The protest paradigm outlines certain tendencies of news reporters to cover protesting groups in a negative light and frame protesting behaviors in terms of threats to public safety and order. This study examines national and international newspaper coverage of protests that occurred in Brazil in 2013 through the lens of the protest paradigm and using theories of framing and agenda setting. Results show coverage of the protests by two media organizations followed some but not all of the tenets of the protest paradigm, resulting in coverage that was, at times, both pro-protest and pro-government.
The intersection between protesting groups and the media that covers them is a space that contains numerous differing viewpoints and motives, as well as attempts at negotiation from both sides. Much of the academic research on this topic places a heavy emphasis on agenda setting and subsequent framing as an influencer of public opinion. The protest paradigm claims that news organizations will cover protests and social movements in a way that is counter-productive to the goals of the protest and counter-intuitive to the intended objectivity of news reporting (McLeod, 2007; Boyle et al., 2004). Specifically, the traditional use of episodic reporting styles often serves to delegitimize movements by highlighting the (often negative or destructive) actions of the protesters without effectively explaining the social issue being addressed by the protests (Boyle, McLeod, and Armstrong, 2012; McLeod 1995).
This study examines the adherence of news stories to tenets of the protest paradigm (detailed below). It describes the various uses of agenda setting and framing techniques by authors in the stories in an attempt to describe the influence of the media on the success and growth of a social movement. The analysis detailed in this study examines the coverage of the protests from the perspective of two newspapers: The Rio Times, the leading English language newspaper serving Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and The New York Times, the leading general-news newspaper serving the United States. 1 Brazilian media coverage of a series of protests that occurred in June 2013 in different cities across Brazil is identified for its deviance from traditional journalistic norms surrounding coverage of social protests. Though the coverage began by following traditional journalistic norms of episodic reporting and reliance on drama and official sources (Gamson and Wolfsfeld, 1993; Reese, 1991), researchers have posited that a dramatic shift in the type of coverage in the initial days of the protest resulted in the movement gaining significant support from Brazilians of all social classes. This widespread, diverse support, helped protestors achieve both short and long term goals in an efficient and timely manner (Saad-Filho, 2013; Saad-Filho and Morais, 2013).
A Brief History of Social Movements in Brazil
Brazil has a varied and complex history regarding civic participation and public protests as political statements (Reiter, 2010). As with protests in many places, various regional sub-populations mobilize in an effort to draw awareness to an issue or cause, at times joining forces with political parties or state organizations (Earle, 2013). Traditional theories of mobilization and protest suggest that social movements follow a cycle that begins with a change in the political and public discourse of a particular social issue. This shift affords activists and civil rights groups the opportunity to mobilize, gain support and popularity, and eventually make demands (Staggenborg, 1998). Brazil’s social movement history is notable because activists championing differing causes have joined forces – using a shift in the political climate surrounding one social issue to bring about a shift in the political climate surrounding another issue (Hochstetler, 2000).
The 1980s saw anti-military government protesters join forces with supporters of women’s rights, supporters of indigenous peoples’ rights, and those advocating to protect the Amazon. Together, these seemingly disparate groups mobilized under a broader umbrella – a united force that protested governmental forestry in the Amazon, discriminatory political policies that affected women and indigenous people, and a host of other social issues (Assies, 1994; Hochstetler, 2000). The effects of concentrated efforts by millions of Brazilians to enact change within their country were drastic – the military authority was reformed and the government was demilitarized (Hochstetler, 2000).
The 2013 protests in Brazil followed a similar pattern when an injustice that affected the lower socioeconomic classes in Brazil became the impetus for wide scale protests and demonstrations across the country. On June 3, 2013, government officials in the major Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo announced the fares for buses would increase by more than 7% from R$2.75 to $R2.95. 2 Reports of protests across these cities began as early as June 6, with most major news outlets publishing stories about the protest in the following days. The protests were effective in convincing government officials to repeal the transportation price increases, but the protesters did not stop there. The demonstrations quickly expanded to include people from all social groups – from low-wage laborers to university students and even doctors. Together, these groups expanded the focus of the protests to include issues such as chronic government overspending and fund mismanagement, inadequate health care services, and rising inflation costs (Vieira Pinto, 2013). This civic uprising resulted in a series of new governmental measures targeting education, health care, and other public services (Saad-Filho and Morais, 2013). These demonstrations gained international attention – drawing more than 2 million protestors to the streets of Brazil and prompting Brazilians in other countries to launch smaller protests around the world.
