Packaging Protest: Media Coverage of Indigenous People's Collective Action
Wilkes, Rima, Corrigall-Brown, Catherine, Myers, Daniel J., Canadian Review of Sociology
FOR SOME TIME NOW, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES in Canada have used direct action as an important means of achieving social and political justice when more conventional routes have been blocked. Indeed, since the early 1980s there have been several hundred instances of collective action, ranging from marches and demonstrations to protracted standoffs with authorities (Blomley 1996; Ramos 2006, 2008a, 2008b). The reason why most Canadians, be they Indigenous or not, know about these events is that they have received significant media attention. Yet, while it is clear that the media pay disparate attention to these events, no study has considered the causes of the differing quantity and quality of coverage they received. By featuring some events and issues more than others, the media works to characterize groups and events in a particular way. This, in turn, can impact public opinion and government policy on a range of issues related to Indigenous peoples.
We have two objectives in this paper. First, we describe the newspaper coverage of Indigenous people's collective actions from 1985 through 1995 in a new way. Most studies of media coverage of protest by Indigenous peoples focus on the framing of such events, typically the framing of a single event, such as the 1990 Oka crisis or the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff (Grenier 1994; Lambertus 2004; Miller 2005; Skea 1993). However, no study has attempted to compare coverage across events. How much coverage do different events receive? What types of events get front-page coverage? What types of events are accompanied by pictures? In considering these and other questions, we not only contribute to the specific understanding of media coverage of these specific events, but also to news coverage of collective action more generally. Although a large number of studies consider the quality of coverage, only a few consider any type of quantitative measure of coverage across events (except see Amenta et al. 2009; Vliegenthart, Omegema, and Klandermans 2005). These quantitative measures can allow for a systematic comparison across a much wider number of events and articles than was previously possible.
Our second aim is to identify the factors associated with the quality and quantity of media coverage. The media studies and social movements literature has shown that the coverage received by collective action events is not random (Boyle et al. 2005; Myers and Caniglia 2004; Oliver and Maney 2000). Past work has found that events that fit better with the organizational and structural demands of creating the news are more likely to be covered. How and to what extent are the demands of creating the news associated with coverage of collective action (1) by Indigenous peoples? Is it similar to or different from findings about other forms of contentious action? What are the characteristics of the events that receive more coverage than others? Is coverage determined by characteristics of the events themselves and which ones are deemed more newsworthy? Although these questions have been asked about a host of other instances of collective action ranging from the small events in Madison, WI (Oliver and Myers 1999) to massive demonstrations in Washington, DC (Smith et al. 2001), they have yet to be asked about media coverage of collective action by Indigenous peoples.
We find that although there were several hundred events, only four of these garnered almost half of all prominent forms of packaging. Given that packaging affects the visibility of specific articles, it has enormous potential to affect public opinion about the kinds of events that are representative of collective action by the members of Indigenous communities. This unevenness matters further in that that the content within these articles about these events is already shown to be extremely biased (Grenier 1994; Miller 2005; Skea 1993). Thus, the research in this paper provides new evidence on the extent and degree of biases in newspaper coverage of collective action generally and by Indigenous peoples specifically. …