Karin Becker is representing the project team in Hong Kong this week, where she is giving a talk about the visual dimension of protest. Her timing couldn’t be better. The top story in BBC World news today is the elections to the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and, in particular, the success of young pro-democracy activists. Among those who won seats on the council is the leader of the 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’, Nathan Law. BBC World has explained the event using a humourous piece on political insults. Despite the gravity of the issues at stake, it’s not the only example of how humour is used as a political weapon in Hong Kong. A recent programme on Al Jazeera highlighted how activists have been risking life and limb to clamber up skyscrapers and turn their lights into giant hands giving an impolite finger to the Hong Kong authorities. Watch this space for more on Karin’s Hong Kong experience.
Screening Protest is designed to incorporate demonstrations that hadn’t taken place when the project started. We’re set to study things as they happen up until the end of 2018, monitoring the news on a daily basis and coding all the headlines and the protest news items that turn up in those headlines. This routine gives us a unique opportunity to say something about the quotidian nature of protest reporting – to find out whether protest has become a fixed dimension of the global mediascape or whether media attention is fickle. This is one way our work differs from other scholarship on media and protest, which often focuses on particular protest events, detached from the daily news flow.
Our results so far show that the visibility of protest varies from mobilization to mobilization, from year to year, and from newsroom to newsroom. As expected, protest news was foregrounded more often in 2011 – the ‘Year of the Protester’ – when protest was in 14 percent of the headlines we coded, compared with 3 or 4 percent in other years. We have also found that in a ‘normal’ year, Al Jazeera English and RT have twice as many protest headlines as CNNI and BBC World – the channels people usually have in mind when they think of global news. And we have found, also as expected, that the different outlets cover the protests differently. Last evening’s coverage of the mass protest in Venezuela on September 1st is no exception.
There is no mention of the protests in the RT headlines at 7pm Stockholm time. This goes against the tendency mentioned above, but is in line with other results our coding has generated, which show that RT is more interested in protests that take place in the US, UK and Europe than elsewhere. There is no mention of the protests in the BBC World headlines an hour later, opening a newscast that is far more interested in Trump’s visit to Mexico. In the second half of the programme, however the anchor does talk to a reporter in Miami, asking why the simmering conflict in Venezuela is erupting now. CNN International has the protests in second place in the headlines (between a space rocket explosion and Trump) but the story itself comes only towards the end of the broadcast. It consists of a two-way live with a CNN reporter in New York, who opens by saying the mobilization is impressive ‘and yet quite dangerous’. The reporter says she wants to tell the anchor what protests such as this are like ‘when you’re on the street’ (pretty scary, it would seem) and expresses concern about the clashes that she predicts will take place between supporters of the government and the crowds calling for Maduro’s ouster. CNN’s coverage, in other words, fits comfortably into the ‘protest paradigm’ framework that features in much scholarship on media and protest – not least the prediction that reporters will foreground violence rather than the claims made by protesters.
Al Jazeera English is different. The protests in Caracas are the first headline and the top story in last night’s 7pm (Stockholm time) broadcast. Instead of emphasizing the violence as in CNNI, or focusing on the event in the abstract way it is presented by the BBC, AJE leads with the grievances expressed by the protesters, with the anchor telling viewers that the hundreds (not tens, as in the BBC) of thousands of anti-Maduro protesters have demanded a recall of the referendum and are concerned about continuing food shortages and unemployment. The first question posed by the anchor in a two-way live with the reporter (who is in Latin America rather than New York or Miami) was why the demonstrators are so angry. This focus on claims and attention to context is also evident on the AJE website, which directs visitors to a recent three-part documentary, exploring the question of what lies behind Venezuela’s ‘descent into chaos’ and the ideological struggle that is dividing the nation (linked here).
The differences are reminiscent of different responses – and reaction times – we have documented between these channels for the weeks in which Tunisians first took to the streets late in 2010. Will the protests in Caracas develop into a mediated Venezuelan Spring? Watch this space.
The bloodiest protests so far in 2016 took place over the weekend in Ethiopia but if you were watching television, checking the trending hashtags on Twitter or reading Google News you probably didn’t hear much about them. Even if you followed the Twitter feeds for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International you wouldn’t have heard that dozens of protesters had been shot and killed by police during anti-government protests.