Agenda Setting, Framing, and Public Opinion
Researchers have established the effect of agenda setting on perceived issue importance, beliefs, and opinions of media audiences through experiments, surveys, interviews, and polls throughout the years. McCombs’ and Shaw’s seminal agenda setting study reveals strong correlations between coverage by television, newspaper, and news magazines of specific issues during the 1968 United States presidential campaign and the political concerns and attitudes of the residents of the city. The researchers surveyed respondents who listed what they considered to be the most important topics of the campaign and then analyzed the content of the newspapers, television broadcasts, and news magazine articles to determine the most salient issues. Consistent with the agenda setting theory, the important topics reflected in the media and the important topics described in the audience responses were virtually identical (McCombs and Shaw, 1972).
The agenda setting framework has been used to study the impact of media on public opinion regarding topics from civil rights to immigration to wartime activities (McCombs and Shaw, 1993; Rogers, Dearing, and Bregman, 1993). A study found correlations between geography, news coverage and perceived importance of immigration, with audiences in border states ranking immigration as of higher political and importance than audiences in other geographic locations (Dunaway, Branton, and Abrajano, 2010). Notably, importance of immigration was highest in border states. Researchers found audiences in non-border states reporting higher levels of attitude change than in other states. This may suggest that the effects of agenda setting are manifested differently depending on issue salience (Dunaway, Branton, and Abrajano, 2010).
While agenda setting is one explanation of how the media directs audience attention to specific topics, issue framing is the media practice of highlighting certain aspects or characteristics of an issue. Those aspects are given more importance than other characteristics of the issue often because they are easier to explain or because they are the most attention-grabbing features of the subject (Scheufele and Tewksbury, 2007; McLeod and Detenber, 1999; McLeod and Hertog, 1992). The effects of agenda setting and framing have a significant influence on audience attention to particular topics over others. They also affect audience judgments about which particular aspects of those topics are the most important (Entman, 1993). In the case of social movements and protests in particular, these frames can directly affect the audience’s understanding of social issues and influence public opinion regarding the legitimacy of the issue (Watkins, 2001). For example, in a two-part study researchers demonstrated the effects of different news frames used in coverage of the women’s rights movement (Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997). In the first part of their study, Terkildsen and Schnell identify five major frames in their analysis of the articles published in three prominent U.S. weekly newspapers from 1950 to 1990. The second part consisted of an experiment designed to measure the effects of the frames on the attitudes and beliefs of audience members, and found, as hypothesized, that anti-feminist frames had a negative impact on readers’ willingness to support the women’s movement and on their attitudes about gender roles (Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997). Further, the results were moderated by gender: men demonstrated significantly more negative attitudes toward gender equality when exposed to economic, feminism and anti-feminism frames than when exposed to a political equality frame (Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997).
Given the role agenda setting and framing play in influencing audience opinion, researchers have argued that the media coverage of social protests is particularly important in areas where journalists should be rigorous in their coverage (Boyle, McLeod, and Armstrong, 2012; McLeod 2007). In a Los Angeles case study of news coverage on a political demonstration, Douglas McLeod (2007) introduces 5 characteristics of the protest paradigm and 10 recommendations of news coverage for such political protests and social movements (see McLeod, 2007 for the complete list of recommendations).
