by Deborah MathisJuly 03, 2020
There is no denying the drama of the worldwide mass demonstrations against systemic racism generally, discriminatory policing particularly, and George Floyd’s murder specifically. For weeks and weeks, it has unfolded in both predictable and surprising ways.
In my experience, honed from decades in the news media, newsrooms begin to lose interest in such phenomena after about two weeks. But, as with practically everything else associated with this movement, the media attention has held steady. According to Michael T. Heaney, a professor and researcher at the University of Michigan, “protests dominated the news media in June 2020 more than any time in at least 20 years.”
One reason, of course, is the sheer magnitude of the response. Journalists and researchers have determined that cumulatively the demonstrations have produced the largest turnout of protesters in U.S. history. No reporter can resist a metric like that.
But, it is also the ongoing conflict—the consummate media catnip—and it is worth noting who is ratcheting up the heat.
Early coverage portrayed the demonstrations as a threat to public peace and security, with rioters and looters enabling the movement’s message to be slandered. However, this soon receded, as many activists distanced themselves from these behaviors and shared examples of provocateurs and infiltrators engaging in violent acts. Once rid of this sideshow, cameras captured nonviolent protesters—an overwhelming majority—sitting in parks, kneeling in prayer, or gathering around a group of violinists. Yes, they have also taken down racially offensive statues and those raucous events have carried a certain danger of accidental injury, but these are acts of destructive disruption, not violence—the latter defined as assaults on people or animals.
The violence that has occurred has been, primarily, by the hands of law enforcement in its ironically brutish response to people protesting police brutality. The incidents have mounted. An elderly peace advocate’s skull is fractured when police in Buffalo knocked him off his feet and onto the pavement. A young mother is disfigured and blinded in one eye by rubber bullets fired by police alighting upon a nonviolent protest in Sacramento. Several protesters are injured when police attack them as they gather peacefully to protest the police killing of a young man who was stopped for no reason in Aurora, Colorado.
The media has taken notice of this new dynamic, giving it the new angle it craves, and dutifully passed along those sights and sounds to the inquiring public. The demonstrations, once bedeviled by troublemakers with their own agenda, have been re-branded, almost invariably, as peaceful. Law enforcement, once seemingly dazed, overwhelmed, and hesitant as the protests swelled, has become increasingly aggressive and violent. Their repression is backfiring against them.
This shift in imagery is beneficial to the movement. Some polls have already registered a significant rise in pro-protester sympathy, which bodes well for any movement. It may rankle some activists that public perception has to be a consideration when, for them, the moral imperative is so clear on its face. They may find satisfaction in the purity of their motives and their commitment to nonviolent strategies, but clear consciences are not enough when outside forces have a role to play.
Love it or not, the who, what, when, where, and how—journalism’s Big Five—shape public perception, which in turn fuels the public pressures that drive politics. And, make no mistake, it’s politics that propel policy and law.
Any activist or organizer who cares about the end game has to care also about public sentiment, fickle though it may be. It matters what face a movement presents to the unblinking media.