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On Journalism AND PROTEST

Journalism as a profession is one that has always come with an ethical responsibility. It is an aspect inherent to the journalist’s role as a cultural narrative shaper, and yet one that has seen itself drastically transformed with recent technological developments. Although these ethics are a recurring subject, they are also one that is particularly put to the test in the face of extreme developing stories or circumstances. One such circumstance, and additionally one that we have seen drastically increase in frequency during the pandemic, is the coverage that news outlets and the media in general provide of social movements, and of protests. Protests are often about creating visibility or demanding change, and as such, having journalists on their side, or actively against their mission, can be reason enough for a movement’s success or failure.

There are a number of factors that come into play when one tries to understand the media’s role and responsibility in the face of demonstrations, violent or otherwise. A first one is what role the media has in maintaining hegemony and in shaping power, and to what extent its picking a side will affect wider citizen approval of a movement. In addition to this it is also worth noting political economy and how ownership of different outlets affects their coverage. And this raises the question of how social media and citizen journalism may alter that dynamic and shift the existing narratives about a movement’s cause as well as of what takes place on the streets. Over the past couple of years there here have been numerous examples of this, with recent instances of political unrest gaining steam in Latin America and social movements like the Black Lives Matter initiative originating in the United States. The scenario is a different one in each geographical location and in relation to each social cause, and yet there is a shared basis in the power the news may have and, in the responsibility, and standards organizations should be held to going forward.


To start off, it is worth laying out the media’s relation to hegemony. “Successful hegemonic projects create a social imaginary, or a horizon of taken-for-grantedness, that is very difficult to overcome. For instance, in cases of war, … moving beyond the limits of the then acceptable can become rather hazardous for journalistic careers,” states Chantal Mouffe in an interview (Carpentier & Cammaerts, 2006, p. 966). If the hegemony that Mouffe addresses is so hard to challenge, it becomes important then to understand how these projects are initially constructed and then reinforced. Although Mouffe poses cultural production in general as responsible for the furthering of hegemony, journalism and the media are a key part of that. “The media are playing an important role in the maintenance and production of hegemony, but it is something that can be challenged,” she adds shortly after. (Carpentier & Cammaerts, 2006, p. 967). The way in which conversations are initiated and what is highlighted is key in shaping public approval or repudiation, which explains why a government in control of the media can be so dangerous. Although news on their own won’t necessarily affect policy or enact tangible changes, it is through the mobilization they provoke that systems of power can either be questioned or understood as the normal. “Relations of communication are always, inseparably, power relations which, in form and content, depend on the material or symbolic power accumulated by the agents (or institutions) involved in these relations,” writes Pierre Bourdieu (1990 , p. 167). And journalism is one of the channels through which this symbolic power is accumulated. As such, the importance of a journalist’s responsibility in picking a side and in covering events cannot be overstated.

In terms of concrete examples, this was more than evident when looking at recent social unrest in Latin America, which took place both during the Covid pandemic and in the months leading up to it. Taking specifically the case of protests in Colombia in May 2021, when comparing local coverage with international coverage of demonstrations the results varied widely, as was the case when comparing independently funded publication’s coverage with that of larger established newspapers. While during the protests, headlines in established local newspapers highlighted vandalism and disorder (An injured police officer and 16 CAI stations attacked in Bogotá, Trasmilenio service halted published El Tiempo on May 4th), international organizations like The New York Times (Colombia Protests: Police Force, Built for War, Finds a New One was titled a piece published ten days later) or The Guardian (Colombia braces for further unrest after police react violently to mass protests, they published that same month), painted a picture of abuses of power and police-violence on the state’s part. Additionally, smaller local independently funded organizations like Cerosetenta went on to carry out a thorough recount of instances of citizen-reported abuses, and took advantage of international collaboration, with Forensic Architecture, an agency based in Goldsmiths University for example, to do so. As in any instance of disarray, there is also a point to be made for smaller independent organizations jumping to the other extreme without the necessary fact checking but the political binary seemed to hold true. The scenario is an interesting one, however, because it encapsulates the ethical issue under discussion very clearly. For one, following international coverage and the involvement of international agencies, the Colombian government did take back some of the measures that initiated the mobilizations. But perhaps more relevant is how the use of social media brought the discussion and coverage to an all-encompassing field in which discussions were started that hadn’t been previously held, which allowed international players to get involved in the first place. “Part of what social media does is allow us to see a reality that has been entirely visible to some people and invisible to others,” Professor Omar Wasow posed for the New York Times (Ovide, 2020), which illustrates the issue.


