Newspapers and Protest: An Examination of Protest Coverage from 1960 to 1999

By Boyle, Michael P.; McCluskey, Michael R. et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Newspapers and Protest: An Examination of Protest Coverage from 1960 to 1999


Boyle, Michael P., McCluskey, Michael R., McLeod, Douglas M., Stein, Sue E., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This paper examines newspaper coverage of protests from 1960 to 1999. Initial findings indicated protests received consistent levels of support over that time. In light of this, we expected little change in the extent to which these protests challenged the status quo. However, there was a steady decline, with protest coverage becoming less deviant throughout this study. Further analyses suggest disparities in coverage of different protest-types were apparent during the Vietnam War. The most drastic change in treatment of different protest-types was directly after the height of the anti-war movement followed by gradual change thereafter.

Throughout its history, the United States has experienced a steady stream of protest activity. Prominent social movements have included the Civil Rights, women's, anti-war, and anti-nuclear movements. These movements and others typically share the common goal of challenging policies and existing power relationships in society, albeit in strikingly different ways.

Often, social movement groups use events such as marches, rallies, or demonstrations to attract media coverage to reach both the public and elected officials.1 Coverage can allow groups to disseminate information, frame movements, and shape official and public perceptions.2

However, media attention is not guaranteed. Factors predicting the likelihood of coverage include a protest event's size, disruptiveness, level of conflict, proximity to the news organization, and location in the "issue attention cycle."3 Ultimately, many protest groups find it difficult to get media attention, and suffer a phenomenon referred to as the "selection bias."4 Those groups that do get media coverage often face another hurdle: the description bias.

The description bias is typically a manifestation of the protest paradigm, a theory of news coverage of social conflict.5 Its central proposition is that the more protest groups threaten the status quo, the more harshly they will be treated by the media.6 And while there has been extensive research on media treatment of protest groups, little research has explored how that treatment has changed over time and how factors underlying the protest paradigm hold up over different periods. This is particularly important given the dynamic nature of protest activity both in terms of types of protest that come into and out of prominence as well as whether they threaten the status quo.

This study builds on the protest paradigm literature to examine news coverage of protest activities in Wisconsin from 1960 to 1999. We identify whether protests challenge the status quo as well as the degree of support or criticism expressed in both the headline and body of the article. Finally, we consider differences in coverage by type of protest (social, labor, and war protests).

The Protest Paradigm and Newspaper Coverage

A number of journalistic, organizational, and environmental factors shape the news, including coverage of social conflict.7 These factors also contribute to news coverage that is often critical of social protest groups. Moreover, this coverage typically contains characteristics that serve to marginalize groups engaging in conflict, while simultaneously reinforcing the status quo, forming what has been referred to as the protest paradigm.8

The protest paradigm is rooted in the notion that media outlets act as agents of social control, particularly when the protest group opposes the status quo by attempting to change current conditions, norms, policies, etc.9 The resulting news coverage forms a pattern replicated across various contexts: the more a group deviates from the status quo regarding its goals, tactics, appearance, etc., the more likely the media will act to marginalize and deprecate the group.10 This is a function, to some extent, of journalists' goal of creating more interesting news, so that they often seek out unusual actions and individuals that tend to marginalize protest groups.

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