Winning Proposal to the Converse-Miller Scholar's Fund: 2017 Competition

Project Title: Riots or Rallies? The Impact of Race on News Coverage of Protest Events

Faculty Sponsor: Mara Ostfeld

Graduate Student: Steven Moore

Project Description

The literature on protest movements in the U.S. has broadly focused on the way that these movements have been able to overcome collective action problems and to meet their goals. This involves examining the conditions that lead up to a protest and the way that protest impacts the behavior of both citizens and elites (Tilly, 1978; McAdam D, Su Y. 2002; Gillion, 2012; Wasow, 2016). However, there is a missing link in this process. Protest movements must be seen and heard to change minds. Though demonstrations are strategically placed in locations that might draw attention, obviously the impact is not limited to those in the immediate vicinity. Actions are covered in the news media and this provides the protest activity a much wider audience of people whose minds can be changed. In short, accounts of the success or failure of protest have failed to account for a very important mediator, how the news media covers protest. To better understand these accounts, it’s necessary to better understand the way that the news media covers protests, and specifically whether there is variation based on the race and racial aims of the protestors.

A number of scholars who’ve taken a critical look at media coverage by race have found that negative stereotypes about African Americans are often exacerbated by these media sources. Particularly, blacks seem to be overrepresented as criminals and welfare recipients, and each of these findings has been demonstrated to have a causal effect on public opinion through experimental work (Gilliam & Iyengar 2000, Gilens, 1999). There is substantial reason to believe that similarly consequential differences may emerge in coverage of protests by the race of the protestors. Vesla Weaver’s frontlash thesis claims that racial conservatives, once their defeat on the issue of civil rights was imminent, changed the scope of the conflict (Weaver, 2007). She suggests that these elites refocused their efforts to retain the status quo by linking the civil rights movement and black political activism in general with the many racially motivated violent civil disturbances of the 1960’s (Weaver, 2007). Weaver claims that starting in the early 1960’s Southern legislators began to try to tie legitimate protest action in their states to crime, explicitly arguing that civil disobedience would lead to selective adherence to authority (Weaver, 2007). There is a litany of work form social psychology demonstrating that implicit and explicit association of African Americans and criminality is quite common (Greenwald, Oakes, & Hoffman, 2003; Payne, 2001). Important research from Davenport, Soule, and Armstrong seems to confirm that this bias can be found in response to protest by demonstrating that there is a differential response from the state based on the race of protestors. They find that police were more likely to be present at black protests from 1960-1990, though the difference varied over time (Davenport, Soule & Armstrong, 2011).