Going further, there is an inherent quality to social protest, some scholars argue, that puts it at odds with the media from the get go. “The institutional logics of the mainstream media do not favour social movements, and only the most appealing or noteworthy featured of a movement are likely to result in news coverage,” write Daniel Kilgo and Summer Harlow (2019, p. 509). And if that holds true, then the ethical element for the media becomes not only one to do with reporting, but one of counterbalancing its engrained forms of operation in favour of a wider encompassing reading of the situation, both in cases of violent outbursts and of peaceful demonstration. “Coverage gravitates towards individuals exhibiting the most extreme appearance and behaviours. In the process, protesters are often characterized as being more ‘deviant’ from the mainstream than they really are,” state Douglas Mcleod and James Hertog (1992, p. 260), which suggests some of the media notions in need of offsetting. In the above sense there is a point to be made for citizen journalism and for the independent media as a push in the correct direction, even if the former would still need to be properly compiled and structured, and the latter officialised and presented to a broader audience.


Additionally, Kilgo and Harlow point out that the way in which demonstrations are framed either legitimizes or delegitimizes a movement’s cause, and they go on to list four specific frameworks: “The riot (violent, deviant disruptive behaviour), confrontation (conflict with authorities, police, and opposition), and spectacle frames (sensational, dramatic and individualistic narratives),” all three of which hurt a movement’s societal perception, and the debate frame which “discusses the agendas or demands of the protest,” (2019, p. 512) which would benefit that perception. Most demonstrations can be framed by any of these, and whichever a newspaper decides to construct its coverage by, will have lasting effects on a movement and its ideas acceptance by society. The El Tiempo coverage brought up previously, engaged with the riot frame, for example, while international coverage concentrated on police brutality, one of the issues under the strike’s banner which would fit under the last, more movement-friendly framework. However, far from only a journalist’s preference for extreme subjects and the frames that are selected, preconditions are combined with numerous other complicating factors as are media ownership or a publication’s editorial line.


The Black Lives Matter protests in the US, only a year earlier, are a slightly different scenario to the one observed during the Latin America case. Following the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a police officer, and ensuing social unrest, the way in which marches were covered by the media was adversarial, as was the case in Latin America. But instead, the divide was one between different established institutions in the same country, even if the online conversation often landed on extremes. “Facing Protests Over Use of Force, Police Respond With More Force,” reads a New York Times headline printed June 2, 2020. While a Fox News article published the very next day titles its version “Rioting, looting linked to George Floyd protests leaves trail of destruction across American cities.” The disjoint in the narrative each outlet decides to pursue, and in how they frame events for their readers, is self-evident. And this idea of framing, is key, as it will most likely set the terms under which the conversation is held, even in private spaces, going forward.


The question of media responsibility comes to the forefront, but additionally both approaches can be compared against Mouffe and Bourdieu’s understanding of communication relations as power relations, either maintaining or challenging an existing hegemony, as much as both institutions are established privately funded media organizations. Both headlines, and the ones that followed in the coming days, don’t exist in a vacuum. They are instead part of a grander narrative that each organization has associated themselves with, both in relation to the protests, and in catering to their audience and larger political visions. The above exchange also brings into the conversation an idea that has become a sort of buzzword for the Internet age, which are filter bubbles. As ambiguous as a claim of absolute separation between media ecosystems may be, the news is increasingly being produced from two extremes, and connecting with the audience that most aligns with its proposed narrative. Which is particularly relevant when it comes to a heated topic as that of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “Identity drives media,” writes Peter Dahlgren, “but the personalizers haven’t fully grappled with a parallel fact: Media also shapes identity” The media could therefore become “a perfect reflection of our interests and desires,” (2021, p. 19). It is a key notion to hold in mind taking into account that social movements depend so dramatically on an audience identifying with their cause.


