2020 BLM Uprisings: An inflection point?

To what extent is the mainstream news coverage of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests an inflection point for criminal justice coverage?

The murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor triggered large-scale protests that rocked the country throughout June and beyond. It quickly and forcibly brought criminal justice, police brutality, and white supremacy to the fore of the national conversation, dominating much of the news coverage.  In addition to catalyzing a long overdue public reckoning with these issues, it also persuaded many media outlets to internally examine their own reporting practices with respect to covering crime, police violence, and civil unrest, and to begin seriously engaging with the history of policing and widespread calls to defund police in many American cities.  This current moment is fertile for a systematic investigation of media coverage of policing and criminal justice reporting and identifiable shifts in both reporting practices as well as changes in content (i.e., the increased inclusion of topics that were absent or rare prior to the protests).

Using the BLM protests as a flashpoint, MIC is examining 2020’s crime and protest coverage in three American cities (Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Louisville) in order to gauge to what extent mainstream reporting on policing was influenced by the strategic framing of policing and racial justice issues articulated in the uprisings.  We seek to determine the qualitative shifts in media engagement with regard to discussions of police violence (shootings/incidents of abuse/calls for defunding or abolishing police) and the core visions and framing narratives of the uprising. We ask: to what extent have certain long-existing biases in journalistic practices of criminal justice reporting been redressed and modified in the wake of the protests? How has content changed in response to the discourses and demands of the uprising? 

This can be reliably measured in two ways: first, by determining how newsroom sourcing practices have changed. This ranges from the widespread practice of single police sourcing, how (and in what proportion) police officials are used as the sources of reporting and the way those sources are represented in the reporting; to what extent the inclusion of other sources from community members or advocates has increased; as well as the use of dehumanizing language and ‘cop-speak’; and the use of distancing or passive language to describe police violence; as well as the frequency of articles on police accountability. Additionally, is there a notable shift in reporting that provided context around what “defunding” means to those who are calling for it or what it would entail at a policy and budgetary level? Is the scope widened to include discussion of the history and origins of policing in the city or country?

Secondly, we aim to identify the degree to which media began including mentions or discussions of the uprising’s discourse on police violence and the defining call to “defund the police” in its coverage of protests. We will measure this not just as a matter of frequency, but as a matter of valence, e.g., whether the discussion of defunding was treated positively, negatively, or neutrally in the coverage. This comparative study will allow us to make inferences as to the scope and scale of the changes to criminal justice reporting as a result of the 2020 protests, and to make a stronger case for the lasting impact of this important social movement on the media, and thus, the national public conversation around policing and police violence.

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