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June 29, 2009

How and Why the Media Frame Protesters

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryWhen it comes to news coverage of protesters and demonstrations the media almost never tell us "why": Why do so many people travel such great distances to march for hours? Why do they carry signs, shout slogans and give speeches? What issues are they addressing? Why do some even pay with their lives to get their message out?

Instead of trying to shed light on these questions, the corporate media would rather marginalize the protesters by portraying them as violent, irrational troublemakers. What news we do get focuses on trivial details like how the demonstrators dress, how old they are, and what language they use. From among thousands or even hundreds of thousands of demonstrators the media can also be counted on to interview and quote from the least articulate.

Finally, the whole story is framed as little more than the police keeping law and order against violent demonstrators, the number of whom is routinely understated. Here’s a recent example from the BBC.

On April 1, 2009, it ran a story on the protests at the G20 meeting in London. The headline read: "The BBC's Ben Brown reports on the violence at the RBS offices," with a subhead that read: "Protesters have stormed the Royal Bank of Scotland in London as thousands of people descended on the City ahead of the G20 summit of world leaders."

The framing has begun and will gather speed quickly.

And in case you had a tiny bit of brain activity to wonder who these protesters were and why they were protesting, the BBC made sure that you dismissed such notions as trivial. It provided you with ready-made, self- evident answers: the protesters are evil law-breakers who are endangering the lives of the police who are trying to stop them.

The reporter even relied on the police to provide an estimate of the demonstrators (5,000), as if he couldn’t see for himself that it was closer to 20,000.

The story was not about issues, motives or even people; it was about "violence," protesters who "stormed," and thousands of people who "descended" on the City (London), which we are to assume was otherwise quite peaceful.

Here are some excerpts to show how little context the story actually contained:

* "Demonstrators launched missiles and forced their way into the bank after clashes with police in the capital. A branch of HSBC also had windows broken."

* "There have been 63 arrests with some police and protesters injured. Later a man died after collapsing, police said."

* "A few protesters threw plastic bottles, banners and toilet rolls at police."

* "Protesters had smashed RBS windows with missiles, including coins and computer keyboards, and entered the building."

* "Two people were arrested for aggravated burglary at the RBS, police say."

* "Some of the protesters had been ‘provocative’ and ‘determined to cause violence,’ claimed Met Commander Simon O’Brien."

* "Earlier, officers were pelted with empty beer cans, fruit and flour outside the Bank of England."

* "On Wednesday, police questioned demonstrators travelling in an armoured vehicle dressed in helmets and overalls. Police say 11 people have been arrested on suspicion of possessing police uniforms and for road traffic offenses."

Remember, this is the BBC. Canada’s CBC and CTV and The U.S.’s CNN and Fox are the same or worse. The print media in both countries is not any better.

Shame on journalists and editors for reducing themselves to mouthpieces for the rich and powerful!

The BBC’s reporter, though, did make a stab at showing balance. He identified the protesters as climate change activists and anti-war campaigners, but only near the end do they get a chance to speak.

One told the reporter: "I’m here because I think people are angry about what’s going on in the world. There’s too much greed." Another said: "[The G20 leaders had a] ‘real opportunity to green the global economy’."

These two quotes, buried near the bottom, represent the only part of the story that attempted to explain the demonstrators’ motives. Thank you, BBC!

Perhaps American professor Dr. Michael Parenti gives the best explanation for our media’s habit of marginalizing and stigmatizing protesters. In his book /Inventing Reality-The Politics of News Medi/a he writes:

"Most news biases are so consistent and political in nature as to suggest that they are the outcome of influences larger than the imperfect efforts of individual reporters. Regardless of who is involved in manufacturing the news, one can detect persistent themes in how the mainstream press presents our country’s role in the world to us," said in his book.

"In sum, the mass media are owned by large corporation conglomerates whose financial dominance gives them the means to control news content and limit the range of acceptable media opinion, injecting a bias against organized labor, antiwar protesters, socialists, environmentalists, feminists, ethnic minorities, Third World liberation struggles, and all progressive causes."

* Dr. Elmasry is Prof Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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