How new media helps old media better report protests

with 3 comments

I’ll be appearing on Radio 4′s iPM programme on Saturday evening discussing some of the challenges for mainstream media of covering protests.

How can mainstream media cover the G20 protests fairly when:
- the authorities have been talking up the likelihood of violence for weeks leading up to the protests?
- some protesters having been talking up how disruptive they would be prior to the protests?
- the protests are about many many different (sometimes contradictory) issues, some with widespread public support, some with very little?

It ain’t easy.

The media (mainstream media in particular) often get blamed for covering protest badly – for over-emphasising the violent or outrageous, for under-emphasising the peaceful and pictorially dull, for over-emphasising the protests and for under-emphasising the politics… But that’s because covering protests from many different angles is tricky. I was at Bank station at lunchtime on Wednesday (where the main protest was) but could only tell you what was happening at the corner of Prince’s Street, not what was happening a hundred yards away on Threadneedle Street (where people were breaking into RBS).

If a bunch of self-professed anarchists break into a bank in broad daylight and start throwing computers out the window, would you cover it? Wouldn’t it be remiss of the media not to show this happening?

If the police have been telling media organisations there is a significant threat of violence and that workers may well be in danger of being lynched shouldn’t the media report that too?

At the same time, of course, the media has to put the violence in context (i.e. was it widespread and did it characterise the protests?) and exercise scepticism about police reports.

Given all this, there were alot of good things about some of the news reporting this week:
- The use of twitter, by journalists and others, made it possible to get multiple perspectives from people on location. From journalists in the crowd at Bank (Paul Lewis was fascinating at giving the impression of how the mood changed at Bank during the afternoon), from protestors, from bankers, though not – as far as I could see – from the police. The Guardian, The Times, Sky and the BBC were all tweeting around the city.
- Recognition, by some, that the violence was limited, and much much less than predicted. Funnily enough it was the city freesheet, City AM, that reported on its front page on Thursday that the financial centre ‘breathed a sigh of relief’ that things were not nearly as bad as expected
- The widespread use of a photo that, consciously or unconsciously, actually indicated how isolated the violence was in the bigger scheme of the protest. The photo, of a man smashing a window at Royal Bank of Scotland on Threadneedle Street showed not just the protester but the 40+ photographers surrounding him

There was also, of course, some poor coverage:
- Headlines like ‘Protesters ransack RBS office as thousands of anti-capitalists go on rampage in the City’ and ‘London G20 protests descend into violence’ were just inaccurate. There weren’t thousands of anti-capitalists on the rampage, and the vast majority of protesters were peaceful
- The press seemed too ready to accept the much hyped predictions of lynchings and violence, provided by the authorities in the lead up to G20
- The minimal reporting about what happened on Wednesday evening, after it got dark and there was further tension between protesters and police

But given how difficult it used to be for news organisations to represent multiple viewpoints simultaneously, it’s exciting that this is now not only possible, but is happening – and will hopefully happen more and more.

Written by Martin Moore

April 3rd, 2009 at 1:43 pm

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3 Responses to 'How new media helps old media better report protests'

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  1. Hi Martin, I’m glad you highlighted this. I think the media’s tangible seeding of expectation around the protests does, unfortunately, call in to question its motivation. News is about reporting something that is happening, the event itself. Pre-empting events is not news gathering or reporting and is closer to opinion. Sometimes the shading between the two might not be that easy or obvious, but this is a matter of the professionalism of the news organization/s concerned. On the other hand, the Tweet does offer a possiblity of ‘on the ground’ accuracy, but it’s the nature of the before the event projections that worry me.Cheers, JamesBtw are you intending to start tweeting yourself?

    James Williams

    4 Apr 09 at 6:02 pm

  2. Hi James,Thanks for your comment. There was, as you say, a remarkable amount of coverage of the likelihood of violence before the event. My uncle even contacted me from Hawaii on Wednesday morning to see if I’d be OK getting into my office (which is near Old Street tube). Peter Wilby has an interesting piece on g20 coverage in todays Media Guardian.Re Twitter, I’m a beginner when it comes to tweeting – but given what I saw at last week’s protests think I ought to get learning fast.martin

    Martin Moore

    6 Apr 09 at 8:44 am

  3. Don’t forget Facebook, potentially good place for discussion :-)

    James Williams

    6 Apr 09 at 7:48 pm

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