Publication is Not Saturation: Lessons from Further Conversations on Protest Coverage

Published October 2021

In a follow-up to our report on Philadelphia news coverage of protests following George Floyd’s murder, editor and report author Aubrey Nagle discusses what the Reframe team has learned since its publication.

After a year of research, on June 2, 2021, Reframe released an extensive analysis of articles by 19 Philadelphia media outlets covering the first week of protests in the city following the murder of George Floyd. 

Our key findings were as follows:

  • The headlines of protest-related articles during the time period analyzed focused more on responses to protests (i.e. counter-protests, public officials’ statements, the future of two local symbols of former mayor Frank Rizzo) than on the source of the unrest or protesters’ demands.
  • Of the people quoted or directly paraphrased in the articles, 37.5% were either public officials or members of law enforcement, while 15.8% were protesters. By contrast, 43.8% of images analyzed showed people protesting.
  • Images included with the articles most frequently framed the unrest in legitimizing ways, emphasizing non-violent protests and written demands more than images of fires, looting or violence.
  • The majority of coverage coded (71.4%) was episodic in nature, focusing on individual events and behaviors rather than systemic or thematic context.
  • Keywords related to systemic reforms sought by protesters (such as “defund the police” or “abolish the police”) were found infrequently among the corpus compared to those that describe the protests themselves and responses to them, including “looting” and “Target,” a retail store where counter-protesters gathered.

In the months since its release, we’ve convened conversations about the report with representatives from local news organizations, surveyed Philadelphians for their feedback, and spoke with community members, some cited in the articles we analyzed. Our goal for these conversations was to give some voice to what was not captured in our initial report: how audiences felt, the history of coverage of similar events, and the difficult realities of producing breaking news. In this follow up report, we explore the results of our surveying and bring additional context to bear on our content analysis. Though this short response does not aim to represent all of Philadelphia’s reactions to the coverage we analyzed, we hope it enriches the initial work.

Portrait of protesters at a protest for George Floyd in Philadelphia.

Survey results

We began contextualizing our research by collecting community feedback through a brief survey, distributed and conducted by Resolve Philly’s Equally Informed Philly and community engagement teams and their partners. They tabled at community events around the city this summer and collected hundreds of written responses from residents. Participants answered two brief questions on coverage of the protests from May and June 2020. Of the 482 responses we collected, 403 respondents, or 84%, said they did see coverage of the protests in question at the time. Of those who said they did see coverage, 234 said the local news coverage of the events was accurate, while 154 respondents said it was not accurate.

Respondents also had the opportunity to provide contact information so that we could follow up with a longer, open-ended survey. A few agreed to take part, as did several Equally Informed Philly text line subscribers. While we didn’t receive a mass (and thus representative) response to our surveys, the participants’ responses to open-ended questions, nearly a year after the events in question, illustrate a wide range of reactions to and the impact of local reporting. 

Our first open-ended prompt asked respondents, “How would you describe the local news you saw?” Their responses included:

  • “Some parts were accurate, but they focused only on looting and repeated the stories of police without critical thinking or investigation.“
  • “Only somewhat accurate; it didn’t do enough historical research on the history of racist policing that brought us to this point. But the Inquirer did do a long piece about the over 100 year history of racist policing in Philadelphia.”
  • “Made it look like riots and not protests for justice “
  • “Empathetic toward BLM, Antifa and opportunists instead of more arrests”
  • “Biased toward police conduct being less violent and horrifying than it was”

The second prompt asked, “What protest-related topics do you think were under-reported?” The responses included:

  • “Under-reported was how it was going to stop.” 
  • “It was underreported in the sense that they continued to run the same story from the same perspective adding little depth & value outside. Many local news outlets focused on a specific weekend or the [national] guard or ATM [explosions] when and they never really reported on the [people] actually in the streets. Their feelings and stories became secondary (Black [and] brown voices specifically).”
  • “The way the police responded differently to protestors of different races and in different parts of the city.”
  • “How major retail chains loot more over the years than the damage done during the protests.  For example, paying workers minimum wage with little or no benefits.”
  • “The pain of local communities; the demands of local organizers; the violent, illegal tactics of the police”
  • “The perspective of people who didn’t agree with what was happening“
  • “Philadelphians that back the blue. Mayhem and costly destruction”

