by Deborah MathisMay 20, 2020
You are not imagining things if you think recent anti-COVID-19-shutdown protests captured the U.S. news media’s attention with speed, regularity and intensity that many civil resistance campaigns can only envy.
Several scholars and co-founders of a website that tracks news accounts of U.S. protests compared coverage of the anti-shutdown protests with that given to bona fide civil resistance actions such as last September’s nationwide climate strikes. As the researchers reported on Vox last week, the difference is stark.
They identified 245 so-called “#ReOpen” protests between April and early May that collectively drew fewer than 50,000 demonstrators. By comparison, the researchers noted, the “Lights for Liberty” demonstrations against immigrant detentions on July 12, 2019 mobilized more than 100,000 participants in a single day. Other one-day events drew similarly large crowds. Yet, they note, the news coverage of #ReOpen has been “massive” and “out of proportion.”
That stark assessment may be disheartening, but it can hardly surprise—at least not news hounds or those of us who have spent more than half our lives as working journalists. The anti-shutdown protesters have gifted newsrooms with a basket full of lures. Their action is new, it involves conflict, it breaks ranks with the norm (polls show that most people support social distancing and stay-at-home measures), and it has impact—in this case, risking not only the protesters’ well-being, but public health too.
Add to it that some participants were strapped down with weapons built to take out a tank, and it is no wonder that even the chagrined research team conceded the news value of the anti-shutdown showdowns.
“It makes sense for reporters to be on alert for evidence of political winds shifting in crucial battleground states,” wrote professors Erica Chenoweth, Jeremy Pressman, and Lara Putnam alongside co-authors Tommy Leung and Nathan Perkins, who both founded the protest-tracking website countlove.org.
“Perhaps the media was looking for a new angle to change up the storyline,” the team surmised. “The demonstrations, with controversial symbols, and in some cases, heavily armed participants provided the perfect imagery for a different spin.”
I see things differently. The news media did not cover the anti-shutdown protests for want of a new angle. They rushed in because the protesters delivered a spectacle, replete with danger, deviance and drama.
No newsroom in its right mind would ignore such an event, especially not when once-bustling city streets are deserted, classrooms are empty, workplaces are shuttered and abandoned, families have accepted online tic-tac-toe formations as the way to keep in touch with grandma who lives a mere block away, and “stay home” has become the modern day “ask not” call to action. People must be made aware that some of their neighbors are not only as burdened by the restraints as they are, but are willing to embarrass themselves, threaten public safety, tempt the law, and insinuate violence in order to let it be known.
Notably, many news reports have made a point of the modest turnout at these gatherings. But, great or small, numbers alone do not make the story. Numbers are useful as a measurement of just how widespread passions may run, but they are garnish, not the main course.
Consider: A lone monk self-immolates in Saigon to protest his government’s persecution of Buddhists; a single teenager travels the world over the last year, excoriating the powerful for ignoring climate change; a sole resister blocks a tank’s passage in Tiananmen Square; nine black teenagers ascend the steps of Little Rock Central High in defiance of snarling segregationists. The novelty, the conflict and the impact are the real meat of the story.
It may be galling that the public good is at the mercy of this reality, but civil resistance movements need not surrender. The fact remains: Nonviolent resistance movements and campaigns are twice more likely to succeed than are violent ones. That is an indubitable truth, as long documented by Scholars Erica Chenoweth, Maria Stephan and others.
The righteousness of the cause still matters. Organization and planning still matter. The commitment to the strategy still matters even if, as long-gone St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist Silas Bent put it, “Harmony seldom makes a headline.”
Getting timely, fair and insightful news coverage is achievable, and you don’t need to carry weapons or threaten public safety to do it. It starts with understanding what rings the media’s bell.
More on that in my next blog post.