How have the news media covered these mass events, compared with how they did so in the past? To find out, I looked carefully at U.S. news coverage of protest over the past 20 years — and found that the media focused on protest in June 2020 more than during any other month in two decades — 60 percent more than at any point in the past two decades. Not since the Kent State killings, in which National Guard troops shot and killed four student protesters in May 1970, has there been so much media attention to protest.
How I examined media coverage
Working with a team of students from the University of Michigan, I searched the NewsBank database for mentions of the word “protest” during those 20 years. NewsBank is a comprehensive source of news coverage from national, state and local sources. Of course, “protest” may mean many things. For instance, a football team could choose to “protest” a referee’s decision. For that reason, I also searched for the words “demonstration,” “unrest,” and “rally” to make sure the search turned up political protests.
Comparing media coverage over time requires thinking about how the database has changed over time. With the proliferation of news sources, NewsBank draws on more items than there were available 20 years ago. So we checked to see how the number of pieces about “protest” compare with the number of pieces about “politics.” That also helps adjust for seasonal patterns, such as less political coverage in December than at other times of the year.
I looked at NewsBank from 2000 to 2020. To look at protests before then, I searched Washington Post articles on protests between 1920 and 2020, accessed via the Washington Post Complete (1877-present) database on ProQuest. Although less comprehensive than the NewsBank search, it gives us valuable information on the past 80 years.
The George Floyd protests stand out over the past 20 years
The figure below plots the number of items per month on “protest” compared with the number of items on “politics.” A ratio of 1.0 means that there were an equal number of pieces on protest and politics. A ratio of 0.5 means that there were twice as many items on politics than on protest. A ratio of 2.0 means that there were twice as many items on protest as there were on politics. We’ve labeled a few key protests in the graph to help put the results in perspective.
June 2020 had a ratio of 1.60, which means that there were 60 percent more items on “protest” than on “politics.” No other month in the past 20 years comes close. The nearest competitor might be in March 2003, when news media covered widespread protests about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, returning about one article about protest for every one about politics. All other months had a ratio less than 0.8.
Examining use of the words “demonstration,” “unrest” and “rally” all closely tracked the use of the word “protest.”
What if we look at the past century?
When I did a similar analysis of Washington Post articles over the past 100 years, I found that May 1970 — a month that included the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, and widespread protests against the Vietnam War — was the most recent time in which the news media paid as much attention to protest as it did last month. In both months, the Washington Post’s coverage of protest was about twice the amount of its political coverage. Occasionally I found use of the word “protest” at similar levels in the 1920s through 1950s, but never was coverage as focused on one issue as it was in 1970 and 2020.
What does this mean?
News coverage alone does not tell us what’s socially significant. The news media have biases. They may report in depth on relatively insignificant events while neglecting important issues.
Nonetheless, the George Floyd protests are of historic significance, and the news media responded with comparable coverage. That may be attributed to several things. First, Floyd’s death, with bystanders pleading for his life, was clearly visible on video. Second, the protests were extraordinarily broad and widespread, with people of all races involved. Third, the president of the United States responded with a display of military force and racist commentary, trying to exploit a chaotic situation for political gain. The protests took place during a pandemic, which meant protesters were risking their lives to turn out. And the Black Lives Matter movement has been working for the past seven years to alert the nation to racist brutality and injustice.
What’s more, media coverage of the protests has been generally favorable, which has corresponded with shifts in white public opinion to support the Black Lives Matter movement and goals — in contrast to more critical white attitudes and news coverage from 2013 to 2016. As political scientist and TMC editor Michael Tesler wrote recently, the George Floyd protests have changed people’s minds about race and policing.
Michael T. Heaney (@michaeltheaney) is an adjunct research professor in the University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender and a research fellow in the University of Glasgow’s School of Social and Political Sciences. Virginia Baumgarten, Olivia Grantham and Ataia Templeton, who are students at the University of Michigan, assisted with the research.