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The uprising on Capitol Hill challenged the way the US media portrayed the riots
Vandalized media equipment in front of the Capitol. Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via . What happened on January 6 at the United States Capitol was out of the ordinary. The same happened with the coverage of that event. The images broadcast live by the news and the videos and photos shared on social networks were impressive. One image showed one of the individuals who had stormed the building sitting in a chair, with his feet on the desk, in the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. A video clip showed a crowd chasing a police officer as he ran up the stairs. As a researcher for the media and social movements, I was engrossed in watching the violent events that unfolded. My research on protests shows that the way the media portrays demonstrations – for example, as riots or acts of resistance – helps shape the public’s view of the objectives of the protest. Generally, news coverage pays more attention to the disruptive strategies of protesters than to their objectives, especially when it comes to protests against the racism suffered by the African American population or actions that radically challenge the status quo. By focusing on the unrest, without reporting on the content or the agendas and objectives of the protest, the coverage contributes to a “hierarchy of social struggle” in which the voices of some influential groups are raised above others. Trump supporters make their way to the Capitol. Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via . However, Wednesday’s events were different. News audiences are not used to seeing violence in citizen demonstrations in support of a president, and less of the magnitude we witness on Capitol Hill. This became a novel test for the media regarding how they present the mobilizations and the objectives that cause them. Riot or resistance? The mainstream media has come under strong criticism for its coverage of civil rights protests, especially recently after George Floyd’s death. A study of demonstrations between 1967 and 2007 found that protests were often framed as disruptions, especially when those protesting were ideologically liberal. But conservative protests were less likely to be viewed as disruptions. My research has shown that protests against racism tend to be labeled “riots” more than other demonstrations. However, much of the coverage of the events on Capitol Hill removed euphemistic labels such as “protests,” “rallies,” and “demonstrations” when describing what was happening. Instead, the media labeled the event as a “siege” or “insurrection” carried out by a “crowd.” It is also notable that at least one major network, CNN, described the event as “terrorism,” a term more common when describing Muslims and people of color than white supremacists. No tanks needed? In my work, I suggest to journalists that they complement the attention they pay to the actions of the protesters with the reasons and complaints that have led them to the streets; and that they reflect it in their information. These reports generally focus on actions, especially when they involve violence or property damage or when there are clashes with the police. Despite the escalation of events, from protest to insurrection, initial coverage on December 6 appeared to include the grievances of participants. The coverage also focused on police behavior, but seemed more concerned about the lack of surveillance. Police did not show up in riot gear or brandishing batons as Trump supporters walked up the steps of the Capitol. There were no tanks or large-caliber rifles when the protesters arrived. This was also different from other protests. Many have commented on social media that if this had been a protest by the Black Lives Matter movement, the result would have been different. The suspicion is that the authorities treat Trump-sponsored insurrections differently. Some media, such as USAToday, made this different treatment clear in their reports. And this is not a typical narrative in protest news coverage in the mass media. Even Fox News’ initial news coverage seemed largely in line with the framing of other news outlets, until late at night, when “Tucker Carlson Tonight” commentary changed the network’s narrative. Carlson’s monologue Wednesday night half-covered the siege, but first asked the audience to consider why people like Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot to death during the Capitol capture, attended the rally. In detailing his tragic death, Tucker said: “He was nothing like the angry children we’ve seen tearing our cities apart in recent months.” Carlson used this idea to direct his criticism of liberal leaders and the results of the elections. Some may dismiss Carlson’s comments as irrelevant and radical. However, his way of framing the facts gives an idea of how the right-wing media have tried to portray certain protests in recent years and the consequences of that action. My Michigan State University colleague Rachel Mourão and I have used survey data from 2015 and 2016 to explore media attitudes about the protests in general and those organized by Black Lives Matter specifically. The results show that the increased consumption of news from right-wing organizations such as Fox and Breitbart did not really affect people’s opinion of the protests in general. But it did strongly correlate with negative views on some of the complaints and lawsuits related to Black Lives Matter. Alert call More evidence is found in other popular right-wing media. His approach to events in no way highlights the violent actions of the riots carried out by the angry crowd on Capitol Hill. Less than 24 hours after the siege, the homepage of the right-wing One America News Network (OAN) website was devoid of images of protests. Meanwhile, Breitbart had a portrait of Mark Zuckerberg smiling with the Capitol in the background. That article described how Facebook had “blacklisted” Trump after the “events” on Capitol Hill. Right-wing media not only distort the realities of the insurrection, but undermine and erase the impact of such undemocratic actions. If you don’t see it, you don’t think about it. Quite different was what was observed on the websites of mass media such as ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN, as well as on the front pages of newspapers – both online and in print – across the country. Scenes of riots. cnn.com. cnn.com In recent months, some news outlets have pledged to address shortcomings in coverage, including the way reporters cover protests. If the riots that followed George Floyd’s murder triggered a very welcome questioning of the media, then the uprising on Capitol Hill could be the event that helps the media better understand why the focus of this news is important. Article translated by Emilia Guzmán for Ciper Chile This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original. Danielle K. Kilgo does not receive a salary, nor does she work as a consultant, nor does she own shares, nor does she receive funding from any company or organization that can benefit from this article, and she has declared no relevant links beyond the academic position cited.