We also asked what respondents felt was over-reported:

  • “Damage to property; what they call ‘looting,’ but major retail chains loot more over the years than the damage done during the protests.  For example, paying workers minimum wage with little or no benefits.”
  • “Looting”
  • “BLM”
  • “Damage to property”
  • “Everything”

When asked for their further thoughts on the coverage from this time period, respondents continued to offer their opinions on what they felt was under- or over-covered, and how. Those responses included:

  • “Journalists should have covered more about the history of racist policing in this city.  There should have been more coverage of the Black people who were not protesting that got teargassed, even while standing in their yard or on their porch.
  • “Police here constantly lie about situations in which they used violence, and city officials back them up even when they know or should know they are lying. If the New York Times had not reported on the pepper-spraying of protestors on the highway, our authority figures would never have apologized. Why does it take a newspaper from New York to properly report on events that happened here and that thousands of Philadelphians witnessed?” [Editor’s Note: Local news organizations like WHYY did report on the pepper-spraying of protesters, but following a high-profile New York Times investigation Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw apologized publicly.]
  • “As a reporter who covered them — and a Philly native — I was shocked, traumatized and incensed by the protests, police conduct & the local news coverage (particularly broadcast) of the event. I’m honestly still processing how troubling yet unsurprising these blatantly racist approaches to bothsideism were.” 
  • “Interview those who live near all the unnecessary destruction and closures caused by the so-called peaceful protesters along the Aramingo shopping corridor. Understand how they really feel, zero coverage, completely one sided.”
  • “The news media should have been reporting on who was inciting and committing these insurrections, the fact that small businesses and black owned businesses were being destroyed, and what the people of Philadelphia thought about their communities being destroyed.”

While many of those who provided these additional comments seemed to agree on the tenor of local coverage, it’s clear that each individual had a distinct impression of what local news outlets did, in fact, cover. Of course, there are many factors at play here: each individual has a distinct life experience that comes to bear on their equally unique news consumption habits. 

One common thread throughout these responses is a sense that journalists were not telling community stories accurately or focusing enough on residents’ experiences of these events. This notion aligns with our research, which found that public figures and law enforcement were prominently featured as sources in the content we analyzed. Another common theme is a desire for context, referenced in responses seeking “historical research” or “the history of racist policing.”

Grounding conversations

Two Philadelphia organizers we spoke with who were directly involved and even cited in the content we analyzed voiced some similar thoughts about the coverage they encountered. In our initial report, we briefly discussed the question of how journalists might break out of their sourcing habits to reach beyond easily accessible and prominent organizational leaders, especially when covering intentionally decentralized organizations like Black Lives Matter. Philly-based organizer Devren Washington experienced this tension firsthand last summer.

Washington was quoted in several articles among the nearly 400 we analyzed and was often cited in relation to his role with the local Black Lives Matter organization. In an interview conducted in August 2021, Washington said his day job as the Senior Policy Organizer for the Movement Alliance Project (formerly Media Mobilizing Project) means he was already connected to journalists in a way that many activists and organizations without communications teams are not. That type of reliance on sources from established organizations and local government, he said, strains trust between reporters and activists, especially in the volunteer-based activism community. Posing activists and city officials, for instance, as “both sides” of a protest further deepens the distrust by flattening the debate. 

“In an article it’s like, ‘Oh, Devren Washington says this, but the mayor says this.’ The mayor’s word would tend to outweigh mine, right? But I think in a just world, a reporter would actually talk about why the mayor’s word might not be, or why this official’s word might not be, as credible, and I think that’s hard to do,” Washington said.

In an interview in May 2021, Jasper Saah, a local organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation which organized several local actions and protests in May and June 2020, also felt the inclusion of organizer voices in some coverage was fraught. 

“I think that organizers, especially on the socialist and communist left, get purposefully left out of these things. I mean, you could read a dozen different articles and think that 100,000 people just spontaneously showed up and knew where to go, and the sound equipment just showed up,” Saah said.

