June 3, 2021

A year ago this week, Philadelphia was in the midst of historic unrest following the murder of George Floyd. Like many U.S. cities, it saw mass peaceful protests and demonstrations for racial justice as well as property damage and looting. Public figures, from local government leaders to professional athletes, joined the chorus of voices speaking about systemic racism and police brutality.

And local news outlets strived to cover it all.

That same week, Philly media briefly became the locus of a conversation on language, objectivity and the harm often perpetuated by journalism on the very communities it serves, sparked by outrage over a “Buildings Matter, Too” headline.

Inside Resolve Philly, we were having this same conversation. We compared and contrasted what we were experiencing on the ground versus what we saw reflected in local coverage, especially among the dozens of outlets in our Broke in Philly collaborative. We wondered what the community members we work with were seeing, too, and whether the coverage felt fair and accurate to them. Rather than continue to wonder, we turned to the theories of our Reframe initiative for answers.

Reframe helps journalists understand the gaps between the intent and the impact of their word and framing choices through hands-on workshops, reporting resources, guidance on source tracking and more. Diving into the language and framing used in breaking news coverage of this historic event we hoped would be illuminating for us and the journalists we work with.

So, I Ied a content analysis of protest-related reporting from May 30 through June 7, 2020, from the Broke in Philly partners. The goal was to get a bird’s eye view of that week of news: What were Philadelphians offered by their local outlets? What angles of the protest events did they focus on? How much of the content provided actionable information? Who was quoted and photographed for these stories?

There was no hypothesis for what the results would reveal, just a hope that any patterns that emerged might provide insights for coverage of future protests if and when they do arise.

To answer these questions, we turned first to existing research on protest news coverage. The work of Douglas McLeod and Danielle Kilgo on the protest paradigm, a framework for understanding the ways reporting often delegitimizes protests by focusing on their most violent or sensational aspects, served as the jumping off point. Research around this paradigm often examines coverage for common patterns that frame protests as riots, confrontations between protesters and police, dramatic or unusual spectacles, or as spaces for debate.

One angle we felt wasn’t captured in this paradigm was framing the protests as something to be reacted to, as a catalyst for response, so we added such a frame to our analysis. We assigned these frames to the headlines of each article in our corpus and their accompanying images as well as analyzed the content of articles to determine whether they were thematic, focusing on context and history, or episodic, emphasizing individual events and behaviors.

The articles were also audited for who appeared in their images and whose voices were heard in these stories. We were particularly interested in the roles played by those included, especially those of government officials, law enforcement, protesters or community leaders. To interpret these results, we turned to the work of Anita Varma and the ethics of solidarity journalism, which seeks to elevate the voices of those affected by injustice. Finally, we used text analysis software to count the frequency of different keywords among the texts, seeking patterns among this collective material that couldn’t be seen by studying individual articles. In the end, 392 articles from 19 outlets were analyzed along with their headlines, images and the voices cited in their articles.

The results suggest a different way forward for news coverage of unrests and uprisings to come.

Room for collaboration

When analyzing headlines of the articles at hand for how they framed and focused on the protests and related events, we found that many did delegitimize these demonstrations by emphasizing riot, confrontation or spectacle frames (29.6% combined) over the root causes of the unrest and demands of protesters (19.1%).

We also found that a significant share, 33.2%, focused not on the events themselves, but on responses to those events, like public statements from official sources, institutions and celebrities or counter-protests. For instance, many were focused on the vandalizing and subsequent removal of two monuments to former Mayor Frank Rizzo, a bronze statue across the street from City Hall and a mural in South Philly’s Italian Market.

We also found that the vast majority, 71.4%, of articles were episodic in scope, focusing on individual events rather than connecting those events to history or thematic context.

Of course, it’s expected that the breaking news coverage from such an eventful period would include a lot of reporting on the day-to-day details and behaviors of prominent figures. But the prevalence of the response-focused coverage and episodic content marks a clear path for more collaboration between newsrooms. Often the outlets in question covered the same events, like press conferences or public announcements, in similar ways.

This pattern raises the question: What journalism would be possible if local news outlets could work together to cover such events? Certainly overcoming long-standing competitive imperatives during a news crunch is no easy task, but we see opportunities here to explore technological and financial solutions for local news ecosystems, particularly those with existing collaboratives, to work together in this way.

Focus on solutions and solidarity

As may be expected from the significant response-oriented coverage, the voices cited in the corpus were often those in positions of power or authority. Of the people quoted or directly paraphrased in the articles, 37.5% were either public officials or members of law enforcement. On the other hand, just 15.8% were protesters.

The imbalance of these voices illustrates a need to include protester, organizer and community leader voices sooner and more prominently in breaking news in order to align coverage with solidarity.

Interestingly enough, a count of who appeared in accompanying images told a slightly different story. Protesters made up 38.9% of people shown and images more frequently framed the unrest in legitimizing ways, emphasizing nonviolent protests and written demands over fires, looting or violence. That the visual representation of these events accurately depicted the masses who turned out for peaceful demonstrations shows an understanding of what was most important to show audiences during this time. With the proportional amplification of participant voices, this picture could be complete.

Watch how word choices build narratives

We analyzed these texts to discover which words were used most to describe the events at hand and what other narratives might emerge from the most popular keywords. What we found underlines the priorities and frames found in this reporting beyond the headlines.

The terms used to describe the events were more often neutral (i.e. “protests,” “demonstrations” and “march”) than words we might associate with more delegitimizing frames (i.e. “riot,” “clash”).

However, popular phrases describing the systemic reforms sought by protesters were seldom found through these articles. “Defund the police” was found eight times in the corpus. “Looting” and variations thereof, on the other hand, was mentioned in 190 of the articles. The word “Rizzo” appeared in nearly the same number of headlines as “Floyd.” Target, the retail store a group of Philadelphians sought to “protect” from looting during the week in question, was mentioned 30 times in the corpus; “police reform” was mentioned 22 times.

The public conversation around police reform developed in the weeks after the scope of this analysis, so we can’t determine whether this pattern continued. But if the voices of those heard throughout this breaking coverage were more balanced with the voices of those speaking out against racial injustice, it’s possible the conversation around protester demands and systemic racism could have been heard sooner at a vital time for the public discourse.

This content analysis illuminates the patterns and frames with which Philly’s news ecosystem told the “first rough draft” of these protests. It also provides guideposts for how targeted collaboration and the raising of protester and organizer voices might enrich the conversation at the all-too-crucial moment of breaking news.

Beyond the topic of these results, the process of content analysis is an important way journalists can take a step back from their work and understand the narratives their communities are being served at critical junctures. We highly recommend newsrooms make time to conduct such deep dives into aspects of their work.

In the coming weeks, Reframe will be continuing this work by amplifying community members’ opinions on local news coverage from this historic moment. You can share your thoughts and experiences at reframe.resolvephilly.org/resound.

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Aubrey Nagle is the editor of Reframe where she connects newsrooms with their constituents in ways that inspire more equitable and accurate representation and creates…
Aubrey Nagle

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