A week ago, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block the certification of Joe Biden as the next president. Even though some Capitol Police officers tried to hold back the mob and protect members of Congress, many observers wondered why the rioters did not experience the tear gas and rubber bullets used against the people protesting the killing of George Floyd. As the NAACP tweeted Wednesday, “They’ve killed us for less.”

But there was potentially another double standard at work. This one is evident in past media coverage of protests and may have been active in coverage of the U.S. Capitol insurrection. These media biases can powerfully shape how the public perceives protesters and their demands.

How the media covers different kinds of protests

The typical pattern in media coverage of protests is this: The more radical protesters’ tactics, or the more their aims challenge the status quo, the more delegitimizing the coverage is. Thus, conservative protests tend to receive more favorable coverage than protests seeking radical change, such as Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests.

My own research analyzed about 1,500 protest-related news stories published throughout 2014 in mainstream, alternative, partisan and online news publications. Articles about conservative protests — like protests opposed to immigration or LGBT rights, or protests supporting Trump and gun rights — are less likely to be negatively framed as “riots” than other types of protests. In contrast, Black Lives Matter protests are more likely to be framed as riots, as news coverage focuses more on violence, property damage and confrontations with police.

For example, a 2017 San Antonio Express-News article about an anti-white supremacy protest, which was included in another study I did, starts with a reference to “brawls” that broke out and the arrest of protesters who “swarmed the sidewalk hurling insults and chanting.” The aim of the protest is placed in quotation marks — “white supremacy” — which arguably delegitimizes protesters’ grievances.

This finding also emerged in a new piece of research in which I surveyed 100 journalists from Missouri, Virginia, Arizona and Texas in 2018-2019. I combined these surveys with an analysis of 932 protest-related stories from the newspapers in those states.

Most of the journalists said they were neither supportive nor unsupportive of protesters generally. Because journalists are protected by the First Amendment — the same amendment that protects the right to protest — I had expected to see more support for protest. Journalists were also less supportive of racial justice movements than they were of women’s rights or immigrants’ rights. This was mirrored by the content analysis, which showed anti-racism protests received more delegitimizing coverage than other types of protests.

Overall, this pattern in media coverage contributes to what my co-author Danielle Kilgo and I termed a “hierarchy of social struggle” that elevates the legitimacy of some causes over others.

Where these differences in news coverage come from

The news media cover protests differently in part because news outlets rely on “official” sources — typically the police — who are seen as more credible and authoritative than protesters. In addition, norms like objectivity often undermine protester voices, as any quote from anti-racism protesters is often automatically countered by an opposing voice.

The role of norms like objectivity shows up in the surveys of journalists as well. Most journalists surveyed had never participated in a protest, and unequivocally said journalists had no business protesting, regardless of the cause. In other words, remaining objective was seemingly more important than taking an overt stance, even against racism.

Traditional conceptions of what makes something newsworthy also affect coverage of protests. In these surveys, journalists said if they thought a protest would be violent or that police or counterprotesters might show, then they would cover it.

News coverage also tends to overemphasize spectacle — that is, the drama, size and sensationalism of a protest. Traditionally, coverage oriented around spectacle tends to portray protests in a less favorable light. But my research has shown that conservative protests are more likely to be framed with a focus on spectacle, which suggests that it could be a positive feature of coverage.

For example, this news article about a tea party protest mentions a celebrity playing a ukulele, people dressed in “tar and feathers and an Obama joker mask,” and a bus with images on it of “aborted babies and grim reapers.” The protesters are quoted extensively throughout without any voices to contest their perspective. The only negative portrayals are of the leftist counterprotesters who appeared.

How the media covered the Capitol insurrection

Last Wednesday, journalists started the day using the term “protest” or “rally.” This fits the typical pattern: Conservative actions often are termed “rally” rather than “protest,” which is another subtle form of legitimization.

But the coverage then pivoted to “insurrection” and “siege.” The perpetrators were no longer “protesters,” but “rioters” and part of a “mob.”

News media also covered the insurrection using the spectacle frame. But for this particular far-right protest, that frame could be construed as delegitimizing. Seeing a man dressed in a horned hat, with his face painted, contributed to an almost carnivalesque sense of disbelief, and even a mockery of the rioters.

Of course, we still need more systematic analysis of news coverage of the insurrection and comparisons with, for example, coverage of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. But early signs suggest that coverage of the violence at the U.S. Capitol might not implicitly legitimize the event as much as coverage of previous conservative protests has done.

What this means going forward

With outlets like the Kansas City Star apologizing for racist coverage of Black communities and civil rights protests and promising to do better, news coverage of protests could change.

And if Wednesday is any indication, journalists are paying more attention to their word choices and framing, which could signal a different approach to the double standard in how conservative protests are covered in the future.

Summer Harlow is a former reporter and currently associate professor in the Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston, where her research focuses on news coverage of protests.