For many Americans, the big question is whether these demonstrations lead to policy change to hold police departments and police officers accountable for their use of force. Our ongoing research provides some insights — we found a strong correlation between media attention on policing and policing-related protests, and legislative action on policing issues at the state level.
How we did our research
We worked with an excellent team of undergraduate research assistants to create two original data sets using LexisNexis, newspaper archives and state legislature archives. The first data set includes every policing-related bill proposed by all 50 state legislatures since 2013. Our second data set looks at the 25 largest newspapers in circulation, analyzing every article that addresses policing and police-related protests since 2013.
We chose this starting point because it predates the Ferguson, Mo., uprising of 2014, which we viewed as a potential tipping point in media attentiveness to policing issues. And 2013 is the year the BLM movement formally began after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager who had stopped at a convenience store in February 2012. Movement leaders have called for the transformation of the criminal justice system to end over-policing, mass incarceration and extrajudicial violence against black people.
We coded an article as “pro-protester” if the article framed the actions or demands of protesters as just and legitimate, or if it framed the actions of police as problematic. And we coded an article as “pro-police” if it framed the actions or demands of protesters as unreasonable and illegitimate, or framed police action as just. So far in this ongoing effort, we have collected and coded about 800 bills and over 4,000 articles.
Here’s what we found
In the first article we published using these data sets, we described the substantial correlation between news media attention on policing issues and the introduction and passage of police reform bills in state legislatures. In fact, we found a set of major newspapers, including The Washington Post, published 14 times as many articles about policing and policing-related protests in 2014 as they published in 2013. This trend repeated in 2015. We noted particularly large spikes in media coverage following the high-profile police killings and subsequent protests for Michael Brown (who was killed on Aug. 8, 2014, in Ferguson) and Tamir Rice (who was killed on Nov. 22, 2014, in Cleveland).
What about the legislative response? Our data revealed that relative to 2013, state legislatures introduced 1.5 times as many police reform bills in 2014, eight times as many in 2015, and almost four times as many in 2016. We observed a similar pattern in the number of police reform laws that actually passed at the state level. Relative to 2013, state legislatures passed three times as many police reform bills in 2014, 12 times as many in 2015 and five times as many in 2016.
These finding suggest protest activity — and particularly the media coverage of the protests — puts pressure on state legislatures to introduce and pass police reform legislation. It’s important to note we did not distinguish “violent” from “nonviolent” protests in our data, merely the framing news media outlets used to characterize those protests.
This suggests news media play an important role in shaping whether protesters’ demands will translate into legislative action. News stories that analyze the compounding issues of economic deprivation and racialized police violence, rather than focus on imagery of property destruction and violent clashes, for instance, can help push state legislatures to prioritize police reform measures.
What happens now?
Of course, nobody can predict how the 2020 protests over the death of George Floyd will play out in terms of police reforms. But our results provide evidence that state legislators are responsive to widespread demonstrations and the media coverage that follows. We may indeed witness a turn of events analogous to those in the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson protests.
Despite the frequent focus on the outbreaks of violence in the demonstrations after the death of Michael Brown, the intense media attention ultimately helped spark widespread policy and personnel changes at the state and local level. Here in TMC, Michael Tesler analyzed how racial attitudes among white people and young people shifted after the Ferguson protests to align more with the stances of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in areas where BLM protests took place. On June 2, Ferguson elected its first black mayor, Ella Jones.
Will the current protests prompt a strong legislative response? New polling by The Washington Post/Schar School reveals 69 percent of Americans see Floyd’s death as representative of a larger problem in U.S. law enforcement. A recent Civiqs poll notes a substantial uptick in support for the Black Lives Matter movement among white Americans, to whom policymakers tend to be most responsive. For the first time ever, a plurality of this group supports BLM. Moreover, cities like Minneapolis and Dallas have adopted new policies to combat police brutality.
Time will tell whether and how these changing sentiments help advance a policy agenda aligned with the institutional transformation articulated by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Maneesh Arora (@maneesh_arora) is an assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College.
Davin L. Phoenix (@Davin_Phoenix) is an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, and author of “The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotions in Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).