However when it comes to the ethics, its not only an issue then of agonism and of media divide, but rather one of whether that extreme divide, which also may come with a multiplicity of opinions, is actively harming our societies, or if in fact it could be a necessary ingredient for democratic interchange. “Identities - lacking any essence – are formed through political struggles, generating processes of othering (or the creation of a frontier between the self and the other),” write Carpentier & Cammaerts (2006, p. 967), suggesting a view of antagonism as helping define our societies rather than necessarily harming them. But there are also many who are quick to point at that same polarization as a hurdle for democracy. “The press used to be like a lapdog, failing to criticize those in power when criticism was warranted. Their role should be that of a watchdog, alert to the malfeasance when it rears its head. Now however the press is an attack dog,” quotes Deborah Tannen (2013, p. 181). And although her comment is aimed at the press’ relationship to government agents and power, the question can also be posed at the very same demonstrations previously mentioned. It’s a given that journalism, as a base, should stick to facts, but outside of that, when covering a developing situation like the George Floyd inspired marches, what should it and shouldn’t do? And what would the consequences of either path of action be for a country’s political situation? Perhaps at this instance The New York Times coverage comes through as more principled in that it supports a social cause, through detailed reporting and refuses to side with power or necessarily be driven by the extremes that inevitably arise in a space of mobilization. And yet its an issue of whether the extreme counterpoint provided by Fox News, or milder right-leaning institutions, still sparks a conversation by providing a counterbalance and making the cause visible, or whether it radicalizes its audience further away from dialogue and the centre.


However, its not only an issue of what a publication’s coverage entails, but also of what the elements impeding an objective positive relationship between protestors and the media are. In that line, an element that came up again and again in the Colombian scenario has to do with political economy, and more precisely with media ownership or funding. “(Political economists) believe the media system is the result of policies made in the public’s name but often without the public’s informed consent. They believe the nature of the media systems established by these policies goes a long way toward explaining the content produced by these media systems,” writes Robert McChesney (2008, p. 12). As mentioned above, the divide in how coverage was approached could not only be found between local and international reporting but also in how the situation was approached from an independent outlet standpoint in comparison to how established, more traditional newspapers wrote about it. As McChesney points out, their coverage cannot be separated from the policies and backing that made them so. During the protests, organizations like El Tiempo, owned by Luis Carlos Sarmiento (the country’s richest businessman) or the more right-leaning Revista Semana, recently acquired by the Gilinski group, who reportedly bowed to make it the Colombian Fox news, were quick to engage with anti-protest frames and highlight damages caused by protestors. While it was smaller independently funded outlets like Cerosetenta (An Andes university project), or Pacifista (a VICE Colombia initiative), that don’t respond directly to national power players, who centred their reporting on police brutality and on the movement’s objectives.


Which brings up another point without which such organizations would never have been able to provide the voices of resistance to the established media’s narrative that they were able to during the Colombian strike, and that is social media. Although the news media has always held a responsibility in the face of protest, and the ethical challenge is one that remains, developments like the web have increased both the ways in which it can be held accountable and the tools at its disposal in addressing the situation. For one it allows for new voices without an established platform to be part of the conversation, as happened in Colombia with smaller independent outlets, but it also provides the possibility of citizen-journalism. The Black Lives Matter movement which led to symbolic mobilizations in cities all around the globe would have never had the impact it did without the citizen coverage it got on platforms like Twitter or Facebook. As Nick Couldry points out, “The digital media environment is one in which all of us have ethical responsibilities, and necessarily so, since with our computers, mobile phones and digital cameras, we are all in principle now able to ‘input’ the media process” (2012, p. 92r).


