Protest TV Coverage: Spectacle of ‘What’ Outweighs the ‘Why’

5 mins read


As the nationwide protests sparked by George Floyd’s death have ebbed and the scenes of militarized police clashing with protesters have faded, a closer look at media coverage of the demonstrations suggests television outlets focused on the spectacle more than examining the forces behind it.

The timeline below shows the percentage of weekly airtime on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that mentioned “Black Lives Matter” since July 2009 using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project. (Click to enlarge or view interactive graph.)

The Black Lives Matter movement first gained media attention in November 2014, reaching a peak in July 2016 with nationwide and eventually global protests. Since the election of Donald Trump, however, media interest in the movement has largely died off. The protests of the last two-plus weeks, despite receiving intense discussion, have received less attention or just slightly more than those initial protests six years ago.

And although the recent protests have centered on racism, they haven’t yielded substantially more mentions of the topic than previous events, with the most mentions of racism during the past decade occurring, unsurprisingly, in reaction to tweets from Donald Trump in July 2019, as seen below. (Interactive graph here.)

Even mentions of police are only slightly above their 2014 levels in the aftermath of Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Interactive graph.)

In fact, George Floyd and Derek Chauvin have been mentioned across the three news channels just half as many times as Brown, Wilson or Ferguson were six years ago. (Interactive graph.)

What is the dominant theme of the current overage? As the timeline below shows, the driving theme across all three channels is simply “protest.” Whether mentioning “violent looters” or “peaceful demonstrators,” it seems the media have been more interested in covering the “what” of the protests than the “why.” (Interactive graph.)

Tellingly, imagery of police and soldiers were a fixture of the channels’ early protest coverage, with their interest in the marches waning as police imagery faded.

Prior to Floyd’s death on May 25, racism had received just 1.8 times as much coverage over the past decade as the “climate crisis” across the three channels, while U.S.-based online news since 2017 has mentioned racism just 1.1 times as often. In the days since Floyd’s death, racism has received just nine times as many mentions as climate change in U.S. online news. On television, racism has not managed to out-mention COVID-19 or Donald Trump even a single day since Floyd’s death.

In the end, the graphs above suggest the media saw the protests of the last two-plus weeks not as a stand against racism and police brutality nor a moment for Black Lives Matter, but rather a made-for-TV spectacle of mass protests and militarized police, only to lose interest as the tear gas dissipated.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.





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