How Protest Movements Shape What Media Reports and Their Impact on Protests’ Success

Protesters’ attempts to gain media attention may be a double-edge sword as critical coverage can have negative effects on protest movements.

Michael P. Boyle, PhD
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring movements have renewed scholars’ and public interest in protest events. Through 24-hour news outlets and social media, many people were able to learn about the protesters and their missions. Or were they? Although protest events make for sensational news because they feature conflict visually and dramatically, considerable research suggests that the news stories often told about protesters are neither accurate nor complete.

protestThe recurring theme in various analyses of news coverage of protests is that media serve more of a social control function than reporting the events objectively (Shoemaker, 1984). This role helps maintain the status quo by marginalizing groups that pose a threat to the status quo, a pattern of coverage noted as the protest paradigm (Chan & Lee, 1984). The essence of this coverage pattern is that the more a protest group threatens the status quo, the greater the likelihood the mainstream media will exert the social control function and marginalize the group. The resulting coverage reduces protesters to the actions they take as opposed to their goals, employs disparaging labels, and frames groups in ways that portray them as disorganized, unsuccessful, and outside the norm.

In general, perceptions of a group’s goals and tactics drive the nature of the coverage it receives. Gitlin (1980) found that critical coverage of the antiwar movement intensified as the tactics of that movement became more extreme. Shoemaker’s (1984) work with editors and journalists provides further evidence that the media coverage a protest receives is a direct function of the perceived threat to the status quo of a group. Shoemaker observed that groups such as the KKK and the Communist Party received less coverage, were more likely to be treated as engaging in non-normal behaviors, and portrayed as more likely to be unsuccessful than groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club.

McLeod (1999) observed that news coverage of the student-led “Right to party” movement focused on riot and standoff frames that portrayed protesters as destructive, violent, and at odds with the police.  Protesters were described as “thugs” and “out of control students” (p. 35). News stories that presented more sympathetic frames or thoughtful assessment of the goals of the protesters were rare.  McLeod and Hertog’s (1992) analysis of anarchist protests revealed that mainstream media focused on the protesters’ failure to enact change and also utilized government and police sources to marginalize the group.

More recent work demonstrates shifts in these patterns. Di Cicco (2010) found that news media have increasingly characterized protests as “bothersome,” essentially marginalizing them as public nuisance. AlMaskati’s (2012) analysis of the 2011 Egyptian protests found that journalists rely on official sources and use disparaging labels to discredit protesters, although the emergence of social media exerted a small positive influence on coverage in traditional media.  Weaver and Scacco (2012) found key differences in how cable news channels treated Tea Party protests, with MSNBC more likely to marginalize the group than FOX News. They also found that news sources that present themselves as less ideologically driven (e.g., CNN and the Associated Press) were still prone to engage in practices that de-legitimized the Tea Party.

Building on this research tradition, my collaborative research has focused on two main questions:

  1. What characteristics of protest groups affect how they are treated by the media?
  2. What are the implications of media coverage for the news audience?

An initial content analysis of media coverage suggests that protesters seeking greater levels of reform (e.g., protesters seeking to end the Vietnam War) were treated more critically, were less likely to be quoted as sources by journalists, and were more likely to be presented as event driven, as opposed to focused on broader goals (Boyle, McCluskey, Devanathan, Stein,  & McLeod, 2004). We found that media coverage tends to marginalize such protest groups by focusing more on their actions and less on what they wish to accomplish by telling their story through the voice of politicians and police; the audience only sees what the group is doing (e.g., protesting) and gets little sense of why they are doing it.

Our recent work sought to clarify reasons behind the aforementioned media coverage pattern. Boyle and Armstrong (2009) compared news treatment of pro-choice and pro-life protestors and found that tactical (i.e., specific actions taken to achieve goals) differences were a driving factor in how the two sides were covered. As tactics on the pro-life side intensified, resulting news coverage became more critical. There was also a shift in the nature of coverage pre- and post- Roe v. Wade such that pro-life protesters were treated more favorably before Roe v. Wade when abortion was illegal and pro-choice protesters treated more favorably after the decision made abortion legal. Boyle, McLeod, and Armstrong (2012) found a similar pattern of results in a follow-up analysis of international protest coverage: the tactics employed by protest groups exert the strongest influence on what is covered by the media. When protesters used more violent or disruptive actions, they were more likely to be treated critically by the media, independent of their goals.

