A Protest by Any Other Name
6 min read

A Protest by Any Other Name

If language is a tool of the oppressor, what words should journalists be using?
A Protest by Any Other Name

A song to read by: “Changes” by Black Sabbath

What I’m reading: “Team of Rivals” by Doria Kearns Goodwin


If I might be so bold, I am of the opinion that for a news media whose workforce has been stretched to a thread by layoffs, furloughs and closures, and which is covering three simultaneous, once-in-a-lifetime events (Covid-19, an economic implosion and nationwide protests), the quality of news coverage across the country has not been too bad.

However, there is at least one area in which newsrooms can stand to improve, and that is their choice of language. If you have found yourself typing out a text or social media post about the events that have transpired across the last few days, you might have experienced a microcosm of the challenges that newsrooms are currently experiencing dozens of times an hour: Do you call them protests, riots or marches? And are participants activists, protestors, rioters or thugs? Are the police doing their jobs or acting as vehicles of state-sanctioned violence?

Indeed, before journalists can even begin to chronicle an event, their word choice sends a message.

And while newsrooms have undertaken explicit efforts to listen to their readers and report as objectively as possible, their language has not been without fault. Take, for instance, the firestorm of criticism that followed a New York Times tweet that made the mistake of using the passive voice to describe police violence.

The media watchdog Poynter explored the tweet and its backlash in great detail, with the author’s takeaway being that the article covers the events with nuance and appropriate voice, but the tweet, due in part to its character limitations, does not.

Twitter and social media are one thing, though; distilling an 800-word article into fewer than 280 characters is challenging, and always will be. The language of those articles, however, should be constructed with diligence, and therein lies the rub.

In a fascinating academic study, Danielle Kilgo and Summer Harlow, both PhDs, examine how the language newsrooms use helps shape public perceptions of protests. According to Kilgo, who penned the summary of the study for Nieman Lab:

“The role journalists play can be indispensable if movements are to gain legitimacy and make progress. And that puts a lot of pressure on journalists to get things right.”

Kilgo first introduces an important theory that formed the basis of their examination. Known as the “protest paradigm,” the hypothesis posits that “news coverage of protests contributes to the maintenance of the status quo.” The theory dates back decades, so to see if its assertion holds true in today’s media world, they conducted a battery of tests.

To do so, they analyzed Texas newspapers’ coverage of protests that occurred in 2017, a year that, prior to 2020, was historic for its profusion of protests. The authors chose Texas because they believe that the “state’s size and diversity made it a good proxy for comparison with the country at large.”

Kilgo and Harlow scoured 777 articles and studied the keywords their authors used, such as “riot,” “confrontation,” “spectacle” and “debate.” They then broke down their findings by subject of protest, detailing which keywords authors used most commonly for different protests. As you might imagine, the results were telling.

Overall, the authors found that news publishers tended to trivialize protests by focusing on their sensational or dramatic components.

This is unfortunate, but it squares with conventional knowledge. If you want to grab the media’s attention, you have to stand out. To do so, protestors wear pink pussyhats, kneel during televised events and write bon mots on cardboard cutouts. They sometimes get violent. As a result, coverage focuses on the protests’ unconventional components, which can obscure the motivation for the protest.

That this will always happen is, to some degree, inevitable; novelty, not monotony, attracts eyeballs. If you want editors to green-light less sensational coverage, you can vote with your cursor and read less the sensational articles more routinely. But that’s a debate for a different newsletter.

The authors of the study also analyzed who gets quoted in articles about protests. They found that for some types of protests, official sources appeared more often, and for others, protesters’ voices were given more space.

As you can see, protests related to the Dakota Access Pipeline and anti-black racism got legitimizing coverage less than 25 percent of the time. They were also more likely to be described as disruptive and confrontational.

For me, the “why” here is just as interesting as the “what.” Here is how Kilgo explains it:

“Journalists contribute to this hierarchy [of social struggle] by adhering to industry norms that work against less established protest movements. On tight deadlines, reporters may default to official sources for statements and data. This gives authorities more control of narrative framing. This practice especially becomes an issue for movements like Black Lives Matter that are countering the claims of police and other officials.”

For journalists who have been trained to quote officials to get an “accurate” accounting of an event, what happens when the event is protesting those officials? And who then do you quote?

Because of this phenomenon, protests whose motives run counter to state-sanctioned narratives will always be at risk of being delegitimized. You’re seeing this play out on every television channel and every newspaper in America right now. When you turn to the mayor, the chief of police or god forbid the president for an update on protests whose aim it is to criticize the state, it’s like asking the Big Bad Wolf for directions to your grandmother’s house. In the service of expediency, journalists fall prey to this mistake far too often.

But while these issues — the “protest paradigm” and the source’s agenda — can seem like impossible problems to solve, ones that journalists will wrestle with for as long as journalism remains a human-centric enterprise, there is a third dilemma that is utterly solvable and yet still plagues the news industry like an unsightly scar: lack of newsroom diversity.

Make no mistake about it: If language shapes reader perceptions, then the racial makeup of a newsroom shapes a paper’s perceptions long beforehand. Outside of their best attempts at empathy, how could an all-white newsroom ever hope to accurately understand the motivations of a protest that criticizes anti-black racism?

The more compassionate a journalist is, the better they are able to put themselves in the shoes of those they’re covering, but even the best attempts at that kind of empathy fall short somewhere. There is no substitute for diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or age. Your newsroom simply must reflect the demographics of those that it is covering, or it is covering them inaccurately.

And according to Kilgo and Harlow’s study, Texas has a long way to go in terms of newsroom diversity. “In 2017, the proportion of white journalists at The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle was more than double the proportion of white people in each city,” writes Kilgo.

(The below tool is responsive on the Nieman Lab site, but I can’t embed it here. Another reason to visit the actual article.)

So, while the news media has evolved a lot over the last few years, better equipping itself to cover the news in a more even-handed matter, its coverage will always reflect the implicit biases of those sitting in front of the keyboards.

As readers, then, call on your local news publishers to hire in a manner that reflects the demographics of your town. And keep in mind the other hurdles that journalists must overcome to bring you impartial news.

While I believe that journalism has improved in recent years, you should still take everything you read with a grain of salt and always consider the source. Any good journalist would agree.

Some good readin’

— BuzzFeed is keeping a running list of all the disinformation that has emerged surrounding the protests. Journalists work hard, but alt-right morons and Twitter idiots work harder.

Cops are attacking journalists, more than 120 times since May 28. And Omar Jimenez, the CNN correspondent who was arrested on live television? He’s a Medill graduate.

— I’m not exactly sure why, but news media in Australia is getting hit harder than the rest of the world by Covid.

— Facebook is letting Trump lie, while Twitter is taking him to task. The Verge’s Casey Newton says Mark Zuckerberg is treating the issue like a legal one, instead of a moral one.

— Here’s an article that I really enjoyed, sent to me by my dad. It’s called “The Double Standard of the American Riot.”