Police, protest and differential newsworthiness
North Carolina has been shaken by protests over the shooting of a black man by a police officer, an event which has also left its mark on the global channels we follow. It is a type of event that occurs increasingly often in the US and finds its way not just into newscasts, but into the headlines, right up there with the war in Syria and World Powers summits, signalling the importance news broadcasters assign to this topic. The protests in Charlotte were sparked by the killing of Keith Lamont Scott – the third black person to be shot by police in the US in a week. Violent clashes, pleas by the mayor of Charlotte to keep the protests peaceful, and statements of the local police chief have punctuated the headlines. Yesterday, BBC World devoted no less than five minutes of its halfhour 8pm (CET) broadcast to these events, focusing on the details of the investigation, the interest of security forces in maintaining the peace and protecting buildings, of officials in keeping the city open (without imposing curfews) and clean, and of the protesters in punishing the police for what they perceive as crimes against black people.
On the other end of the earth, in Romania, police have also played a prominent role in protests this week. The story, however, is quite different. People have taken to the streets of Bucharest and elsewhere after the Romanian Senate decided to reject a move by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) to approve the prosecution of Gabriel Oprea, former Interior Minister, currently senator. The senator is involved in a scandal that started with the death of a young policeman who died while escorting Oprea’s official entourage last October. The Senator had requested a police escort and instructed it how fast to drive. According to the DNA, Oprea has used police escorts more than three times as often as the Romanian president. The Senate’s vote means the senator retains his immunity and his prosecution is blocked. More protests are announced for later today as citizens consider this vote an act of injustice. Despite giving pride of place to protests in a US city, day after day, protests in the Romanian capital, concerning a high-ranking politician and the abuse of power, have not made their way into any of the newscasts we follow. And we follow a lot of them.
The striking presence of the Charlotte, and absence of Bucharest in this week’s global media representations of protest has a bearing on questions posed in the Screening Protest project. What events are made visible in the news, who speaks out, how does the map of the world look like in the eyes of the broadcasters of our interest, and what news is considered more important? To these questions, we can find empirical answers. The question of why police brutality in the US is more newsworthy than the abuse of power and corruption of the Romanian political class can only be given speculative answers.
Screening Protest — "Police, protest and differential newsworthiness," in The Screening Protest Project, September 23, 2016