5 Characteristics of the Protest Paradigm
McLeod suggests that the protest paradigm is not only a theory describing how journalists cover social protests, but a template that standardizes the creation of news stories about social protests (McLeod, 2007). Based on previous research developed by McLeod and Hertog, the following characteristics are identified as tenets to the protest paradigm: news frames, reliance on official sources and official definitions, the invocation of public opinion, delegitimization, and demonization (McLeod and Hertog, 1992). A brief explanation of the elements is described below:
News Frames. As mentioned previously, news frames serve to highlight some aspects of an issue or idea to make them more salient and more important than other aspects of the issue or idea (Entman, 1993). McLeod suggests that traditional frames used in protest coverage include “crime story,” and “riot” frames, among others. (McLeod, 2007: 186)
Reliance on official sources and official definitions. Usage of quotes or sound bites from official sources serves to make a journalist’s job of collecting and disseminating large amounts of information easier and efficient, but the use of government officials or business executives as primary sources minimizes the input of laypeople or lower level employees in the construction of reality (Berkowitz and Beach, 1993).
Invocation of public opinion. According to McLeod, journalistic use of public opinion is usually done to point out deviations of protesters from the accepted norms of society. Use of bystanders as representatives of public opinion generally serves to give audience members a negative perception of the protests because by definition, bystanders are those observing but declining to participate in the movement (McLeod, 1995).
Delegitimization. Journalists often neglect to properly explain the reasons behind protesting behaviors, and without proper context, protests can become defined solely by their actions, rather than by the grievances that spurred those actions (McLeod and Hertog, 1992).
Demonization. Lastly, media coverage that serves as an episodic recounting of events usually serves to overstate the public threat of the protesting groups. By emphasizing acts of violence or acts of deviance (such as blocking traffic or burning flags) perpetrated by the group, the media makes prominent the negative aspects of the protest and draws attention away from other aspects of the protest (McLeod and Hertog, 1992; McLeod and Detenber, 1999).
The data for this study was compiled by gathering all news articles about the Brazilian protests published in June, July, and August of 2013 in The Rio Times and The New York Times. Editorials and letters to the editor were excluded, as were articles that briefly mention protests in the midst of other stories. In total, 17 articles from The New York Times and 22 articles from The Rio Times are analyzed and coded based on their relevancy to the topic as well as themes and phrases regarding the social movement. Additionally, each story is coded according to the presence or absence of the 5 characteristics of the protest paradigm and the use of any of the 10 recommendations for responsible reporting of social movements listed by McLeod (2007).
The New York Times. Coverage of the Brazilian protests by The New York Times ranges from complex and detailed descriptions of the reasons for the demonstrations to stories that are blatantly in support of the existing governmental party in the country. At times the coverage of the protests strictly follows the tenants of the paradigm. At other times the articles deviate significantly from the paradigm by clearly identifying the motives of the movement, using quotes by the protesters rather than from bystanders, and explaining the social issues that prompted the demonstrations. The overwhelming majority of the stories in The New York Times explicitly explain the reasons for the protest:
- “Protesters showed up by the thousands in Brazil’s largest cities on Monday night in a remarkable display of strength for an agitation that had begun with small protests against bus-fare increases, then evolved into a broader movement by groups and individuals irate over a range of issues including the country’s high cost of living and lavish new stadium projects” (Romero, 2013d).
- “Pointing to the billions of dollars spent on stadiums at the expense of basic needs, a growing number of protesters are telling fans around the globe to do what would once have seemed unthinkable: to boycott the 2014 World Cup in Brazil” (Romero and Neuman, 2013).
Following the protest paradigm, the newspaper does rely on public opinion as a primary source for quotes. Rather than quotes from bystanders, the majority of the quotes were from the protesters themselves and displayed a pro-protesting sentiment while also highlighting the wide range of ages, social classes, and occupations of the protesters:
- “We’re furious about what our political leaders do, their corruption,” said Enderson dos Santos, 35, an office worker protesting in São Paulo. “I’m here to show my children that Brazil has woken up” (Romero, 2013b).
- “People are going hungry and the government builds stadiums,” said Eleuntina Scuilgaro, an 83-year-old pensioner at the protests here in São Paulo. “I’m here for my granddaughters. If you’re tired, go home, take a shower and return. That’s what I’m doing” (Romero, 2013b).