In tracking instances of abuse throughout the protests, the Colombian NGO Temblores, for example, set up a platform (under the name Grita, or Shout) for users to report on any that they witnessed, accompanying it with a location, and with time-stamped video evidence. It is an operation not unlike the one that arose throughout the George Floyd demonstrations, with information being reported through social media by citizens themselves, using hashtags as a form of compiling video evidence and coverage. As such, the traditional media’s role became not only to inform, but also to sort through, and fact check, these submissions, building them into a coherent timeline of what was really taking place. “The way in which information becomes news and resonates among users does not depend on the power to monopolize and control distribution channels here. It depends on the ability to push information through the network by persuading other users to share, like, remix and annotate data,” write Todd Graham and Marcel Broersma (2015, p 101) in addressing this new internet age, and that’s a dynamic that will likely continue to grow as media outlets engage with events developing in real time. It’s a development both in journalism’s benefit, due to the immediacy of information, and with added risks, like the possibility of misreporting.


Nonetheless, given the challenges of reporting on a situation that is not only heated and impassioned, but also one that may be taking place simultaneously in many different locations, what remains is then the question of what we can demand from, or hope for from our news media. For one it seems inevitable that news organizations must find a way to engage and implement online citizen participation, which may in turn benefit their coverage. But additionally, transparency about their ownership, and public awareness of their political biases would make it easier to understand what frames are being adopted and what the reasoning behind them may be, even if such information comes from third-party NGOs. This would in turn allow for the strengthening and legitimizing of independently funded initiatives. However, even if there are steps to be taken in making journalism more objective and transparent, the question of ethics remains. In covering protests, there may be ways to make journalism more virtuous, and yet the clash that arises from different framing by different papers may also be a positive addition to the media landscape, as long as reporting on all sides remains grounded in facts. The bottom line is that social movements are pushes with outcomes that depend wildly on public perception and that the media plays a main role in crafting such perception. As such, any reporting undertaken in the field must be consciously directed by those who report it, and then well scrutinized by its readers.






-Couldry, N. (2012) Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice, 92j-12, ISBN: 9780745639215

-Dahlgren, P. M. (2021). A critical review of filter bubbles and a comparison with selective exposure. Nordicom Review, 42(1), 15–33.

-Tannen, D. (2013) The Argument Culture: Agonism & the Common Good, Daedalus, Vol 142, 177-184, Available at

-Kilgo, K., Harlow, S. (2019) Protests, Media
Coverage, and a Hierarchy of Social Struggle The International Journal of Press/Politics Vol 24(4), 508-530, httpDs:O//dIo: i1.o0r.g1/107.171/1779/41094106162112919885533517

-Mcleod, D., Hertog, J. (1992) The manufacture of ‘public opinon’ by reporterds: informal cues for public perceptions of protest groups, Discourse and Society, Vol 3(3), 259-275

-Bourdieu, P. (1990) Language and symbolic power the economy of linguistic exchanges, On Symbolic Power (163-170) Available at

-Carpentier, N., Cammaerts, B. (2006) HEGEMONY, DEMOCRACY, AGONISM AND JOURNALISM, Journalism Studies, 7:6, 964-975, DOI: 10.1080/14616700600980728

-Broersma, M., Graham, T. (2015) Tipping the Balance of Power: Social Media and the Transformation of Political Journalism, The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics, 89-103, DOI: 10.4324/9781315716299-7

-Ovide, S. (2020) How Social Media Has Changed Civil Rights Protests, available at

-Estarque, M. (2021) How Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture Teamed Up with Colombia’s Cerosetenta to Map Police Violence, avaialable at

-(2021) Un policía herido y 16 CAI atacados en Bogotá; TransMilenio paró, avaialable at

-Turkewitz, J., Villamil, S. (2021) Colombia Protests: Police Force, Built for War, Finds a New One, available at

-Daniels, J. (2021) Colombia braces for further unrest after police react violently to mass protests, available at

-Norman, G. (2020) Rioting, looting linked to George Floyd protests leaves trail of destruction across American cities, available at

-Dewan, S., Baker, M. (2020) Facing Protests Over Use of Force, Police Respond With More Force, available at

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