The dearth of coverage remains so bad that as of 12:00 GMT on Tuesday August 9th BBC, CNN, CCTV, DWTV, RT, and Euronews have collectively uploaded over 100 news clips to their youtube accounts in the past 24 hours and none of them even mentions Ethiopia. Al Jazeera English (AJE) published a brief video segment on Youtube of the weekend’s horrific events but the rest of the global television news media has kept mum about the protests.
The lack of coverage of major protests by global television news broadcasters should give media scholars pause. This situation should encourage researchers to reflect on some of the long standing discussions about geographic coverage bias in news reporting. All too often students, researchers and policy makers seem to unquestioningly believe the arguments of neoliberal and technological utopians who say that we live in a “flattened,” globalized world where ubiquitous smart phones and internet will ensure that all significant news stories will be treated equally and receive their fair share of coverage by global media organizations. That world is clearly not the world Ethiopians are living in today but who is to say whether or not it might become the world of tomorrow.
Questions about what, when, and which protests get televised by global television media networks are all relevant to the study of contemporary journalism and protests. These empirical questions are some of those being addressed by researchers as part of the Screening Protest Project and ones that scholars around the world should continue to explore.
The live broadcast of the events following the shooting of Philando Castiles in his car in St. Paul, Minnesota was one of several videos depicting police violence against African Americans that became known to the American and global public this summer. The video became powerful, possibly because it contributed to force elites such as president Obama and governor Mark Dayton to address the systematic brutality and discrimination targeted against the African American minority, and for channeling support to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a more notable level, the video, through its liveness, contributed to dissolve the spatial boundaries between here and there and allow girlfriend Diamond Reynolds to mediate the experience in a state of what in media studies is known as despatialized simultaneity. Where at least parts of her experience became the experience of distant others. Yet while the despatialized simultaneity may be one of the dimensions helping us understand the power of the video, we can substantiate that process in more detail. For the experience does arguably not just involve the witnessing of what happened, the liveness also entails a dimension of narrative suspense, of not knowing what will come next, which allow us to also join in the fear, sorrow and outrage with Diamond Jackson for what might possibly happen. Another important feature of the video is thus that it lingers between the past, the present and what Jerome Bruner has referred to as the Subjunctive – the uncertain but possible future. Thus the video, apart from allowing us to bear witness to this tragic event, also bestows us with an agency of sorts, which does not necessarily end with the end of the video. The American anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly has in a similar vein argued that lived experiences of great uncertainty, while certainly being a cause for anxiety, also bear with them the possibility for creativity, experiment and hope, and thus allowing people to act upon and respond to history rather than only being its marginalized bystanders and/or innocent victims, such as Philando Castiles. Creativity, experiment and the hope that tomorrow could be different are arguably essential features of struggles for social and political change, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. From these perspectives I think the video of Philando Castiles can tell us at least two things about the role of media in these processes. First that, as institutional and technological change within media has and continues to bring us up to speed with the transpiring events of the present, we are increasingly faced with the uncertainty of the future and thereby encouraged to engage in creative, experimental and hopeful imaginations of possible futures. Secondly that, therefore concepts such as narrative suspense and the Subjunctive arguably become all the more necessary to use not only in in the exploration of fictional, but also factual accounts of reality.
Pro-Kurdish protests took place in central London this Monday, not far from Number 10 Downing Street. They were triggered by the official visit of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but the reason for the protest was the Turkish offensive in the Kurdish areas of the country, launched after the government ended its ceasefire with the PPK last summer. Unlike yesterday’s protesters, neither the US nor the EU seem keen on upsetting Ankara more than necessary, given the current situation and ongoing refugee crisis.
Of the seven global media broadcasters studied in the Screening Protest project, only Russia Today (RT) reported Monday’s protest. While it was neither mass nor particularly important, the fact that RT covered the protest and the others did not is the sort of difference our research pays attention to. We are interested in whether there are significant differences between global news broadcasters, not just when it comes to how protests are reported, but also which ones are represented in newscasts and which go unreported. Comparative research makes this possible. Ultimately the task is to think about what such differences mean, and how they might matter.
The twist in this case is that, perhaps surprisingly, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency also covered the protests (along with other Turkish media). RT picked up on the fact that Anadolu Agency reported a UK official had (unofficially) apologized for the protests, and carried a story about the apology on its website yesterday. Although it is not something our research can establish (as we study texts rather than interview journalists), it is interesting to reflect on the possible motives behind these reports. What does an apology mean in this context?