- “I think Brazilians are feeling insulted to see that there was political will and large investments to construct big, FIFA-quality soccer fields,” said Antonio Carlos Costa, 51, a Presbyterian pastor and leader of Rio de Paz, a group that combats social inequalities in Brazil. “And when these stadiums went up, the people saw that there was not the same political will to use public funds to build the same standard of schools, hospitals, and public security” (Romero and Neuman, 2013).
- “I love soccer, but we need schools,” said Evaldir Cardoso, 48, a fireman at a protest here with his 7-month-old son” (Romero, 2013b).
Interestingly, The New York Times also shows significant support for the status quo through frames that highlight actions taken by the government to appease the demonstrators:
- “While the president and other politicians have publicly sympathized with the protesters, passing major changes remains daunting and demonstrations continue to simmer across the country. Still, some changes have come at a surprising pace, including harsher penalties for government corruption and rollbacks of transit fares. Legislation to put 75 percent of oil royalties toward education and 25 percent toward health care –two areas that have been a focus of the protests—is moving quickly through Congress” (Kugel, 2013).
- “President Dilma Rousseff has tried to defuse the protests that have rocked the streets of Brazil by seemingly granting the demonstrators what they want. But nearly every step she has taken has backfired, increasing public dissatisfaction with her performance” (Rohter, 2013).
Another story offers an interesting juxtaposition in the lead paragraph. It begins with: “Shaken by the biggest challenge to their authority in years, Brazil’s leaders made conciliatory gestures on Tuesday to try to defuse the protests engulfing the nation’s cities.” Rather than follow that statement with denouncement of the protests or efforts to delegitimize the protesters, the story continues with, “But the demonstrators remained defiant, pouring into the streets by the thousands and venting their anger over political corruption, the high cost of living and huge public spending for the World Cup and the Olympics” (Romero, 2013b).
During the protests, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff received heavy criticism from the protesters and members of the Brazilian press. Articles in The New York Times are more cautious in their descriptions of the president and her efforts to quell the unrest in the country. Rather than include quotes criticizing the president, articles include a mention of “a series of bold changes to the country’s political system” that Rousseff had proposed in a “relatively accommodating response to the protests” (Romero, 2013c). In another display of support for the status quo, quotes that are not by the protesters are often by Rousseff herself. Several stories highlight the president’s encouragement of the protesters’ spirit and motives, “These voices, which go beyond traditional mechanisms, political parties and the media itself, need to be heard,” Ms. Rousseff said. “The greatness of yesterday’s demonstrations were proof of the energy of our democracy” (Romero, 2013b). Another story offers: “In a speech on Friday night, Ms. Rousseff, a former guerrilla who fought the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, praised the demonstrators for bringing a new energy to Brazilian politics and said repeatedly that she would listen to “the voice of the streets”” (Romero and Neuman, 2013).
In another deviation from the protest paradigm, the mention of destruction of property or violence as perpetrated by the protesters is often short and subtle. While the stories use descriptive adjectives like “sweeping” and “angrily” to describe the protesters, details of violence are generally buried within the story and given only a brief mention. One story begins with a mention of a protest where 15,000 people demonstrated with no reports of violence, but the story later includes an example of a demonstration in another city in which “young men [committed] acts of vandalism, such as smashing automatic teller machines in a bank and knocking over a light pole” (Romero and Neuman, 2013). Another The New York Times story mentions how “a small group of protesters threw rocks in the direction of police officers, and at least six people were wounded in the fracas “ (Romero, 2013a).
Coverage of the protests by The New York Times involves significant framing but does not strictly adhere to the protest paradigm. As is demonstrated below, coverage by The Rio Times involved different frames and followed different tenets of the paradigm.
