasis is on social disorder. The protestors have disturbed the public peace, and violence or the threat of violence may be involved (this is especially ironic when one considers that many of these opposition groups are peace movements). If violence does occur, the protestors are generally framed as the perpetrators and the police as the victims of the violence. Violence by the police, if it does occur, is not questioned because they are framed as the restorers of social order. In constructing the narrative, journalists also tend to cover the event rather than the issues or ideology of the movement. Examples of the use of the protest paradigm can be found in the New York Times coverage of the protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. In the days leading up to the convention, the news stories set the stage for the anticipated conict between the

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protestors and police through comparisons to the 1968 Democratic convention, as well as the protests at the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle. Stories also ran about how well-trained and prepared the police were for the conict. But as the convention and protests began, the much anticipated or expected violent conict did not happen. The protest that gained the most media coverage was the march on that Sunday night of the convention. Throughout the course of the convention, the majority of the thousands of protestors marched peacefully and without incident. Because there was no violence to cover, the narrative structure of the stories shifted from an emphasis on violence and conict to an emphasis on social disorder. The coverage of the protests underscored how everyday life for New Yorkers was being disrupted by the various protests and marches. The role of the police was to maintain the order and minimize the disruption as much as possible. There were arrest accounts of those who blocked streets or strayed from the pre-approved march route. The use of orange netting similar to snow fences by the police to round up people and minimize injuries was also reported. There was some criticism of the detention time of protestors who had been arrested, but most of the coverage defended the police action. The police and their training were given credit by Mayor Bloomberg and other ofcials for the mostly peaceful, uneventful marches that occurred. One article in the New York Times did quote a participant who pointed out that the protestors also contributed through their commitment to nonviolence. But this was grossly out of context, as most articles failed to discuss what the protestors were committed to or what their ideologies were. The media coverage of the protests focused on the events rather than issues underlying those events. For example, detailed accounts of the marches, banner hanging, and inltration of the convention were provided, but there were very few interviews with the protestors themselves included in the coverage. Thus, the second protest paradigm category is the reliance by journalists on ofcial sources and ofcial denitions. This technique further supports the status quo by allowing the source to dene the perspective of the story. This can also be seen in the New York Times coverage of the 2004 Republican National Convention. Many of the stories quoted Mayor Bloomberg and other ofcials, such as police spokesperson Paul J. Browne, at length. The credit given to the police by Mayor Bloomberg for the peaceful marches illustrates how the ofcial perspective dominated the coverage. A few articles included interviews with protestors that ranged from everyday citizens to professional protestors. There seemed to be no clear leader or ofcial spokesperson for the protestors. But the diversity of groups protesting at the convention may have contributed to this. Lawyers and representatives from the ACLU became the ofcial voice of those who were arrested and detained.

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The third protest paradigm category is the invocation of public opinion. Stories in the New York Times referenced opinion surveys of New Yorkers and interviewed bystanders to convey cues to public opinion about the protest. The opinion survey emphasized concerns about violence and the interviews with bystanders focused on the inconveniences the protestors had created for New Yorkers. Coverage also focused on the violation of laws (as opposed to civil disobedience) by the protestors. Public opinion as reected in these articles did not seem to support the protests. Through the reference to public opinion, the New York Times was able to convey the deviance of the protestors by depicting them as an isolated minority. The fourth category of the protest paradigm is the strategy of framing protestors as deviant. This includes techniques that de-legitimize, marginalize, and demonize the protestors. Strategies can include focusing on internal divisions of a movement, making light of movement language, the dress, age, and goals of a movements members, and showing protestors as deviant, unpatriotic, or unrepresentative of normal Americans. An example of this is when the protestors were framed as outsiders because many of them were non New Yorkers. Mayor Bloomberg and other ofcials were quoted as referring to the protestors as anarchists. As reported by Randal C. Archibold on September 3, 2004, verbal harassment of delegates on the streets and at their convention functions led Mayor Bloomberg to draw parallels between the protestors and terrorists. It is true that a handful of people have tried to destroy our city by going up and yelling at visitors here because they dont agree with their views, Mr. Bloomberg said. Think about what that says. This is America, New York, cradle of liberty, the city for free speech if there ever was one and some people think that we shouldnt allow people to express themselves. Thats exactly what the terrorists did, if you think about it, on 9/11. Now this is not the same kind of terrorism but theres no question that these anarchists are afraid to let people speak out. In post-9/11 America, there is no more efcient way to marginalize and de-legitimize a group then to compare them to terrorists. ot every article about the protests in the New York Times contained all of the characteristics of the protest paradigm. Collectively, however, the coverage of the protests had an effect of framing the events and protestors in a particular way. Through the use of the protest paradigm, the coverage of the protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention lacked real context and depth. The narrative structure of the stories was eventfocused. There was no intellectual debate between the protestors and their chosen targets, President Bush and the Republican National Convention. When the events were peaceful and uneventful, the coverage became limited. The stories emphasized the social disorder caused by the protestors and the inconveniences this created for New Yorkers.

