Images of violence are streaming across our televisions and social media feeds.
From the state violence inflicted upon George Floyd by a white police officer, to the protest violence of fires, looting, and police firing rubber bullets at protesters, these images frame our understanding of this moment.
Journalists have tremendous power in shaping public opinion of protest. Through words, images, and stories, journalists influence how audiences perceive issues, people, and places. In addition, and just as importantly, news organizations are under market pressures to produce content that will be read, viewed, and shared.
There is a deep connection between the market orientation of our current media ecosystems, the frames journalists use to report on these events, and the drive for spectacle and violence.
In 2017, we examined CNN and Democracy Now!’s coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota, to understand how the market orientation of two news organizations influenced the production and distribution of their protest coverage.
Market orientation, essentially, measures how closely organizations follow market principles. Researchers have argued that all organizations are market oriented to some extent, since they require attention and economic capital to survive. Market orientation is not an either/or proposition–it is a continuum that spans from weak to strong.
CNN is a strongly-market oriented newsroom that relies on advertising and cable subscriptions. Democracy Now! is a weakly-market oriented newsroom that relies solely on contributions from listeners, viewers, and foundations, which allows it to maintain more editorial independence.
When Democracy Now!’s Facebook video of police pepper spraying and unleashing dogs on protesters went viral, the demonstrations at Standing Rock became a prominent news story. Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, also became part of the story when she was arrested for her work as a journalist.
Although both CNN and Democracy Now! framed Standing Rock primarily through the lens of conflict and violence, how this was done differed in two key ways: (1) the voices each news organization relied upon, and (2) the time each news organization devoted to the story.
CNN relied heavily on experts more than any other type of source. CNN favored police officers, private security officers at Standing Rock, and government officials that visited the site in its coverage. When CNN did include activist voices in its coverage, they were celebrities, including Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, and Shailene Woodley.
Democracy Now!, on the other hand, states that its mission is to provide a platform for a diversity of voices in the media. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the network relied, primarily, on community members, stakeholders, and activists in its coverage at Standing Rock.
Because governmental and public officials may view Democracy Now!’s journalism as agitational, the network sacrifices an insider relationship with official sources, such as law enforcement and politicians.
Goodman appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with Brian Stelter to discuss her network’s coverage. Stelter asked her if Democracy Now! “takes the point of view of the protesters [and] tries to be with the protectors.”
“What we do is what all media should do,” she said. We are on the ground giving voice to the voiceless, and so rarely are those voices heard.”
As important as which voices journalists feature in their reporting, news organizations’ values are implicitly revealed in the time they spend on a story.
From September to December 2016, CNN devoted a mere 62 minutes to the protests at Standing Rock across all platforms, while Democracy Now! aired 459 minutes of coverage.
CNN’s online multimedia stories about Standing Rock read like traditional wire copy. CNN, due to its market orientation and access to significant newsgathering resources, did have a wider range of video from the scene at Standing Rock than Democracy Now! had. For example, CNN used helicopters and drones to give viewers a more complete view of the scene. It also provided on-air info graphics that provided much-needed context.
Democracy Now! offered considerable breadth to its coverage but, unfortunately due to its narrative style, it did not offer significant depth. Democracy Now! often aired lengthy, unedited interviews with environmental activists and members of various Native American tribes.
Although these segments offered historical perspectives about U.S. colonialism and state violence against Indigenous peoples, Democracy Now!’s coverage suffered from a lack of technical and editorial resources as an independent media outlet.
Although these longform interviews added context to Democracy Now!’s coverage, the network often reinforced violence and conflict by looping its video of dogs attacking protesters over the interviews. This sensationalized the demonstrations and reinforced Goodman’s role in the story.
After video of the dogs attacking protesters went viral on social media and was covered by other media outlets, Democracy Now! became part of the story, highlighting all media organizations’ drive for circulation and spectacle.
In our research on the coverage at Standing Rock, we found that a weakly market-oriented news organization, Democracy Now!, advocated on behalf of activists, and a strongly market-oriented news organization, CNN, remained neutral and, in turn, implicitly advocated for politicians and people in positions of power.
Journalists must be self-aware about the sources that they include in their stories, and recognize that news is never neutral. The values of journalists and news organizations are made visible by the frames journalists use, the sources journalists feature in their stories, and the time they devote to certain issues.
Furthermore, the journalism ecosystem is no longer the one-dimensional, non-diverse one from two or three decades ago. It is populated by numerous market models and news organizations funded in a variety of manners.
As global protests against police violence enter their fourth week and fade from view, journalists and the public must examine how the market incentives embedded in our media systems shape the stories that we see.
Gino Canella is an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College. He produces documentary films in collaboration with community groups and researches activist media, social movements, and journalism.
Patrick Ferrucci is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research focuses on how shifting notions of ‘organization’ in journalism are influencing journalistic practices.