The Rio Times. Coverage of the protests by Brazilian newspaper The Rio Times offers a glimpse into the protests from a local perspective. Journalists at The Rio Times follow closely some of the principles of the protest paradigm, including repeated instances of demonization of the protesters:
- “Fresh protests against a rise in bus fares in Rio have led to at least 31 students being arrested on Monday evening, after demonstrators clashed with riot police. Police reportedly used rubber bullets, stun grenades and pepper spray against the protesters, who are accused of causing damage to public and police property.” (Tavener, 2013a)
- “Protests over bus fare increases have turned violent over the last two weeks and are spreading across Brazil.” (Kaiser, 2013b)
- “Protests in Rio, which largely enjoyed a party-like atmosphere, ended with a number of bank branches having windows smashed, and two cars being set on fire outside the State Legislative Assembly building, which was later breached by protesters with at least twenty police officers sustaining injuries.” (Tavener, 2013c)
- “According to the government, the worst damage was done to traffic signals and radars, which represent 53 percent – or R$800,000 – of the total damage costs.” (Kaiser, 2013a)
- “Twenty-five people were arrested for being in possession of materials that could be used for acts of vandalism, like gas bombs, rocks, iron bars and pieces of wood. Seven were hospitalized, according to reports. Two people were seriously injured when they fell off the raised highway where protests were taking place.” (Kaiser, 2013a)
While The Rio Times articles do feature heavy amounts of protester demonization, this is contrasted by consistently invoking the use of quotes from the demonstrators themselves rather than from bystanders:
- ““O Rio pra quem?” (A Rio for whom?) protesters asked, expressing their frustration over the city’s repeated decisions to favor developing tourism, promoting the city’s international image and business, as opposed to serving the people and improving services provided to them.” (Kaiser, 2013b)
- ““I don’t just want the bus fare lowered by 20 cents. I want more health care, more education. I want more because I pay for it,” said Natane Santos, a law student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.” (Kaiser, 2013c)
One article quotes a city council member who denounced attempts by members of the Brazilian government to discredit the protesters: “The accusation of vandalism in this legitimate movement is unscrupulous government officials and Brazilian elite trying to manipulate the public opinion,” (Kaiser, 2013d).
The newspaper also explains in detail the reasons for the protests, drawing on McLeod’s recommendation to identify key issues. The paper repeatedly mentions the transformations of the demonstrations from protests over bus fares to something much larger:
- “As protests continue on the streets, many are taking to social networks to speak out. Often using #changebrazil, many are saying that the protests are not only against a R$0.20 increase in transportation fares but also a reaction to their frustration over the inequalities they see in their country and what they perceive as misallocation of funds in spending for international sports events.” (Hearst, 2013)
- “The protests have now become a platform to vent anger at a range of issues from government corruption to spending outlays on the impending FIFA World Cup.” (Tavener, 2013c)
- “The protests have taken a much wider form, allowing Brazilians to vent their anger and frustration at the state of the country, from the country’s multi-billion-dollar hosting of the World Cup and poor public services, particularly health and education, to rampant political corruption and police brutality.” (Tavener, 2013b)
Notably, though the newspaper does not hesitate to detail the damage to public buildings and property done by some of the protesters, the coverage does not criticize the actions at all. Instead, The Rio Times’ coverage often serves as an endorsement for the protests. The paper lists the dates and locations of planned protests, meeting times, and directs readers to social media accounts run by protest organizers for more information:
- “Protesters are scheduled to march despite a court injunction banning demonstrations in the state during the Cup. They are expected to gather at 2PM in the São Francisco de Assis church located near the Mineirão stadium. Protesters in Brasília are scheduled to meet at 4PM in front of the National Museum.” (Hearst, 2013)
- “Protesters are scheduled to gather at 5PM in Largo da Batata, in the western neighborhood of Pinheiros.” (Hearst, 2013)
The coverage of the Brazilian protests by an international and a local media outlet is extremely varied. The reporting by The New York Times tends to offer only partial support for the protest paradigm. Following the paradigm, the paper uses pro-government frames and quotes from official sources. Contrasting the paradigm, the coverage followed some of the recommendations for responsible coverage by identifying the key issues of the protest and ignoring bystanders in favor of quotes taken directly from demonstrators.
