Here’s Why Protest News Doesn’t Tell You Much


Here’s Why the News Didn’t Tell You What Protestors Really Wanted

Baked-in news practices cover only the worst moments of protests and neglect telling people what protesters are asking for, extensive research shows

Demonstrators gathered to show solidarity with Palestinians in front of the White House in Washington DC, United States on May 28, 2024. The photographer has used a longer exposure while zooming in on a sign that reads, "Ceasefire now," to create a motion blur effect

Demonstrators gathered to show solidarity with Palestinians in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on May 28, 2024.

Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

As deadly conflict in Gaza unfolded this spring, news coverage in the U.S. turned to campus protests. If you’ve watched, you may well have asked yourself, What exactly are the demands of these protesters? Perhaps a ceasefire in Gaza? University divestment from industries that support the actions of Israel? The cutting of ties with Israeli universities?

You probably didn’t get many answers. News stories might mention such demands, but usually only in passing, with detailed explanations a rarity. Instead, news coverage of the university protests mostly focuses on protest encampments, building occupations and clashes with campus police. Lost in the sizzle of arrest footage is the substance of protests—undercutting their fundamental goal of demands being heard.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) identified 553 protests on U.S. college campus between April 18 and May 3, though most people saw news coverage from only a small fraction of them.


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We’ve known, at least since the 1980s, why there’s such a shortfall of information. A “protest paradigm” identified by news researchers four decades ago helps explain why protest coverage often fails to inform the public and limits the impact of the protests.

In a nutshell, numerous studies examining coverage of social protests—including both left-wing and right-wing protests, as well as a wide range of issue protests—have isolated common characteristics of relevant news stories. The results suggest journalists were following an uninformative template for covering social protest. The characteristics include focusing on protest events rather than protest issues, positioning protests as contests between protesters and the police rather than their intended targets, and privileging officialdom’s views of the protests rather than a more diverse array of informed perspectives. The paradigm also disparages protests by highlighting any rudeness, noise or legal violations by some protesters; marginalizes protesters as being different from normal citizens (recall the long-haired hippies of the Vietnam era who are now running hedge funds); and, finally, minimizes the effectiveness of the protest. Research also shows that journalistic adherence to the protest paradigm is particularly strong when the protesters adopt radical goals and extreme tactics.

In the case of Gaza protests, news media have gravitated toward accessible protests such as those at Columbia University—conveniently located in the media center of the universe—where the police evicted protesters from their encampment and occupation of an academic building. Skirmishes between protesters and police attract news cameras, but often delegitimize protesters when the news stories frame the protests as a conflict with police. Protesters here often find themselves in a double bind: they must provide drama to attract media attention, but when they do, their issues get lost in delegitimizing episodic coverage.

Consider the top news story retrieved on Google, when searching for “Columbia protests” on May 1. That AP article typifies protest paradigm news coverage. Of the article’s 27 paragraphs, 15 contained delegitimizing characteristics such as clashes with the police, legal and norm violations, arrests and nuisance behaviors. References to the protesters’ issues appeared in only one paragraph; criticisms of university responses were found in five paragraphs; and four addressed university negotiations with protesters. Three paragraphs discussed negative consequences of the protests, while none identified positive consequences. The actual meaning of the protests was almost completely absent.

A New York Times infographic article published in May further reinforces the notion that the Gaza protests were violent by presenting a map of where 2,900 protesters have been arrested or detained on a campus-by-campus basis.

Such news coverage tells readers that protests are violent and that protesters are troublemakers. News coverage tends to ignore peaceful protests and protesters. The aforementioned ACLED research also showed that 97 percent of the U.S. Gaza protests have been peaceful, and many of those that weren’t became conflictual only after police physically dispersed them.

Partisans jump on opportunities to amplify such delegitimizing of protests. For example, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas characterized the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests as “an entire year of Antifa riots where cities across this country were burning” as part of “massive rioting and violence” by “extremists.” However, ACLED research shows that 94 percent of BLM demonstrations “involved no violent or destructive activity.” Here again, police may actually cause much of the violence as 51 percent of BLM protests “were met with physical force,” including tear gas, rubber bullets and nightsticks.

So, why should people care about protest paradigm news coverage? Social protest and the degree to which it is publicly tolerated are both signs of democratic vitality. The U.S. has provided plenty of examples of social movements that stimulated much-needed public debate and motivated social change: the women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the anti–Vietnam War protests to name just a few. By contrast, social protest has a much tougher go of it in less democratic countries like Russia, China and Myanmar.

In the U.S. most citizens only experience social protests and the policies that trigger them through news coverage. Consequently protest paradigm framing can hamper potentially beneficial effects of protest movements in motivating social reforms and policy change. For example much of the coverage of Black Lives Matter protests failed to explore whether there is a need for police reform and what that reform might entail, as words (and pictures) of the protest focused on conflicts with police.

We know this changes people’s minds about protests. In one of our experiments, 200 participants watched one of three television news stories with different levels of adherence to the protest paradigm. We found that higher levels of protest paradigm adherence led participants to be more critical of the protesters, less likely to identify with their cause, less critical of police actions to suppress the protest and less likely to support the protesters’ expressive rights. That adherence also reduced perceptions of the protest’s effectiveness, public support and newsworthiness.

As news watchers, we should realize that the protest paradigm is always shaping our view of protests. Ask yourself whether the news you are seeing even mentions what protestors want, covering the merits of those requests in any detail. Or is the news framed solely as a conflict with police, informed by the viewpoints of those being protested?

If you yourself are ever protesting, remember how the protest paradigm will shape news coverage about you. Are you articulating your objectives clearly and “keeping your eye on the prize” with a strategy aimed at achieving them with the actual decision-makers? College campuses are convenient targets but are typically more distantly connected to the entities being protested, such as defense contractors. Finally, are you avoiding aggressive tactics that play into the protest paradigm—property damage or police clashes—by practicing non-violence that makes clear the good guys from the bad guys? Protest is a fundamental First Amendment right of U.S. citizens. Use it wisely.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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