While covering protests, mainstream media focuses on violence and spectacle over real issues

HOUSTON — We’ve all watched as protests have unfolded across the United States, and the world for that matter, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Now, new research from the University of Houston concludes that the mainstream media tends to focus on the violence and “spectacle” of protests as opposed to the actual societal problems and issues these events are in response to.

“How journalists cover protests and social movements matters because the more delegitimizing the coverage is the less likely the public is to support it,” says lead study author Summer Harlow, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Houston Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, in a release. “Reporters should focus on the real issues, not just the violence you see on television or read about in newspapers between police and protestors or the inconvenience to bystanders. It hurts a movement’s ability to be successful.”

The research team investigated protest coverage across traditional mainstream news sources, alternative media, and digital-only outlets. In all, over 1,400 news articles in both English and Spanish were included in the analysis. Starting with articles printed in 2015, researchers collected news stories from all over the globe concerning protests, human rights injustices, anti-government or corruption topics, and socio-economic issues.

All analyzed news items had been shared on either Facebook or Twitter. This enabled the study’s authors to look out for any possible relationships between a story’s themes or topics and usual social media engagements.

Among the study’s findings is the conclusion that a particular protest’s subject and location, as well as the type of media outlet in question, play a big role in whether or not these events are covered in “typical fashion” by the mainstream media.

Mainstream media ‘overwhelmingly negative’ with protest coverage

So, what the is status quo, so to speak, when it comes to protest coverage in the media? According to the study, most news stories on protests, historically, are overwhelmingly negative, especially when the protest is anti-establishment. The majority of these negative stories demonize the protestors and marginalize their cause and beliefs.

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“This goes back to traditional journalistic practices and values. If you are a journalist on a deadline, you rely on official sources such as law enforcement for information. As a result, protestors are seen as less credible and the reason why they are so upset gets lost in the coverage,” Harlow explains.

Prior research on news coverage of protests shows that most news stories follow “four frames” throughout their protest articles. Three of those frames work to delegitimize the real issues behind the riots and make protesters look like hoodlums.

The first frame is a focus on any riots and violence. The second frame is a focus on confrontations between protestors and police. The third focuses on the spectacle and drama of the entire situation, as well as any strong emotions being evoked. Finally, the fourth frame, which is more fair toward protestors, focuses on debating and tackling the issues being raised.

After applying these frames to news stories posted on social media, the study’s authors noted that news articles tackling socio-economic and human rights issues in Europe usually avoid casting the protestors as bad actors and focus more on the debate frame. Meanwhile, news stories from Latin America and Asia tend to draw more social media attention centered on the spectacle of said events.

“George Floyd represents this moment where journalists can take what they’ve been doing all this time and change it,” Harlow concludes. “There’s been this collective wake-up call among journalists who are now questioning the way it’s always been done, and that maybe they haven’t been doing it the right way.”

The study is published in the Journal of Journalism Studies.

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