Saah’s thoughts about what was under- and over-reported during the first week of breaking news also aligned with those of some of our survey responders. “The tear gassings at 52nd Street were completely under-reported and when it was reported, not reported accurately at all, that it was a residential neighborhood that was basically tear gassed and invaded, for lack of a better word,” Saah said.

Relatedly, Washington felt that reporting from the time positioned investing in policing as the default and regarded research-supported solutions for divesting from incarceration and investing in communities as a fringe idea.

“From what I’ve seen, everything’s posing it as a question instead of a very legitimate path forward,” he said.

Our research also showed that the first week of coverage of protests included a significant portion of stories about a statue of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo that once sat near City Hall. The statue became a fixture in some of the early protests as protesters tried to tear the statue down or vandalized it. The former mayor’s legacy of police brutality and harassment looms large over present-day Philadelphia in many ways, but our research raised the question of what this proportion of coverage meant for the city. Was such focus on symbols warranted due to Rizzo’s place in city history and the reactions of protesters, or was it an easy anchor for a week of complicated stories?

“Of course, I wanted that statue gone and I’m glad that it is, but I think it’s pretty obvious that that’s not necessarily the main issue that was being raised and that there are a lot more important things,” Saah said. “I think that similarly to how, for the past four years, tons of systemic problems were placed at the feet of Trump, I just feel like the media is treating both the specter of Rizzo but also this specific removal of this statue in a similar way. They sort of personify and then get rid of things that are ultimately systemic problems.”

Conclusions & further questions

Though our continued conversations illuminate just a slice of public opinion on last summer’s local coverage of protests, the commonality we see between them and our content analysis is a question of proportionality. In the report, we found that initial headlines focused much more on episodic, delegitimizing narratives than they did on context and protesters’ voices, and that certain storylines (like that of the Frank Rizzo statue) received a breadth of coverage that others (for instance, discussions of police reform) did not. That this was felt by residents quoted here is clear in their expressions of disappointment at what they deemed “under-reported” stories. 

Of course, with the limited human resources of a news ecosystem in such a chaotic week of news, not every story can receive the same amount of attention and reporting. But it’s critical that journalists understand that misguided accusations of “zero coverage” from local outlets or suggestions that Philly outlets missed a story that the New York Times picked up are not necessarily indicative of unengaged or news-avoidant residents. Just as no reporter can report every story, no consumer can consume every story. If a news consumer isn’t seeing certain stories in their daily news diet, it doesn’t mean their news consumption habits are insufficient. Instead, it might mean a story that didn’t make it into their feeds requires additional promotion beyond the typical hours-long cycle of breaking news, or that in-depth follow-up features are warranted. We must take these learnings as an opportunity to revisit what we consider “news.” Publication of a single story does not equal saturation of that story throughout an audience, let alone throughout a city. As an industry, we must use audience engagement and social media strategies to keep pushing out stories that are important to our audiences and to revisit complex stories again and again. We must remember that what is “yesterday’s news” to professional news consumers may be tomorrow’s (or even next week’s) news to busy communities in the Information Age. 

Another common feeling woven throughout this follow-up report is that in breaking news coverage of the 2020 protests, reporters focused too heavily on the narratives and positioning of law enforcement and local government over those fighting for racial justice. Even those commenters who thought more coverage of looting was warranted mentioned needing more community voices, specifically of business owners and residents of business corridors. This simply further underlines the need for reporters to reexamine sourcing practices to ensure representation across a range of perspectives without privileging those in power above all.

In the months since George Floyd’s murder, many newsrooms have declared that they would analyze their coverage, practices, and staffs in order to improve the authenticity, accuracy, and diversity of their reportage. We’re pleased to see that in the time since the stories we analyzed were published, several of the newsrooms covered in our report, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY, have taken on such initiatives. These include deep dives into sourcing as well as continued community engagement to build trust between reporters and those they purport to serve. We’re eager to follow along as these efforts continue. Progress has been made, but there is still very far to go.