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Because the events were told from the perspective of ofcial sources, the police were credited with keeping the peace. The perspective of the protestors was ignored, as was any substantive discussion of the issues. The protestors were framed as a deviant group of outsiders at best, and terrorist sympathizers at worst. By sparsely covering the protests and incorporating elements of the protest paradigm into the New York Times protest coverage, the status quo was reinforced in the self-proclaimed media of record, and what is generally considered to be the most liberal of the mainstream newspapers in the United States. Understanding how the media construct stories about social protest is important, but we must also try to understand what inuence this may or may not have on the audience. As a news frame, the protest paradigm provides a particular way of packaging events and issues. As a result, the news frame inuences public opinion by making certain aspects of the story more salient. Douglas McLeod and Benjamin Detenber investigated the framing effects of television news coverage of a protest and revealed that status quo support in the stories had a signicant effect on viewers, leading them to be more critical of, and less likely to identify with, the protestors expressive rights. They also found that status quo support produced lower estimates of the protests effectiveness, public support, and perceptions of newsworthiness. They argued that their results substantiated concerns about status quo support by showing that it can inuence audience perceptions. News frames can also have an inuence on the movement itself. By hindering support for the movement, the effectiveness of the movement can be negatively affected, morale can decline, and the power of the message itself becomes undermined. Therefore, by using the protest paradigm to construct news stories about social protest, the media are able to inuence audience perceptions as well as the social movements themselves. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on the media to provide us with unbiased coverage or, for that matter, varied coverage. More than two years into the Iraq intervention, the antiwar/peace voice is not easily found in the mainstream media, and where it is covered, media generally employ the protest paradigm, which as illustrated in the earlier discussion, can be more harmful than no coverage at all. The few stories about the war in mainstream media that question the status quo often address topics such as the lack of proper equipment and armor for American soldiers. But supporting the troops has been framed in American media as supporting the war, so these kinds of stories generally do not have the effect of undermining support for the president and his administration. The perspective that supporting the troops means bringing them home safely from a war of questionable legitimacy is absent from mainstream American media. It is easier and more economical for journalists

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to rely on ofcial sources and support the status quo, so the Bush administration has been very successful in winning the PR war and delivering its message to the public without a serious challenge from the media. An example of this is the video news releases (VNRs) produced by the administration to bolster support for its policies that are accepted and played by the media as news items. We cannot expect the media to change the way that it covers social protest without intervention by the active media consumer. Consumers must be able to critically evaluate the media and be willing to seek out media beyond the mainstream if they want to be exposed to voices other than those of the status quo. If people do not critically evaluate the framing of the protests in the media, then the media will be able to exert a great deal of inuence on peoples perceptions of the protestors and understanding of the protest movements or lack thereof. Fundamental democratic values such as freedom of speech have been redened to include only those who support the status quo. As such, the war in Iraq has been the lynchpin in transforming American medias role from administration watchdog to administration lapdog. RECOMMENDED READINGS
Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press. McLeod, Douglas M. 1995. Communicating Deviance: The Effects of Television News Coverage of Social Protest. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (39): 419. McLeod, Douglas M., and Benjamin H. Detenber. 1999. Framing Effects of Television News Coverage of Social Protest. Journal of Communication, 49(3): 323. McLeod, Douglas M., and James K. Hertog. 1998. Social Control and the Mass Medias Role in the Regulation of Protest Groups: The Communicative Acts Perspective, in D. Demers & K. Vinswanath (eds.), Mass Media, Social Control and Social Change. Ames: Iowa State University Press. Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth. 1984. Spiral of Silence: Public OpinionOur Social Skin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Tarrow, Sidney. 1994. Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press. Tuchman, Gaye. 1978. Making News. New York: Free Press.

Monica Brasted teaches communication at the State University of New York College at Brockport. Her research focuses on media coverage of social protests and the inuence of advertising on American social culture. Correspondence: Department of Communication, 223 Holmes Hall, SUNY College at Brockport, Brockport, NY 14420, USA. E-mail: mbrasted@brockport.edu