Unraveling the Protest Paradigm

April 30, 2021
Protesters gather on June 1, 2020, at a memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis. AP Photo/John Minchillo

In 2018, Sacramento police shot and killed Stephon Clark, a twenty-two-year-old father of two, in his grandmother’s backyard. Early coverage favored a police statement that claimed Clark “turned and advanced toward the officers,” who “believed the suspect was pointing a firearm at them.” In fact, Clark only had a cellphone. Stories largely identified Clark as a victim of a police shooting, but also emphasized his criminal record, which helped undermine his victimhood. In Sacramento, the local Black Lives Matter chapter called for a transparent investigation and an end to “state-sanctioned violence against Black communities,” and organized public protests that were mirrored in cities around the US. 

Local and national coverage of the Sacramento protests emphasized disruption—closure of the freeway, the delay of a professional basketball game—over their grievances and agendas. One local story described disruptive protest activity that “stranded” NBA fans and “disturbed” a public meeting, which the mayor then adjourned, saying he was “concerned about safety.” Such coverage is typical of contemporary Black civil rights protests: Demonstrators are simply disruptive, their concerns minimized or made invisible. 

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, I’ve researched coverage of contemporary Black civil rights protests. When a police officer kills a Black person, the first stories that reach news audiences are typically shaped by police. Frequently, they emphasize the behaviors of the victim in the moments before they were killed and unearth details from the victim’s criminal record. Such stories set the tone for coverage of the demonstrations that follow; for Black Lives Matter protests, that coverage routinely focuses on violence, rioting, criminality, and property damage. Time and again, analyses of Black Lives Matter coverage demonstrate that protesters’ platforms and grievances take a back seat—if they show up at all. 

This pattern is known as the protest paradigm; protest movements that might convey their concerns through news coverage instead see their efforts delegitimized by a press that favors spectacle, conflict, disruption, and official narratives over the substance of movements that challenge the status quo. Not all protests are treated as equals by the press; those related to immigration, women’s rights, the environment, and former president Donald Trump have received more legitimizing coverage, creating what my research partner, Dr. Summer Harlow, and I refer to as a hierarchy of social struggle. But coverage of protests against anti-Black racism, including police violence, is often framed in terms of “riot” and “confrontation.” The protest paradigm produces patterns of coverage that help insulate police, governments, and the judicial system by privileging their voices and reporting their positions as fact.

The protest paradigm persisted through the killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer recently convicted of Floyd’s murder. Coverage of last year’s protests against police violence and anti-Black racism accentuated riots and arrests, and amplified delegitimizing critiques from official sources, including Minnesota governor Tim Walz, whose emphasis on “chaos” paved over protester platforms, and then-president Trump, who called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.” While news outlets devoted space and effort to discrediting Trump, they did less to validate protesters’ concerns or explore them in depth. One local article credited “both Floyd’s death and the riots” with renewing “conversations about the city’s racial inequities and about its policing strategies,” but failed to dive any deeper into those discussions. Instead, it focused on the means of quelling violence as the “city burns each night.” Likewise, across the country, coverage of the protests that followed Floyd’s killing emphasized disruption and violence, detailing the “total loss” of buses and broken windows, ransacked vending machines and graffiti on walls” before a rare, fleeting engagement with the fatal outcome of a racist system.


When a non-guilty verdict or a lack of indictment denies protesters’ grievances and demands, journalism is more willing to submit those grievances into the discussion, with greater substance and depth.


UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES do journalists challenge the protest paradigm? In 2016, I worked with colleagues Rachel Mourão and George Sylvie to analyze coverage of protests that followed the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. For each, we analyzed the initial wave of protests that followed the killings as well as a subsequent wave that followed judicial decisions—the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson, respectively.

We found the protest paradigm at work in both waves, with one catch: after the judicial decisions, there was a statistically significant uptick in legitimizing coverage. Protest framing shifted slightly from protester’s actions to their critiques of policing, mass incarceration, and economic inequalities, among other ideas that shape the movement in support of Black lives. After a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to charge Wilson in the killing of Brown, a New York Times article centered protesters’ concerns in coverage of a march, paraphrasing organizers who said their efforts were “against racial disparities in the application of the law.” One Washington Post article from the same time pulled quotes from protesters around the nation, while another quoted an elected official who called the protests “beautiful.” We concluded that protesters’ demands mattered most to the press after the judicial system had formally invalidated protesters’ calls for justice. 

In Sacramento, protests erupted after local and state attorneys declined to press charges against the police officers who killed Stephon Clark. While those protests didn’t receive extensive national media attention, what coverage they received was more legitimizing: stories highlighted police behavior during protests, not just arrests; contextualized protest tactics; and provided protesters with opportunities to place Clark’s death in the broader context of what Black and brown people experience when interacting with police. 

When a non-guilty verdict or a lack of indictment denies protesters’ grievances and demands, journalism is more willing to submit those grievances into the discussion, with greater substance and depth. Journalism champions skepticism of powerful institutions; here, however, skepticism goes to work only after those institutions are protected.  

Still, after the fact is too late. And my research shows that coverage reverts to the paradigm’s patterns with each new incident. 

Chauvin’s conviction offers journalism a rare opportunity to make up for its relentless adherence to the protest paradigm. Future coverage can amplify the grievances and the demands that the court’s decision has recognized and supported; journalists can use this case as a reminder of the legitimacy of protests to come. Following Chauvin’s conviction, the Sacramento Bee, which covered Stephon Clark’s killing, interviewed Tanya Faison, an organizer with the local Black Lives Matter chapter who had previously engaged with reporters about Clark. “We’ve been waiting to see something like this for a long time,” Faison said. “We need repercussions for actions…that’s when we’re going to see changes.”

Even well-intentioned newsrooms struggle with the accurate and comprehensive coverage of Black civil rights protests and social movements. The institutions that sustain journalism’s culture tend to be extremely white; journalism’s norms and routines—daily decisions about stories, sources, and staffing—are viewed primarily through a white gaze. That may help to explain why police reports are so often uncritically parroted: polls show that 77 percent of white people in the US trust police, while only 36 percent of Black people say the same.    

Unraveling the protest paradigm requires radically repairing journalism’s foundations—work that includes re-evaluating our foundations and interrogating traditional ideas of who we grant legitimacy to, and why. Police reports are made readily available, but they don’t tend to humanize Black people. We don’t need more reckonings, or explainers of how racism works; we can’t continue to debate if racism is a real problem. Find Black advocates, activists, community members and leaders in your community, and give them a voice in your coverage. 

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Danielle K. Brown is the Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research investigates disparities, equity issues and ethics in news media. Follow her on Twitter.