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.