Breaking away from the ‘protest paradigm’

Ellen Cagle

In the first four days of December:

Protests aren’t common everywhere, but they are a regular part of the news diet. Whether you’re parachuting into Paris or a protest on the other side of the state, are there better approaches?

I had witnessed a protest movement up close on my campus and watched as the national news media dropped in. Three years ago, students who protested racism at the University of Missouri upended the status quo at Mizzou and ignited a national conversation about discrimination and race on college campuses.

National news outlets flocked to Columbia to document the historic protests, which toppled the president of the university’s four-campus system. Even while the university made changes in response to the movement, the blowback was serious: The state legislature reduced campus funding and student enrollment plummeted. There was talk of “the riots” at Mizzou, even though all the protests were peaceful.

What I witnessed, or read in the local press, during the protests wasn’t always what I saw in the national news media. It made me wonder: What’s the best way for a drop-in journalist to report on a protest movement?

I sought an answer in my master’s degree thesis by analyzing about 85 articles published in two national newspapers — The New York Times and Washington Post — to see how they covered the Mizzou protests.

Scholars have noted that journalists tend to follow a set of patterns when they cover a protest movement, which researchers have named “the protest paradigm.” Journalists who abide by the protest paradigm often emphasize protesters’ tactics in their articles. Clashes with police, violence or unruly actions taken by protest participants are particularly popular, because these articles make for dramatic, easy-to-read stories.

If journalists rely on this episodic coverage, they often omit discussion of the reasons for the protest. They may not explain protesters’ demands or the context that prompted the movement. As a result, readers may judge the protest as a failure, no matter its outcome.

My thesis hinged on the way journalists from the Timesand Postused the protest paradigm in their coverage of the Mizzou protests.

I found that early newspaper coverage showed more willingness among the national news reporters to dig for the causes and purpose behind the protests, perhaps because the movement came on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. But as the public became increasingly hostile toward the movement, the newspapers, particularly the Washington Postturned toward episodic coverage that often omitted the context surrounding the protests.

In short, national journalists often reduced the movement at Mizzou to a moment. The protest paradigm prevailed. I identified some ways journalists can consider to avoid that fate in the future:

1. Explain the events that led to the protest

The seeds of a movement are often sown years before a protest escalates enough to get journalists’ attention. Reporters should dig to find this contextual information and remind readers that the protesters’ grievances began before the “action” of the protests started.

National outlets often omitted this context when they covered Mizzou. Many articles didn’t account for one of the initial sparks, the history of racial indifference. For instance, a list of demands made by black students almost five decades earlier had not been met, according to the 2015 protesters. Moreover, journalists mostly ignored current administrators’ slow response to the aggrieved students, which also contributed to the unrest.

2. Allow protesters to talk about the movement in spoken words

Journalists should take care to understand the protesters as people, not just as participants in a protest. Protesters often use social media to spread their message, and it’s easy for journalists to rely solely on these statements for their articles. But journalists should make an effort to conduct interviews and allow protesters to explain their movement and demands so readers can better understand their grievances. Reporters should continue to follow up with protesters as the public and officials react to their movement.

Otherwise, it’s too easy to let a complicated situation boil down to an “us vs. them” picture.

3. Don’t let the sideshow become the main show

A sideshow in a protest shouldn’t become the story. At Mizzou, national reporters zeroed in on Melissa Click, a then-professor who was fired by the university after she blocked a student from filming protesters on a public quadrangle. Journalists often let the reason for the protest — racism on campus — fall by the wayside in favor of covering Click’s confrontation.

The newspapers framed the Click story as a clash between free speech vs. privacy. That was a simpler narrative, and it came with video. While additional story lines will certainly present themselves, it’s important to focus on the primary subject. When writing about controversy associated with a protest, journalists should make sure they include the protesters’ goals and the context they’ve been writing about.

4. Talk to local reporters

National reporters or other “outsider” reporters who “parachute” to the site of a protest may lack contextual knowledge that local journalists have cultivated for years. In this case, national journalists should seek the advice of local reporters before writing about a protest. Local journalism students could also be an asset to national reporters if they understand the protest. Several J-School students at Mizzou contributed to national outlets in 2015.

There is another protest somewhere in the world almost every day. As journalists, we don’t have to approach them the same way.

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