The New York Times’ continual reiteration of President Rousseff’s efforts to appease the protesters and the use of quotes demonstrating her support for the riots is a stark contrast to The Rio Times’ coverage of the political response for the protests. However The New York Times’ efforts to portray Rousseff in a positive light could be a matter of editorial policy as much as a tenet of the protest paradigm. While editorial policy might follow the protest paradigm in this case, it is worth noting that an editorial policy to portray leaders in a certain light is not an explicit adherence to the protest paradigm. This type of positive framing might occur in a variety of news articles, not just during protest coverage. Its occurrence during the coverage does still have the potential to impact readers’ attitudes and perceptions of the Brazilian protests. However, the support for the status quo was contrasted with efforts to clearly explain the issues of the Brazilian protesters and the reasons for their unrest – which served to legitimize rather than delegitimize their cause. The numerous quotes from the protesters themselves served to humanize the descriptions of the protests and reinforce the legitimacy of the movement. The subtle references to violence and rioting are quite different from the explicit details of damage and arrests that were prominently featured in the coverage of
The Rio Times. Overall, the coverage by The New York Times straddled the line between traditional protest coverage norms and reporting that gave readers a clear picture of the social and political situation in Brazil.
The coverage of the protests by The Rio Times offers repeated demonizing descriptions of the protesters, but the overall tone of the articles was not to delegitimize the movement or the motives of the protesters. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of the articles in The Rio Times offer a description of the damages caused by the protests and a detailed explanation of the grievances that spurred the protests. Compared to The New York Times, coverage by this newspaper includes very few mentions of the actions taken by President Rousseff to appease the protestors, and only one article features quotes from the president supporting the protests. While the articles acknowledge the reduction of the transportation fares, none of the articles from The Rio Times make note of supposed legislative efforts of the president to use oil subsidies for education and health care. Quotes from protesters themselves also demonstrate support for the movement, as did the virtual calls to the streets featured in the articles that utilized social media hashtags or posted locations and times for pending protests. The framing used by The Rio Times is overwhelmingly pro-protest rather than pro-government.
In sum, the coverage of the Brazilian protests by The New York Times and The Rio Times did not demonstrate explicit adherence to the tenets of the protest paradigm. Stories in both newspapers contextualize the actions of the protesters by including pertinent information about the social issue that spurred the demonstrations – an important inclusion that serves to lessen the impact of any demonization tactics included in the stories.
While the stories written for The Rio Times did use demonization tactics (defined simply as providing detailed descriptions of damage or disorder created by the protesters), the demonization tactics were not accompanied by attempts to delegitimize the movement. Instead, The Rio Times explains in detail the grievances of the protesters and uses protester testimonies as supporting evidence in the stories. In direct defiance of the protest paradigm, The Rio Times does not rely on official statements from members of the government when crafting their stories. By relying on quotes from the protesters themselves rather than on official press releases or scripted quotes from public figures, The Rio Times frames the issue as a social cause to be supported rather than as a public nuisance to be stifled or controlled. While the stories in The New York Times do not use strong demonization tactics, they show strong support for the status quo by repeated highlighting of the president’s efforts to appease the protesters. Though this is contrasted by detailed explanations of the reasons for protests, it does lend a pro-governmental frame to the coverage.
The study of the coverage tactics and habits of the news media in covering protests and social movements is of great importance. In today’s world, constantly shifting political climates means more protests are likely to occur. If journalists and news organizations do not seek to clearly articulate the claims and grievances of the protesters, they are effectively censoring the public discourse through selective framing. As protests are a legitimate form of democratic participation, audiences deserve the opportunity to hear the protester’s claims and make their own judgments based on the available information. News organizations must be careful of the unintended effects of their reporting norms – efforts to entertain audiences, efficiently package a large amount of data, and standardize the collection and distribution of materials must not come at the cost of providing audiences with the information they need to make informed decisions and conclusions.
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- While the New York Times does not have the largest circulation of newspapers serving the United States, the paper with the largest circulation, The Wall Street Journal, places special emphasis on business and economic news. Thus, The New York Times was deemed the most appropriate selection for this study. ↩
- R$ is the currency symbol for the Brazilian Real. A Brazilian Real is equal to approximately $33. ↩