The night that violence erupted in the Baltimore protests, Leah Eliza Balter, who had marched in the protests earlier that day, was crushed by the media coverage that emphasized burning flags and looting. “This is a skewed portrayal of the protests; it is what the media chose to portray — the media that consumers bewilderingly seem to want,” Balter declared.
Similarly, in a tweet that was retweeted over 10,000 times, the musician Propaganda observed that “Citizens of Baltimore been peacefully protesting for WEEKS. Not one news camera came till somethin was on fire. What u think that teaches?”
Indeed, Comedy Central host Jon Stewart noted that, rather than covering the peaceful protests in Baltimore, on April 25 CNN elected to cover the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “CNN got shamed by Twitter…Shamed about their editorial priorities by the same folks who spent a week violently clashing over the blue/black-white/gold question,” Stewart wryly remarked.
But is this true? Did national news outlets pay attention to the peaceful Baltimore protests over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody that began on April 18, or were those rallies ignored until the violence erupted? And was the attention on Twitter any different?
First, consider cable news in the graph below. Coverage on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News increased substantially on April 27, the night violence erupted in Baltimore. The following day, coverage on cable news peaked at 59 stories. During these two days of violent incidents, coverage increased by a substantial 162 percent, compared with the two days prior, April 25 and 26, when the protests were peaceful.
Second, consider newspaper coverage — specifically 23 of the top 25 newspapers (data from the Wall Street Journal and the Las Vegas Review-Journal were not available). Here, the coverage increased during the violence but actually peaked on April 30. Coverage during the violence also spiked but by a lesser extent than cable news (a 58 percent increase over the two days prior).
That cable news and newspaper coverage had different peaks is not surprising, as cable news focuses more on real-time coverage, whereas newspapers have a publishing time lag. However, the peak on April 30 — when two men in the police van with Gray gave their accounts of what happened and the police investigation of Gray’s death was about to be given to the state’s attorney — suggests that newspapers may have been most focused on the legalities surrounding Gray’s death.
How does this compare with conversation on Twitter, specifically tweets mentioning Baltimore from Twitter’s public stream (which is approximately one percent of all tweets)? Similar to cable news coverage, discussion on Twitter peaked on April 28. For the two days before the violence, there were 4,106 tweets about Baltimore; during the violence, there were 56,522 tweets, an increase of over 1,200 percent.
Of course, Twitter is partly dependent on the national media to raise awareness. It is possible that increased media attention allowed the peaceful protesters to mobilize more people online. Or, increased media attention may have led to more sensationalist tweets.
To explore these possibilities, in the table below I compared the most popular hashtags before, during and after the violence erupted. Before the violence, there was limited discussion on Twitter about the protests, although FreddieGray and Baltimore were still dominant hashtags.
During the violence, BaltimoreRiots was the top hashtag — by far — while Baltimore and Freddie Gray were still prominent. Several new hashtags were introduced, including BaltimoreUprising (the preferred hashtags of protest supporters), PrayForBaltimore, TCOT (a hashtag affiliated with political conservatives) and Chi2Baltimore.
After the violence, as cable news attention was waning, the hashtag BaltimoreRiots was overtaken by the hashtag BaltimoreUprising. This suggests, in accordance with previous academic studies, that Twitter discussion followed other media: When the media stopped focusing on the riots, so did Twitter users.
However, the increased prominence of the BlackLivesMatter hashtag and the creation of the hashtags NYC2Baltimore and PhillyIsBaltimore suggest that Twitter users may have also used this opening to reframe the conversation.
Not surprisingly, both national media attention and online attention increased dramatically when the protests turned violent. However, it is noteworthy that coverage of the Baltimore protests on cable news increased much more than newspapers, whose coverage peaked a few days after the violence. Attention on Twitter was limited before the violence occurred — and it increased the most during the violence — mainly under the hashtag BalimoreRiots, which waned as the violence subsided.
Given this data, it is difficult to conclude that the media “only” covered the Baltimore protests after they turned violent. Nevertheless, it is clear that the violence was deemed newsworthy.
But before we blame the news media, we should ask: Did this coverage only reflect the interests of viewers? According to the Nielsen ratings, on the night of the violent protests on April 28 the ratings of all three channels surged in the key news demo of adults ages 25 to 54. Compared with the previous Monday, CNN experienced a 574 percent increase, Fox News a 121 percent increase and MSNBC a 77 percent increase.
At least in the case of cable news, if Americans wanted coverage to focus on peaceful protests and not incidents of violence, we did a poor job of showing it.
Alex T. Williams is a PhD student at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.