Journalists are just like the audiences watching at home—they react to particular characteristics of the groups they cover. A group using more disruptive or violent tactics is more likely to be treated critically than a group using a less disruptive approach. This pattern of coverage provides relevant information for answering the second question concerning the implications that media coverage has for protesters.

Two studies shed light on the second question. In a survey study, Boyle and Schmierbach (2009) found that protest participants were more likely to seek out alternative press, possibly because mainstream media tend to present critical and marginalizing views of protesters, whereas alternative media are likely to provide more positive views of the protestors and also give relevant information on how people can get involved in their causes. In an experimental study, Boyle et al. (2006) showed that willingness to support extremist activists was greater when the activists were presented as a group as opposed to individuals. However, willingness to express opposition about the extremist activists was higher when they were described as individuals. Both studies demonstrate the broader implications that journalistic choices in covering protesters and activists have for how audiences react to them. Media coverage seeking to marginalize or negatively represent protesters will not only dissuade protesters from using those media, but also potentially dissuade the public from supporting those groups.

In summary, our research suggests that it matters how the news media treat protesters and how the success or failure of protest movements could be dictated by the news coverage they receive. Protesters often face an uphill battle in attempts to generate positive mainstream media coverage. In most cases, the marginalized coverage that results from disruptive or violent protests is less likely to generate public support to the protesters’ causes.


Almaskati, N.A. (2012). Newspaper coverage of the 2011 protests in Egypt. The International Communication Gazette, 74, 342-366.

Boyle, M.P., & Armstrong, C.A. (2009). Measuring level of deviance: Considering the distinct influence of goals and tactics on news treatment of abortion protests. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 17, 166-183.

Boyle, M.P., McCluskey, M.R., Devanathan, N., Stein, S.E., & McLeod, D.M. (2004). The influence of level of deviance and protest type on coverage of social protest in Wisconsin from 1960 to 1999. Mass Communication & Society, 7, 43-60.

Boyle, M.P., McLeod, D.M., & Armstrong, C.A. (2012). Adherence to the protest paradigm: The influence of protest goals and tactics on news coverage in U.S. and international newspapers. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 17, 127-144.

Boyle, M.P., & Schmierbach, M. (2009). Mainstream and alternative media use in predicting traditional and protest participation. Communication Quarterly, 57, 1-17.

Boyle, M.P., Schmierbach, M., Armstrong, C.L., Cho, J., McCluskey, M., McLeod, D.M., & Shah, D.V. (2006). Expressive responses to news stories about extremist groups: A framing experiment. Journal of Communication, 56, 271-288.

Chan, J. M., & Lee, C. C. (1984). The journalistic paradigm on civil protests: A case study of Hong Kong. In A. Arno & W. Dissanayake (Eds.), The news media in     national and international conflict (pp. 183–202). Boulder, CO: Westview.

Di Cicco, D.T. (2010). The public nuisance paradigm: Changes in mass media coverage of political protest since the 1960s. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 87, 135-153.

Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching: Mass media and the making and unmaking of the new left. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McLeod, D. M. (1999). The protest paradigm and news coverage of the “Right to Party” movement. In D.A. Schultz (Ed.), It’s show time!: Media, politics, and popular culture (pp. 29-50). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

McLeod, D. M., & Hertog, J.K. (1992). The manufacture of public opinion by reporters: Informal cues for public perceptions of protest groups. Discourse and Society, 3, 259-275.

Shoemaker, P. J. (1984). Media treatment of deviant political groups. Journalism Quarterly, 61, 66–75, 82.

Weaver, D.A., & Scacco, J.M. (2013). Revisiting the protest paradigm: The Tea Party as filtered through prime-time cable news. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 18, 61-84.

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