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Research: Media should humanise, legitimise protest stories for maximum impact

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA

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Protest coverage can often be harmful to underrepresented groups, which casts both the protesters and their causes in a negative light. To help journalists frame stories in ways that do not marginalise these groups, the Center for Media Engagement tested several approaches to protest coverage.

The results showed stories that humanise — rather than criminalise — the person whose death sparked a protest can lead people to have more positive attitudes toward the person, the protest itself, and the protesters. Additionally, stories that legitimise the protest itself can result in more positive attitudes toward the protest and the protesters.

Protest stories should focus on the purpose of the demonstration.
Protest stories should focus on the purpose of the demonstration.

Study findings

Set-up: The study focused on two story areas that are often problematic when covering protests: whether the person whose death spurred the protest was humanised or criminalised, and whether the protest itself was legitimised or delegitimised.

Participants in the study viewed a news story about a protest that stemmed either from the death of a Black teenager shot by police or from the death of a Latin American immigrant teenager who died in a migrant detention center. These two topics were chosen because, historically, protests challenging racism and colonialisation have received the type of coverage that marginalises or delegitimises protesters and their causes.

The story either legitimised or delegitimised the protest and either humanised or criminalised the teenager whose death spurred the protest. Multiple parts of the story were changed to reflect the different types of stories for each topic.

Results: Stories that humanised the teenager whose death sparked the protest led people to have more positive attitudes toward the teenager, the protest itself, and the protesters. Humanising stories also led Democrats and those with Democrat-leaning views to perceive the news story as more credible. Republicans and those with Republican-leaning views perceived the humanising story as less credible.

Stories that legitimised the protest resulted in more positive attitudes toward the protest and the protesters. Legitimising stories had no effect on attitudes toward the teenager in the story or on perceptions of the story’s credibility.

What newsrooms can do

Humanise the story: Reporters can share personal information about the person who is the focus of the protest to help humanise a story. These details can include writing about the person’s personality, hobbies, and family to give a fuller picture of their life.

Sharing information about the circumstances that led to the protest can also give some much-needed context to the story. These details, rather than information about the person’s criminal past or speculation about possible criminal activity, should be the focus of the story.

Legitimise the story: Instead of emphasising disruptions, stories should focus on the purpose of the demonstration. Reporters can include motivations for the protest, the changes that protesters are calling for, and background information on the broader movement and relevant past events. If the actions of protesters are covered, peaceful and non-radical demonstrations should be acknowledged, especially if damages and violence resulting from the protest are being discussed.

Takeaways

Protest stories, especially those that involve underrepresented groups, should focus on the purpose of the demonstration and share details that help humanise the person at the center of the protest. This approach may help people better understand the reason for the protest as well as give a more complete picture of the person at the centre of the protest.

In some cases, taking a humanising approach can also boost perceptions that the news story is credible. While this may backfire with some audiences, the benefits of telling stories in humanising and legitimising ways outweigh the drawbacks.

Journalists interested in reading more about bridging divides can also visit our page dedicated to journalist resources on this issue.

About Katalina Deaven

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