Saturday, January 28, 2012

Framing protests in the media

This post is from a presentation I gave at the University of Toronto a few days ago, where I spoke about the media's role in social movements. In discussing how issues were framed, I compared two newspaper articles covering some arrests at a budget cuts rally in Toronto. One article was in the National Post (found here) the other was from the Toronto Media Co-op (here).

Here are the headlines of the articles... National Post is on left and Media co-op on the right

“Four arrested after Toronto budget-cuts protest turns violent”

“Police crack heads as major budget cuts reversed”

Just reading the headlines, you have an idea of who is to blame. Did the protest turn violent, suggesting protesters started it, or did the police crack heads?

As for how many people were there

More than 100 demonstrators

Approximately two hundred people were in chambers for the vote; almost ten times that number remained outside, prevented from entering by a line of police officers mixed with City Hall security.”

So, for those who read the National Post, this could seem like a really fringe thing... only 100 people... but if you read the media co-op, you would be told that there were move than 2000 in attendance, which gives the protest a lot more legitimacy.

What about the police officers... how threatening did they look?

officers clad in yellow rain jackets and black bicycle helmets”

“horse mounted riot squad”

I don't know about you, but I would be much more afraid of a riot squad than a few guys in raincoats and bicycle helmets... the power relations would be much more obvious.

Who started the violent acts?

demonstrators surged against the line of police”

”Attempts to enter the building for the vote were met with violence”

In both scenarios, protesters approach the officers, but it makes a huge difference if they were "surging against the line of police" or merely trying to enter a public building!

Lastly, were the police violent?

three male protesters had been handcuffed and lined up against the wall of the building — one bleeding from his head.”

“Several arrests were made, people were beaten and choked, and an elderly man was thrown to the ground. At least one person was taken to St. Michael's hospital.”

In one article, some guy is randomly bleeding and nobody knows how. In the other article, there are specific and precise accounts of violent acts done by the police. We can use the pictures included in the article to take that further...

Police punch Emily Noether in the face
This photo, from the media co-op, shows a clearly violent act by a police officer...

The image from the National Post shows some angry protesters yelling while police officers watch calmly
Matthew Sherwood for National Post

The National Post also mentioned disturbances arising among the "ranks of occupy Toronto protesters"... you know, just in case anyone had stopped being afraid of them.

Which of these stories are read influences what readers think about the issues, the specific event in question, and their conception of protests and protesters more generally. Unfortunately, the National Post has a wider readership than Toronto Media Co-op (which usually only goes to already leftist people).

In my presentation, one of the things I mentioned was that we need to demand leftist journalists within mainstream papers (actually, I think I said that for every Margaret Wente, we need a column by Karl Marx). We need to demand that right wing propaganda is corrected and the media is held accountable for misinformation. I think think that letter writing campaigns are helpful, but at this point we might need to go further than that. I am wondering how an occupy media campaign might look and where it could take us.


  1. Mr.Awesome says:

    This was a good comparison between articles. There is a large correlation between bias in articles and confirmation bias in people with strong ideologies. The national post appeals to a Conservative readership but still has legitimacy in the Center-right Liberal readership. They may paint protesters in bad light due to the desire to see them as delinquents rather than people with legitimate concerns.

    Like-wise, people on the left are not immune to confirmation bias. I think there is a desire to associate violence with police brutality.

    Obviously I don't believe in everything being 50/50 in terms of balance, that guy's head didn't start bleeding on its own accord. I just want to see the story, not someone's interpretation of it.

  2. Mr. Awesome: there is no story that exists without "someone's interpretation of it." Reporters are real people, embedded in history and society, and thus by the very act of writing are already interpreting according to their class position. Liberal reporting likes to imagine that is somehow free of any bias, and that there is something called pure "objectivity" – there isn't, and the only thing we can properly call "objective" is subjectivity rendered conscious of itself.

    So the question is what interpretative position to we align with? The interpretative position that sees the world from above (that of ruling class ideology), or the interpretative position that sees the world from the position of below and that calls into question the reality of the ruling class… And this article has done a good job of showing two different interpretative positions on an event (and interpretation can never be escaped), each of which is aligned with a class position.

  3. Great comparison! Thanks for this :)