THE PUBLIC NUISANCE PARADIGM: CHANGES IN MASS MEDIA COVERAGE OF POLITICAL PROTEST SINCE THE 1960s

Article excerpt

This study examined coverage of protests in five major newspapers in the United States between 1967 and 2007, and found that during that time period, protests were depicted as a nuisance. Such depictions are attributed to the rise of a "public nuisance" paradigm in coverage of protests, theorized to be linked to an increased conservatism in America, and driven by the notion that protests are a bothersome interruption of everyday activities, as well as ineffective and unpatriotic. Discussion of protests as nuisances increased substantially across time, and ideologically liberal protests were treated as nuisances more often than were conservative ones.

Social and political protests are an important part of American political culture and have helped shape the course of U.S. history.1 Further, in a political landscape in which large sums of money are increasingly required to compete in the electoral system,2 protests remain a democratic form of political engagement, requiring little more than a large number of likeminded people. Nonetheless, contemporary news coverage often seems to suggest that protests are an irrelevant nuisance. For example, a 1994 article in the New York Times compared the activities of anti-abortion protesters in New York City to "traffic jams along north Broadway," and quoted the police chief as saying he had "grown weary" of the "humming and praying and otherwise carrying on" of protesters. Such coverage raises questions about the conditions under which protests are marginalized or dismissed, and the frequency with which this occurs. With this in mind, this research seeks to identify and explain changes in protest coverage that have occurred over the last four decades.

News and Protests

Communication scholars have shown that protests tend to be covered in a formulaic and derisive way, employing a news routine that Chan and Lee, building upon the foundational study of protest coverage by Gitlin, coined the "protest paradigm."3 Gitlin analyzed 1960s news coverage of Students for a Democratic Society, arguing that journalistic depictions of protests often left them "deformed beyond recognition" and represented as "a mixture of absurdity and menace" via a number of disparaging framing devices.4 Such devices in the years since have been found in coverage of protests across the ideological spectrum.5

"Protest paradigm" news coverage contains consistent patterns, beginning with criticism of protesters and protest groups - such as an emphasis on protesters' unusual appearances and demonstration strategies and highlighting the presence of any so-called "extremists" present among them. Such coverage creates an image of demonstrators as fringe radicals.6 The protest paradigm also disparages specific protests by suggesting disunity among participants and using quotation marks for nonspeech items (e.g., "animal rights") to express journalistic skepticism.7 Another element of the protest paradigm is an emphasis on dramatic events and images such as violent conflict between protesters and police and other counter-normative actions.8 Further, public opinion is often invoked in coverage to marginalize protesters and protest goals.9 Finally, protest paradigm coverage tends to favor the perspectives of authorities over those of protesters,10 sometimes excluding protesters' voices entirely.11

Relatively unexplored, however, is news coverage of the idea of protest itself. This research introduces the idea of the "public nuisance paradigm" of protest coverage, positing that in recent decades news has increasingly dismissed protests in general - as an irritation, a hindrance, something that interferes with daily life. Such coverage emphasizes the annoyances and inconveniences perceived to be caused by protests, as well as a supposed lack of patriotism and efficacy inherent in this strategy of political engagement. This coverage shares some conceptual overlap with the "protest paradigm," but nuisance paradigm coverage dismisses the method of protests by suggesting that protests cause more trouble than they are worth. …