The Role of Media Coverage in Black Lives Matter

Even as we face division, we can't lose sight of our ultimate goal

The city of Portland in Oregon has seen over ten consecutive weeks of protesting since the murder of George Floyd in late May. They’ve been mostly concentrated in downtown areas, near the police headquarters and a federal courthouse. Protests were largely peaceful until President Trump deployed federal agents to the city in July, bringing these events into the national spotlight. 

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, a member of the Black community, spoke at a morning press conference on August 5th to express his grievances, stating that the violence “is not forwarding the goals that are going to lead to better outcomes for people of color”. In an Op-Ed he published in The New York Times, he further asserted that violent protests are “drowning out the voices that need to be heard to make positive change.” He referred to agitators who barricaded the doors of the North Precinct station shut, lit the station on fire with people inside, and damaged or looted nearby small businesses owned by people of color. Although many of the demonstrations became more peaceful after Oregon Governor Kate Brown negotiated with the White House to retract federal presence, smaller crowds have taken to separate protests in other parts of Portland, which has since brought on even more violence in the form of police brutality.

From Portland to Kenosha, the question of whether or not rioting and violent protests detract from the Black Lives Matter movement is a pressing topic for many, across the political spectrum. Objectively, we’ve seen its effects play out on the image and perception of BLM as a whole amongst the masses, rightfully so or not. 

CNN’s Don Lemon deplores rioting in light of its impact on BLM support as a whole, stating that it does the opposite of what we need to aim for. His fears seem grounded, as according to the Civiqs tracking poll, net approval for the movement has been falling sharply ever since it reached its peak back in June, just a week following George Floyd’s death and the outbreak of riots over major cities. Perhaps most strikingly, support from Independent-registered voters has fallen from 24% in early June to a mere 3% now. 

The Black Lives Matter Movement is far from synonymous with rioting- its whole purpose is to bring peace- but these shifts may be indicative of just how much influence media depictions of violence exert on support. But what is it that’s really affecting support for BLM- the protests themselves, or the media’s portrayal of them?

Listening to critics of the movement, you may be one of the many Americans under the impression that BLM is largely composed of rioters and looters who mindlessly exercise harm without consideration for the subjects of their destruction and wrath. 

However, the numbers tell a different story. 

According to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, 93% of BLM protests and events are non-violent. Peaceful protests are reported in over 2,400 distinct locations throughout the nation, with violent demonstrations limited to fewer than 220 locations. And yet, a poll by FiveThirtyEight suggests that 42% of people believe “most protestors [associated with BLM] are trying to incite violence or destroy property.” 

Evidently, disproportionate covering of violent demonstrations has played a key role in swaying public opinion. Articles and media coverage employing phrases like “Far-Left BLM Storms Rochester” (DailyWire) and “Sprawling Protests Threaten to Spiral Out of Control” (The New York Times) hold power - people pay attention to this language. When these large media entities release statements that contain inflammatory overtones, they disproportionately affect the public perception of crucial national matters. 

Sources that present protests and BLM events as if they’re trite nuisances add on to the harm. Headings like “Protestors [spill onto highways,] cause traffic delays” (WFAA) and “Retailers and restaurants across the U.S. close their doors amid protests” (The Washington Post) depict Black Lives Matter as an ignorant, brash movement refusing to consider the average American’s needs. They use condescending phrasing to reinforce a message that protests are public aggravations that need to be dialed down. Another striking example is an article from Portland’s KGW8 released as, ‘Protestors pushed into Kenton neighborhood damage new outdoor plaza in business district.’ A restaurant owner from the story actually stated his full support of the protestors, but the media chose to divert attention to a sensationalist headline that would garner stronger negative sentiment. For so many news outlets across the United States, views and sensationalism are now prioritized over just and truthful depictions of a subject.

The fragility of external support should not draw activists away from the roots of the movement. Protestors and allies can’t let polls and numbers derail them from the vision we are all still working so hard to attain- to do so would disregard all past efforts and consequently the entire civil rights movement in America. It would result in the unjust abandonment of the activists who are embedded at the core of a movement that has just begun to break the tip of its critical momentum. As media outlets across the nation turn their eyes towards profits rather than justice, it’s more important than ever to do your own research and find trusted sources. Cross-check information, and don’t take anything for face value. Find the truth behind flashy headlines and articles meant to attract clicks. 

Black Lives Matter. They always have and they always will. 

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