Over the past few weeks, the national media’s attention has shifted to the protests against police brutality that have arisen across the country following the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. That brutality and those protests, however, are nothing new — on-duty police officers have fatally shot about 1,000 Americans every year between 2015 and 2019, and black people are consistently most at risk of being killed by police. This year has been no different so far.
But the media hasn’t paid much attention to protests against police brutality or misconduct over the last few years. These protests, often grouped under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter movement, featured prominently in national media during and after the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. In recent years, though, they have received much less media attention.
According to our analysis of closed captioning data of cable news broadcasts from the TV News Archive1 as well as headlines of online news articles in Media Cloud’s database,2 the phrase “Black Lives Matter” appeared less than half as frequently on both mediums between 2017 and 2019 as it did from 2014 to 2016.
We also ran queries for cable news snippets and online news headlines containing the words “police,” “black” and either “violence,” “brutality,” “kill,” or “killed” to get a sense of whether these patterns were also present in coverage of the underlying issues the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address. The query returned similar results, with a large spike in July 2016 — after a black gunman shot and killed five police officers during a peaceful demonstration in Dallas — followed by significantly fewer results until Floyd’s death. (We haven’t run a full analysis of FiveThirtyEight’s coverage, but we certainly covered the recent protests far more than past Black Lives Matter protests during the Trump administration.)
Danielle Kilgo, a professor of journalism, diversity and equality at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, pointed to two stories involving black men shot and killed by police between 2017 and 2019 that didn’t get nearly as much national press: The protests in St. Louis after a white police officer, Jason Stockley, was acquitted of first-degree murder for a 2011 shooting in which he killed 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, and the protests in Sacramento, California, after the death of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old killed by police who said they believed he had a gun (the only item later found near Clark was his cellphone).
The protests in St. Louis, for example, shared many of the same elements as those in the past few weeks: there was a video of the incident, the protests lasted for days and turned violent at times, and dozens of people were arrested, including a journalist. “They were huge protests and they were prolonged protests, but they didn’t receive the coverage they needed to expand beyond that,” Kilgo said. She hypothesized that it was in part because the protests came on the heels of the Unite the Right rally that brought white supremacists to Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally drew a lot of media attention and may have shifted the conversation about racism away from Black Lives Matter and towards a discussion about white supremacy, she said. Kilgo also noted that the story of players kneeling during the national anthem at football games was getting a lot of coverage in the national press around the time of the St. Louis protests, especially after the president weighed in.
“The whole news broadcast couldn’t be about racism,” she said, pointing to other stories related to racism, like racist rhetoric coming from the president, that could have drawn the media’s attention away from Black Lives Matter. “I think they were just blinded by other things. There’s lots of shiny objects floating around in our political landscape right now.”
It’s not only important for protest movements to receive media coverage — the focus of the coverage also makes a difference. In order to successfully achieve policy aims, protest movements must walk a fine line. They need to be disruptive enough to capture and hold national attention, but also retain enough public support to pressure politicians into action.
Kilgo’s research suggests that this task may be a particularly tough one for the Black Lives Matter movement because protests about anti-black racism tend to get less legitimizing news coverage. In a review of 777 news articles from 20 different newsrooms in Texas, Kilgo found that press reports were more likely to emphasize the disruption caused by protests and less likely to emphasize legitimate political grievances, compared to reports of protests about other issues like health and immigration. And the coverage of protests against anti-black racism was also more likely to rely on official sources rather than protestors’ perspectives.
I spoke with Drexton Clemons, a 26-year-old stand-up comic in New York City who has been out protesting several times since George Floyd’s death, about what it has been like to watch the coverage and observe the media at the protests. He told me that while media was present throughout the entirety of one protest he attended, he felt the media presence was heavier later on in the day, “as if to capture some of the brutality that the police are doing onto the protesters, as well as the rioting or looting.”
“They’re missing hours and hours and hours of people peacefully protesting,” he said, “but it almost seems as if they don’t care about that particular narrative.”
Kilgo told me media coverage often fails to explore the nuances in interactions between the police and protesters. “This idea of police militarization and police and their actions at protests was really reduced to the idea of ‘clashes’ or the idea that they were arresting someone,” she said of coverage of previous protests. This isn’t the first time journalists have been arrested at Black Lives Matter protests, but now that the police have attacked and arrested multiple journalists, “there is a discussion of protection of the press, a First Amendment right,” something she says was mostly absent from previous coverage. But she also noted that the same amendment that protects the free press also protects the protesters’ rights to peaceably assemble.
So far, it seems that the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death have, despite the hurdles Kilgo’s study highlighted, managed to retain public support while capturing the media’s attention. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted from May 28 to June 2 found that when asked to choose, 59 percent of Americans were more concerned about “the actions of police and the death of an African American man,” while only 27 percent reported being more concerned that the protests had turned violent.
But the road to permanent change is long. A recent study from Omar Wasow, suggests that areas that saw violent protests in the 1960s saw an increase in President Richard Nixon’s vote share in the 1968 election. (Nixon ran on a “law and order” platform and waged a “war on drugs” that exacerbated many of the racial inequalities in the criminal justice system that the protesters are working to undo.) It is unclear to what extent the lessons from the 1960s will apply today, but having public support undoubtedly will help activists pressure politicians to implement reforms. And much of that public support may be contingent on how the story of the movement is covered by mainstream press.