The Project

The Screening Protest project compares televisual narratives of dissent across time, space, media culture and genre in three component studies. The first explores how representations of protest in global television news between 2008 and 2018 vary according to protest site and issue, and newsroom culture. This component is ongoing and continues through 2019, 2020 and beyond. The second has investigated depictions of protest at selected moments in the last century, to gain insights into how political and social change intersect with developments in media ecology. The third is about popular cultural portrayals of the protester – in films and tv series such as Spartacus, Robin Hood, The Hunger Games and Mr. Robot, and in narratives such as Margaret Atwood’s handmaids. Combining insights from political communication and media studies, the project provides an unusually rich empirical perspective on the problem of representation in changing media landscapes. Visual analytics are used to present the complexity of the quantitative data gathered for comparisons across global new channels’ coverage of contemporary events, including protest.

The protest decade mapped by the Screening Protest project so far, through the coding of 12,500 broadcasts by 7 global news channels, was bracketed by global economic collapse in 2008 with global protest in its wake, and with an ascendant right and resurgent nationalism by the end of 2018. The shift from traditional left-of-centre activism to the complicated left-right mix manifested in the politically ambivalent gilet jaunes in France and worldwide is reflected in the television news reports analysed by the SP team. While 2011 was long celebrated as ‘the year of the protester’, our coding shows that protest had a significantly larger presence in global newscasts in subsequent years, in the wake of austerity, and features in 11% of news headlines on average throughout the decade. One important result is that ‘the protester’ has become a key political figure – an actor to be taken seriously – in news reports of these years. This contradicts research associated with ‘the protest paradigm’ that has routinely concluded that protesters are marginalized and ‘othered’ in mainstream news reports. It may go some way to explaining the remarkable success of Greta Thunberg, whose underaged and unfunded protest is a coda to the project.

Another clear finding, however, is that news stories of dissent sometimes reflect the geopolitical narratives of reporting countries more than the objectives of the protesters themselves. Four news channels emerged from the data as particularly interesting: Al Jazeera English (AJE), BBC World, CNN International and Russia’s RT. Ten years of broadcasts by these channels yielded 3163 headlines featuring protest and 1638 news items in which protest was in focus. Visual mapping of the results, which can be seen if you click on the ‘Results’ pane, highlights interesting differences. AJE’s aim of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ is reflected in its geographical coverage, which gives more scope to the ‘global south’, while BBCW and CNNI have paid more attention to protests in Europe and North America. So does RT, but for clearly different reasons. Comparative case studies and narrative analysis, reported in our publications (see the ‘Outcomes’ pane) show that the same protests have been used to tell quite different stories depending on whether it was BBC World, CNN or Russia’s RT reporting Black Lives Matter or the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, to mention two of many examples.

The results also show semiotic seepage between contemporary and historical demonstrations (the Prague Spring, Vietnam, the fall of the Berlin Wall) and, between ‘real’ and popular cultural protests. The latter – taken together with other results – are a reminder of the continued importance of television in the digital age.

The Material

We are surrounded by screens, and have them perpetually at our fingertips. Why study television? Because it is more than a version of the screen. It is a medium that has stayed put in the living room, despite other devices having moved into the home. It is content that can be accessed on that living room set, but also online, on YouTube and on the phone. Television drama awards now go to series made and distributed by streaming services like Netlix. Television, in other words, is both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media.

In this project, we study national television and television drama, but pride of place goes to the global television news channels whose output we monitor on a daily basis: Al Jazeera English, BBC World, CNN International, China’s CGTN (formerly CCTV), Deutsche Welle, Euronews, and RT (formerly known as Russia Today). Despite being under-researched, these channels are of interest because they comprise a spectrum of financing solutions and relations to political power, including an MNC-owned newsroom, a commercially-funded channel moored in the public service tradition of a democratic state, one that is financed by the ruling dynasty of a monarchy in which political parties are not permitted, and one bankrolled by an authoritarian government.

The Methodology

We are interested in both everyday reporting and the deeper structures of meaning to be found in televisual representations of protest. The project thus combines large-scale quantitative mapping with closer analysis of the protest narratives.

Every day, we code the headlines of last night’s broadcasts, summarizing the news, noting the countries involved, whether the news concerns a global issue and – most importantly – whether protest is involved. This gives us a measure of how ‘protestful’ the newsworlds of the channels are.

The next step takes a closer look at the full news reports that go with the protest headlines. We code for issue (are protesters calling for regime change, against a war, or concerned about the enviroment, or something else?). We ask who gets a speaking part (political elite, protester or ordinary person? man or woman? white or not?) and note other things such as protester appearance and the use of amateur footage.

The first two steps are sort of like the first shaft in the archaeological excavation of a mound. At the third stage – of narrative analysis – the coding work resembles what the archaeologist does with the sieve and fine brush. Together, the superficial mapping and deeper reading lay bare the structures of mediated strategic narratives.

The development of coding categories and routines has been a group effort. The coding team is comprised of people of 11 nationalities and different backgrounds. We take turns analyzing different channels and periods, to facilitate comparability, and to avoid becoming exclusively immersed in one newsworld. The raw data recorded in a database designed specially for the project is subsequently worked through in SPSS. See the Results page for a selection of our findings, and Outcomes for what we have written up and presented.