It took about a minute and a few brush strokes for artist Jean Jullien to create the symbol that within twenty-four hours of the terrorist attacks in Paris had spread across the globe. In what he describes as a spontaneous response to the news of the attacks, Jullien combined the peace symbol, originating in the anti-nuclear movement of the late 1950s, with a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, iconic emblem of Paris. Shortly before midnight on that Friday, he posted his sketch on Twitter and Instagram. The ’Peace for Paris’ symbol quickly spread to Facebook and other social media, appeared on T-shirts, flags and banners, and has been part of all the manifestations against the terrorist attacks, regardless of location. Jullien has a collection of these images in his smart phone: the symbol as a formation of candles, as being held by Malela, being raised by crowds gathered in stadiums, as displayed behind newscasters, and on screens in public space. The artist wants it to be used as widely as possible. He has taken out a copyright in order to protect the symbol from commercial use; any money made from the the ’Peace for Paris’ emblem goes to charity.
The origins of this symbol and its appearance across an expanding sphere of manifestations is directly relevant to my study in the Screening Protest project. I am looking at how symbols arise and are used in protests and how these appear across media, and particularly in news. I am especially interested in how some of these symbols evolve and attain new meanings in different places, as they become attached to new issues of protest. ’Peace for Paris’ is an example of this, carrying the power of its earlier uses as a symbol for peace, into its contemporary incarnation, where it has become charged with additional layers of meaning in response to the current tragedy. As is evident in the amount of coverage the symbol and its artist have received, ’Peace for Paris’ itself has become a topic of news.
The media use of social movements in different moments of US history was in focus when Anne Kaun from Södertörn University presented her research at the Screening Protest seminar on November 6th. Although they shared similar repertoires of contention and claims targeted against capitalism, mobilizations by the American communist party in the 1930s, the tenants movement in the 1970s and Occupy Wall Street in the 2010s had to deal with different time regimes of communication in their protest. In the 1970s, the tenants movement had to adapt to what Raymond Williams described as ‘the perpetual flow of television’ – a challenge the Communist Party in the 1930s did not have to face. The Occupy Movement, in turn, had to deal with the immediacy of social media, and its even faster pace. In light of this acceleration, Kaun argues, movements and their different forms of communication (amongst each other and towards the public) have increasingly become caught in a conflict between synchronisation and desynchronisation. The consequence is that, while social media have certainly provided a new space to reach public audiences outside the movement, it comes at a price: the slow time needed for deliberation within a movement like Occupy risks ending up out of synch with its necessary presence on platforms characterised by more immediacy. Apart from creating new spaces, new media technology thus also regulates space by imposing distinctive time regimes. Kaun suggests that, in addition to adapting to such new circumstances, protesters find themselves having to choose between attacking and abstaining from them, and instead try to find alternative ways of communicating. This raises interesting questions for the Screening Protest project. What could happen with the struggle for visibility on the ‘public screen’ – discussed at earlier seminars – as protesters seek out new alternatives more amenable to synchronization with their intentions, and newsrooms find it more difficult to find them? Has digital immediacy induced a time crisis for political communication, leaving the political in a stage of uncertainty?
When ‘protest’ is mentioned, the image that tends to come to mind is of a large group of people in an open space calling for change. After several months of coding global news broadcasts, however, we realized that manifestations of dissent take on quite different forms, and decided to make distinctions between ‘protest’, ‘rally’, ‘march’ and so on. The demonstrations that took place in Romania this week underline the usefulness of these differentiations.
What started during the weekend as a peaceful rally, in honour of the people who died or were injured in a fire in a nightclub in Bucharest, turned into an anti-corruption protest last night, ending with the resignation of prime minister Victor Ponta and his government. The protest did not only take the form of a gathering in a square. It also involved a march, with demonstrators following a designated route and stopping in specific places (e.g. in front of the government building, in the square next to the Parliament building, or the office of local authorities).
The episode gives food for thought for our research in another respect. The protest had a very powerful trigger: the death of at least 32 young people attending a concert in Bucharest on the weekend. When developing our research design, we have talked about coding for what triggers a protest, as well as the issue involved. They are not always the same thing. In this week’s Romanian protest, the trigger (the nightclub deaths) is clearly identified, but in many of the protest reports we analyze, they aren’t. We have thus decided not to code for protest triggers in our quantitative analysis, which seeks to capture the denotative content of reports and avoid interpretation as much as possible, although triggers will feature at the next and deeper level of analysis.