Reflection: The language of protest and media bias

By Cameron Coyle, F/G Scholar

The media has a long history of covering events differently depending on the people involved in the story. Patrisse Cullors, the founder of Black Lives Matter, was quoted in an interview with Time Magazine in February 2018 saying she believed the Black Lives Matter movement was covered in a discriminatory manner, portraying them to be “aimless” and “too angry,” while Parkland protestors were treated like heroes, even though they were all essentially protesting unnecessary killings. The same article also says Roxane Gay tweeted out the same sentiment. This type of bias in coverage obviously limits what a protest can accomplish, since viewers at home will see the protests as pointless or counterproductive.

Huffington Post shared a video in 2015 of examples in the differences in language news outlets use when covering black and white instances of civil unrest. The video shows the media calling African-Americans criminals and thugs, while on the other hand white citizens lighting things on fire after a college sporting event was referred to as getting “a little out of control,” (Finley). Just last week, after the University of Kentucky upset Florida in football for the first time in decades, students at UK tipped over the car of a student visiting from a different college. This was talked about some, but when the conversation happened it revolved around how the student was going to repair his car or get a new one, not about how unruly the students at UK acted.

Mike Damanskis, the producer of the video also says he wants media outlets to stop using what he calls, “the racist t-word,” meaning thug (Finley). Damanskis holds the belief that eliminating the word “thug” and other words of the same nature will make protests more legitimate, instead of discrediting them as violent or useless gatherings. The reverse applies here as well. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was disaster that ended in the senseless death of one protestor. However, the president of the United States saw it fit to say there were good people on both sides.

This type of speech legitimatizes Nazi protests. While they have the right to do this, acknowledging positive things about the side that is responsible for someone’s death is not grasping the full gravity of the situation. A news outlet biased to President Trump, like Fox News or Breitbart, will take this quote, and others like it, and feed it to their audience in a positive manner. Thousands of citizens at home will now be swayed into looking at a group that supports ethnic cleansings in a positive light.

Biased speech and unfair coverage is part of the reason students at the University of Missouri didn’t want the media around them during their protests in 2015 (Starr). Students used their bodies to barricade out journalists, forming a “safe space” for their protest. This is not an ideal response to media coverage for a protest, but it is possible the media gains the trust of demonstrators back by honestly and non-biasedly covering events.

The media’s use of descriptive, more neutral-based, but still accurate language will help them gain back a marginal bit of the respect they have lost over the years. For example, many African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina were simply referred to as looters instead of desperate citizens trying to survive in the aftermath of the disaster. It is instances like these that reveal biases and agendas, causing the public to either doubt the news or be tricked by it. Once this happens, the source has either lost credibility or confirmed someone’s bias. Many members of society are carefully examining how they use language today, so this consideration may be able to combat the discriminatory language driven by ratings some news stations use.

Work Cited
Finley, Taryn. “This Video Calls for Fair Treatment in How Media Covers Black Protests Vs. White Riots.” Huffington Post, 6 July 2015, Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.

Starr, Terrell Jermaine. “There’s a good reason protesters at the University of Missouri didn’t want the media around.” The Washington Post, 11 Nov. 2015, Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.

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