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Media Coverage of Campus Protests Often Focuses on Spectacle, Not Substance

The media shapes the way most people understand a protest movement and the politics around it. But as coverage of the protests across universities has shown, often the focus is on the spectacle rather than the substance.

By Danielle K. Brown
Michigan State University

Protest movements can look very different depending on where you stand, both literally and figuratively.

For protesters, demonstrations are usually the result of meticulous planning by advocacy groups and leaders aimed at getting a message out to a wider world or to specific institutional targets. To outside onlookers, however, protests can seem disorganized and disruptive, and it can be difficult to see the depth of the effort or their aims.

Take the pro-Palestinian protests that have sprung up at campuses across the United States in recent weeks. To the students taking part they are, in the words of one protester, “uplifting the voices of Gazans, of Palestinians facing genocide.” But to many people outside the universities, the focus has been on confrontations and arrests.

Where does this disconnect come from? Most people don’t participate in on-the-streets protests or experience any of the disruption that they cause. Rather they rely on the media to give a full picture of the protests.

For over a decade, my research has extensively explored trends in how the media shapes narratives around different kinds of demonstrations. Reporting on the campus encampments by large parts of the media fits a general pattern of protest coverage that focuses more on the drama of the disruption rather than the underlying reasons behind it – and that can leave audiences uninformed about the nuances of the protests and the movements behind them.

Covering drama over demands

Protests – from small silent sit-ins and mass marches to the current student-led encampments – share similar components.

They require a degree of planning, focus on a perceived injustice and seek reforms or solutions. Protests also, by their very nature, engage in varying degrees of disruptive actions that exist in confrontation with something or someone, and utilize strategies that attract the attention of news media and others.

These core elements – grievances, demands, disruption, confrontation and spectacle – are present in nearly all protests.

But to the media, some elements are more newsworthy than others, with confrontation and spectacle often topping the list. As a result, these elements tend to be covered more often than others.

In research focusing on social movements like Black Lives Matter, the 2017 Women’s March and others, I have found that time
and again, coverage tends to headline the parts of the protest that are sensational and disruptive.

And this neglects the political substance of the protests. The grievances, demands and agendas are often left in the shadows. For example, analysis of the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd conducted by myself and colleague Rachel Mourão found the Associated Press and cable news headlines were more likely to focus on disruption and chaos than police violence or protester demands.

This pattern is referred to as the protest paradigm. While there are many factors that can make this paradigm fluctuate, like the timing of stories and the location of a news organization, movements that seek to disrupt the status quo are the most likely to receive initial coverage that frames protesters as criminal, irrelevant, trivial or illegitimate components of the political system.

When the media takes notice

This pattern can be seen in the initial coverage of protests against the war in Gaza at U.S.-based universities. These protests began in 2023 and only escalated into the campus encampments seen today after months of campaigning.

In the months leading up to the encampments, many students who were engaged in advocacy efforts over the Israeli campaign in Gaza demanded, among other things, that their universities divest from businesses connected to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Students at Brown University participated in a hunger strike in February. Also in February, a coalition of students across several historically Black colleges crafted a joint call to action across university systems. Students at my university – Michigan State – rallied support through an online petition and then lobbied at board of trustee meetings. When the board of trustees issued a statement refusing divestment of any kind, students continued to march to the steps of the main administration building where they continued to protest, all before planning the encampment protests.

Little of this made it into mainstream news reports compared to late April, when an uptick in coverage corresponded with students organizing encampments at universities and university official began to respond. Those universities that asked police to enforce the dispersion of protesters amplified the intensity of confrontation, and, in turn, amplified the news coverage.

And rather than focusing on the grievance of protesters — that is, concerns about the deaths, injuries and looming famine affecting Palestinians — in reports of the campus encampments it has been the confrontations between protesters and police that have become central to the news media coverage.

As with all trends, there are always deviations and outliers. Not all reported pieces align with the protest paradigm. In the research examining news coverage after the murder of George Floyd, we found that when reports in major news outlets deviate from the protest paradigm, it was often in work produced by journalists who have engaged deeply and frequently with a community.

In the current campus protests, it is student journalism that has emerged as an outlier in this respect. Take, for example, an article from the Indiana Daily Student published during the peak of the unrest, which explains the lesser-known last-minute administrative policy changes that ultimately disrupted protest planning logic and contributed to the arrests and temporary bans of faculty and student protesters.

Who gets quoted, who doesn’t

There are commercial reasons why some newsrooms focus on the spectacle and confrontation – the old journalism adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” still prevails in many newsroom decisions. For the initial weeks of the campus protests, this penchant for sensationalism has shown up in the focus on chaosclashes and arrests.

But it is a decision that delegitimizes protest aims.

This delegitimization is aided by the sourcing routines journalists often fall back on to tell stories quickly and without legal consequence. In breaking news situations, journalists tend to gravitate toward – and directly quote – sources that hold status, like government and university officials. This is because reporters may already have an established relationship with such officials, who often have dedicated media relations teams. And in the case of campus protests, in particular, reporters have faced difficulty connecting with protest participants directly.

As a result, official narratives may dominate news coverage. So when officials like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott equate protesters to criminals with antisemitic intentions, that typically gets covered – certainly more than any rebuttal from protest participants.

And because readers and viewers are unlikely to be on the ground to gauge Abbott’s characterizations of protesters for themselves, the coverage can shape how a protest movement and the politics around it are understood.

The media shapes the way most people understand them. But as coverage of the protests across universities has shown, often the focus is on the spectacle rather than the substance.

Danielle K. Brown, Professor of Journalism, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Spectre Journal / Scholars Against the War on Palestine Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY 3.0 NZ)


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