June 3, 2020

Is Cable News Partially Responsible for Violence at Protests?

riot police

Suppose we were to conduct an experiment where we assembled a group of somewhere between 6 and 10 14-year-old boys. We ran the same group of boys through two conditions. In the first condition, we observed the boys covertly during some unstructured time. We made sure none of them knew they were being observed. Whatever cameras were in use were not detectable. In the second condition, we observed the boys overtly, making sure they knew they were being observed. Imagine someone with a big video camera pointing it at them right out in the open. What do you suppose would happen? I think we can confidently predict that the boys would behave very differently when they knew they were being observed. At least, I think any of us who were once 14-year-old boys or who has spent any time around 14-year-old boys could be confident in making such a prediction.

Do you suppose that this might offer some valuable lessons for our mainstream news media with respect to how they cover protests? I think so. At a minimum, I think it probably makes sense to predict that many people are going to act differently when they know the cameras are on them. But the lessons probably go well beyond that. For example, I suspect that most protestors are well aware of the fact that the mainstream news media are far more likely to cover protests that do not remain entirely peaceful. The more violence there is, the more coverage there will be. To guarantee coverage, there needs to be at least a perception that violence might occur. Could it be that media coverage shapes what happens at least some protests?

My goal here is not to suggest that everybody rush to blame the news media for the bad behavior of some protestors. I'll blame them for plenty of things, but I am not claiming that this is their fault. The people who commit bad acts are responsible for their own behavior. But I am suggesting that how the news media decide what to cover and what not to cover, as well as how they cover what they cover, probably contribute to at least some of the violence that takes place.

Even large-scale protests tend to draw relatively little coverage when they remain peaceful. Think about some of the larger women's marches. They did receive coverage but nothing like what much smaller protests receive if there is even a whiff of possible violence in the air. I think that people who organize and attend protests probably know this. I saw a brief clip on CNN where a man at one of the many large protests over the police murder of George Floyd said as much. You could hear the pain in his voice as he said something to the effect of, "This is what it takes for anybody to pay attention to what is happening." Sadly, I think he's right.

The handful of bad actors who show up at otherwise peaceful protests and vandalize property, loot stores, or even assault police officers are probably the only reason some protests get anywhere near the coverage they do. Without their presence, the news media would quickly move on. But with their presence, we suddenly have a major story. Unfortunately, the major story has a way of becoming all about the violence and not so much about the reasons for the protest. And this is the rub. It is tempting to say that the law-breaking helps the cause because it is the only way the rest of us hear about the cause; however, the cause is often obscured when the violence becomes the story.

The abject failure of the local, state, and federal government to assist people who were dying in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina quickly turned into a story about looting even as people continued to die on the streets. This certainly wasn't helpful to those who were desperately trying to obtain help. The unrest in LA following the Rodney King verdict was another example where the reason for the protests was quickly eclipsed by the violence. And while I hope we don't see something similar with the George Floyd protests because we desperately need meaningful police reform, it feels inevitable that we will retread familiar ground and end up with little to show for it. Think this will be the exception? Look how quickly the focus has already shifted away from police brutality and onto Trump's appalling behavior.