Why the media's love affair with riot porn is bad for democracy

Last week's violent protests in Atteridgeville, Tshwane, is how South Africa thinks all demonstrations go. In reality only 10% of protests turn violent. (AFP)

Last week's violent protests in Atteridgeville, Tshwane, is how South Africa thinks all demonstrations go. In reality only 10% of protests turn violent. (AFP)

We’re all familiar with the screaming headlines about violent protests, which create the impression that South Africa is on the brink of chaos and anarchy. From the media coverage, it would appear that violence has become endemic to protests, and the burning of schools in Vuwani or the destructive rampages in Tshwane typify what protests are about now.

Most protests that take place in South Africa are peaceful, but that is not the dominant image either in the media or the public imagination. In fact, according to a recent study released by the University of Johannesburg’s South African Research Chair in Social Change, between 1997 and 2013 a mere 10% of protests actually turned violent.

Protest data gathered from 11 municipalities points to a humdrum round of protests taking place day, in day, day out, with little incident. The police do not even bother to record most of these protests; neither do the media report on them, because they lack drama and therefore are not considered newsworthy enough.

The police’s own protest database, the Incident Registration Information System (IRIS), suggests that true violence in protests – involving injuries or damage to property – is a rare occurrence.

The IRIS entries for the areas with the most unrest-related incidents between 2009 and 2012 (all located in Mpumalanga) reveals an interesting picture. Most of these protests did not escalate beyond barricade-building and tyre-burning into violence. In fact, the police recorded these protests as being fairly incident-free, often allowing them to fizzle out rather than breaking them up forcefully.

Between the media and police hype about ‘violent service delivery protests’, it is this wider picture of peaceful protests that is so often missed. Democracy is not served by such media distortions.

The security cluster can use images of marauding mobs, apparently predisposed to violence, to create moral panics in the public about protests, to turn the public against protestors (even those whose demands are legitimate), and to justify heightened security measures against them. These images are a racist’s wet dream, too, as they can be (and are being) used to portray black protestors as primitive sub-humans bent on mindless destruction.

South African media organisations are not the only ones indulging in orgies of “riot porn”, though. Media scholar Todd Gitlin noticed patterns in US media reporting on the anti-Vietnam war movement, which he theorised into the “protest paradigm”

Gitlin used framing theory to identify the processes of news selection, organisation and emphasis that journalists used to convey often negative messages about social movement protests. He argued that the media were not simply reflecting the realities of political activism.

Rather, they were constructing activists as unruly subjects, which systematically undermined activists’ struggles. By doing so, media organisations played an important ideological role, legitimating certain social actors (usually official ones) as being inherently reasonable, while demonising the protestors as teetering dangerously on the lunatic fringe.

Journalists who use the protest paradigm delegitimise, demonise and criminalise movements by emphasising particular features of protests – especially their riotous elements – and trivialise movement participants and causes. Official sources are often treated as authoritative voices.

Journalists also “balance” stories by including other voices on the opposite “extreme” (irrespective of the size of the movement or the correctness of their demands). They can also undercount a protest’s participants, and emphasise the absence of “reasonable’ participants”.

According to Gitlin, little has changed in the media coverage of more recent protest movements. Since the global justice movement brought the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks to a grinding halt in Seattle, many mainstream media outlets have continued their system-maintaining role.

Even in the coverage of the Occupy movement, many journalists used the same old rhetorical devices to frame the protestors. In doing so, journalists reproduced and reinforced an elite consensus about the need to continue the current social order, in spite of its multiple economic, social, political and ecological crises.

Other academics have also studied media coverage of protests, and have noticed a journalistic tendency to focus on protests as episodic events. In doing so they miss the fact that protests are often by long-standing underlying grievances.

This focus on the episodic nature of protests can lead to selection biases in favour of protests that contain elements of drama or spectacle, and a descriptive bias that emphasises their disruptive content. So, even if a protest is largely peaceful, if a few renegade protestors break windows, then the media will most likely focus on the broken windows.

To what extent is the protest paradigm evident in South African journalism? In an analysis of 419 articles on protest in four municipalities (Mbombela, Blue Crane, Rustenburg and Nelson Mandela Metro) from 2008 to 2013, and drawn from a representative sample of online news sources, the protest paradigm reared its head in many stories. However, its use by journalists was uneven and contested.

As a general rule, journalists underrepresented protestors’ voices, although union voices were better represented than community voices. Overall, official sources dominated most stories (these being the police, the government and state institutions), especially in the Eastern Cape municipalities.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and the now-defunct South African Press Organisation (Sapa) reported the most consistently on the protests, with the SABC being responsible for the most on-the-ground reporting, especially in the smaller towns where they had a presence that other media organisations lacked.

The SABC used this competitive advantage to provide a scale and depth of coverage that other media organisation couldn’t match. It is a tragedy that the current Chief Executive Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, is busy destroying one of the SABC’s strongest reporting beats, and one that could have been turned into a centre of excellence.

As a national wholesale news agency, Sapa also provided coverage of protests in more outlying areas but – when compared to the SABC coverage – there was less evidence of journalists actually visiting the sites they were reporting on and interviewing the key actors. In contrast, if their online offerings were anything to go by, News 24 was particularly weak at covering protest stories.

Journalists were also highly selective about which protests were covered. In fact, the Research Chair in Social Change’s report noted that the print and online media reported on one in four community protests. The majority of protests three municipalities were notified about (Mbombela, Blue Crane and Nelson Mandela Metro), were not reported on by the media.

Journalists’ selection bias was clearly towards protests that involved some level of disruption or violence, and the report noted that this bias has increased over time. As a result, peaceful protests were drastically underrepresented. Also, many stories were framed primarily by the actions of their most extreme elements, or those engaged in disruption or violence – rather than their more peaceful elements – which led to them being constructed as unreasonable and threats to society.

However, journalism is a creative profession, and journalistic agency makes a huge difference to how protests are reported on. Stories by Greg Maronivich, Poloko Tau, Niren Tolsi, Mandy de Waal, Greg Nicholson and Janine Lee shone out.

Sapa was the Achilles heel of protest reporting, though. Wholesale news agencies often produce uncontroversial, even dull news, as they want to appeal to the broadest readership possible. If Sapa is replaced by a new agency, then it needs to do more to break free from these reporting traps.

Journalists are not bound to the protest paradigm. They can challenge it by being aware of its pitfalls. For instance, they can identify the key issues and stakeholders in the protest, and explain their positions and policy implications.

In cases where it is warranted, journalists can also portray protestors as rational, legitimate political actors raising debates, rather than simply causing trouble. They can seek informed responses about the issues being raised by the protests, and invest time in writing important stories posed by the protest.

More importantly, though, journalists need to find ways of reflecting South Africa’s still largely peaceful protest culture, without producing boring news. Violence in protests lowers the political cost of repression for the authorities, as the police can argue that their responses are necessary to restore law and order.

Journalists can contribute to the lowering of these costs by promoting riot porn. More securocratically-minded elements in the state can use their work to legitimise state repression. This problem cannot be solved by banning images of violent protests, as the SABC’s censor-in-chief Motsoeneng is doing. Rather, these protests should be set in their correct context.

Journalists also need to get the South African protest story right for their own safety. Once protestors start to see journalists as hostile actors, they more likely they are to become hostile towards them in return.

If journalists are portraying protests as being overwhelmingly violent – in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary – then they really need to think long and hard about their work, and the anti-democratic uses to which it can be put (and is being put).

Jane Duncan is a professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg. Her new book, Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa, will be published by UKZN Press later this year

 

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