Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 3, Page 8
Spring 1994
On Research
Social protestors also face bias from media

     Reporters covering social protesters often display a systematic
pattern of bias, according to Douglas M. McLeod, assistant professor
of communication.
     By portraying protesters as deviants, McLeod says, the media may
unfairly prejudice their audience against the issues and ideas raised
by the protesters. "Small differences in how news stories are reported
often make significant differences in how the public views protest
groups," McLeod says, noting that, in this way, the media are both
reporting and manufacturing public opinion.
     McLeod, in collaboration with James Hertog of the University of
Kentucky, studied media coverage of protests by anarchy groups in
Minneapolis-St. Paul from 1986-1988. Three major protests were held in
this period, with one involving picketing of the Pillsbury Co., owner
of Burger King restaurants. Protesters accused the company of buying
inexpensive beef from Brazil, which, in turn, was destroying
rainforests to provide pastureland.
     For his study, McLeod documented coverage in such mainstream
newspapers as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer
Press Dispatch, in alternative publications such as Overthrow and
Fifth Estate and on television by the local network affiliates.
     One of the more common ways that the media delegitimates dissent
is by using public opinion to comment on protest groups, McLeod says.
These comments are often used to identify protest groups as beyond
consideration and, thereby, to trivialize their issues. McLeod says
the media also treat the failure of protest groups to create
fundamental policy change as further evidence of their deviance and
the futility of their efforts.
     To test the effect of media coverage of protest activity on
public attitudes, McLeod asked two groups of University of Delaware
students to watch two television stations' coverage of the same
protest. "One version supported the police crackdown on the protesters
and did not discuss the reasons behind the protest, and the other
allowed the protesters to articulate their viewpoint a little bit,"
McLeod said. "Afterward, we asked the students what they thought of
the protesters, of the police officers and of the issues involved. It
made a big difference in their opinion depending on which version of
the news story they saw."
     Some ways the media criticize protest groups include making
broad, blanket generalizations about public opinion toward the
protesters and their issues without the support of poll research,
commenting on the protest group's philosophical or social departure
from the mainstream, focusing on the physical appearance of protesters
and having police and bystanders comment on the protest group.
     In many protest stories, reporters ask police or law enforcement
officials to make legalistic comments on the protest group, and
bystanders are presented as representative of public opinion. A built-
in bias against the protesters is latent in both these groups, as law
enforcement officials and bystanders at the scene are not likely to
sympathize with the protest group. Bystanders sympathetic to the
protesters are often considered part of the protest, McLeod says.
     McLeod's next step is to explore further the effects of news
content to determine to what extent it stimulates or represses
political activity.
                                  -Michael W. Hail, Delaware '95 Ph.D.