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Martin to Brown
Danielle K. Kilgo, Rachel R. Mourao & George Sylvie
To cite this article: Danielle K. Kilgo, Rachel R. Mourao & George Sylvie (2018): Martin to Brown,
Journalism Practice, DOI: 10.1080/17512786.2018.1507680
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2018.1507680
Published online: 14 Aug 2018.
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MARTIN TO BROWN
How time and platform impact coverage of
the Black Lives Matter movement
Danielle K. Kilgo , Rachel R. Mourao , and George Sylvie
The rise of the modern Black Lives Matter movement can be traced back to two key events, the
2012 death of Trayvon Martin and the 2014 death of Michael Brown. Research routinely showed
that mainstream media’s narrative choices marginalize and delegitimize protesters and their
causes, a pattern known as the protest paradigm. This study provides a longitudinal examination
of how the same mainstream media system varied in their coverage of similar events and the
degree to which journalists challenged the predicted paradigms conceptualized in other aca-
demic work. A content analysis of national newspaper coverage revealed that news before the
judicial rulings focused on protesters’tactics (violence versus peaceful) and changed to the
realm of ideas (grievances and demands) after the assailants were considered not guilty of
wrongdoing. No progression was found in legitimizing coverage of protests between the two
KEYWORDS Black Lives Matter; protest paradigm; newspaper coverage; content analysis; race;
The controversies surrounding cases of police shooting unarmed Black men have
accumulated U.S. and international media attention in recent years. Unprecedented collec-
tive action efforts online and ofﬂine led to protests around the world. In 2016, at least 1500
Black Lives Matter demonstrations transpired, demanding police accountability and revised
policies addressing the disproportionate police misconduct against Black citizens in the
United States (Elephrame 2016; Swaine et al. 2016). To date, police shootings and protests
continue. The shooting death of Stephon Clark in 2018 was among the most recent shoot-
ings of unarmed Black men after questionable police conduct. Weeks of nonstop protest
followed his death (Alder 2018).
Two paramount cases were catalysts of the ongoing national conversation about race
and law enforcement in the United States. On February 18, 2012, neighborhood watch vol-
unteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed African
American. A year later, after a lengthy trial, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges.
Martin’s death caused public outrage that ultimately led to the creation of the Black
Lives Matter (BLM) movement, established in the summer of 2013 (www.
blacklivesmatter.com). Despite the ruling to acquit Zimmerman, peaceful protests followed
Martin’s death and the trial. About one year later on August 9, 2014, a similar series of
events resurfaced. Police Ofﬁcer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old
Michael Brown. A grand jury decided not to indict Ofﬁcer Wilson, leading to almost
Journalism Practice, 2018
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
immediate protest in the Ferguson, Missouri community. Peaceful protest gave way to
more radical, violent tactics in some occasions—a sharp contrast to protests of
News media play a substantial role in giving protesters a platform to express their
voices, and in providing the public with information about the points of contention
raised by protesters, protest activities, and government responses. A well-established line
of research supports the theoretical position that protests that challenge the existing
norms or status quo are routinely marginalized in media coverage. This patterned margin-
alization of protesters is referred to by scholars as the protest paradigm (e.g. Chan and Lee
1984; McLeod and Hertog 1999).
Our paper uses the framework of the protest paradigm to interrogate coverage of
protests that shared the same core agendas but developed different tactics and evalu-
ate the paradigm’s persistence over time. Speciﬁcally, this research examines the devel-
opment of race-related protest coverage in the United States following the deaths of
Martin and Brown. The goal is to provide a longitudinal examination of how the
same mainstream media system varied in their treatment of similar events in online
and ofﬂine news arenas. Theorists of the media’s relationship with protests would
suggest traditional newspaper coverage would include more marginalizing descrip-
tions of protesters when they resort to more radical tactics (Boyle, McLeod, and Arm-
strongs 2012). However, we study the possibility that as reporters became more
aware of BLM’s ideas over time, they may have been able to provide more in-depth,
Parting from research that looks at either the ﬁrst wave (e.g. Mourão, Kilgo, and Sylvie
2018), key peaks in time (e.g. Elmasry and el-Nawawy 2016) or a full year of Ferguson
protest coverage (e.g. Kilgo et al. 2018), we analyze the differences between coverage
before and after the indictments of George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson. During this
time journalists have increased awareness of the each of the cases and associated protests.
Additionally, this period allows the research to address coverage when ofﬁcial institutions
and legal proceedings give a verdict in such cases being protested. In both cases analyzed
in this study, verdicts directly and permanently opposed protesters’demands for prosecu-
tion of Zimmerman and Wilson.
Ultimately, the analysis in this study shows how traditional news media talk about
ongoing Black protests in the United States, providing another constituent of contemporary
research that examines recent protests and unrest (Elmasry and el-Nawawy 2016; Mourão,
Kilgo, and Sylvie 2018; Steiner and Waisbord 2017). Our results offer insight into the
relationship between coverage and the reality of progressive, race-based protest move-
ments, and its connection with the legal system that contributes to continued Black oppres-
sion (e.g. Alexander 2010).
In 2012, the death of Trayvon Martin started national conversations about the social
status of Blacks in America. Zimmerman, who claimed he feared for his life, said Martin
threatened him, resulting in an altercation leading to Martin’s shooting death. Martin
wore a hooded sweatshirt and carried only Skittles, a phone, and a bottled tea (Dahl
2013). The context of the event, the debate of Zimmerman’saction,andFlorida“stand
your ground”law came under intense scrutiny as protesters, including the newly
2DANIELLE K. KILGO ET AL.
formed advocacy groups “Black Lives Matter”and “Justice for Trayvon,”voiced concerns
throughout the discovery and trial process (e.g. NPR 2013). Zimmerman received a not-
guilty verdict, and the BLM’sofﬁcial website (www.blacklivesmatter.com)notedthat
“Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder,”a product of the “anti-
Black racism that permeates our society.”Considering these circumstances, protest
activity continued even as news coverage dissipated. Organizers used the hashtag #Black-
LivesMatter to connect online audiences and national efforts to protest the ruling (e.g.
BLM resurfaced in media coverage the following year after police ofﬁcer Darren
Wilson shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown. Wilson engaged in
an altercation with Brown after questioning him for jaywalking. As tensions escalated,
Wilson ultimately claimed he feared for his life, resulting in Brown’s shooting death. The
aftermath set in motion a nationwide discussion about police brutality, but a Ferguson
grand jury did not indict Wilson in November 2014.
There are notable similarities and differences in the cases of Brown and Martin,
which provide the basis for our comparative design. For example, Zimmerman was a
neighborhood watch associate, while Wilson was a police ofﬁcer. However, the two
cases share more similarities than differences: Zimmerman and Wilson were both
armed; Brown and Martin were unarmed; Zimmerman and Wilson claimed to fear for
their own lives before the shooting; and neither Zimmerman nor Wilson were found
guilty of wrongdoing. Protests shared similar demands and agendas, with Black Lives
Matter entering the mainstream in the period between the Zimmerman and Wilson ver-
dicts. However, protester tactics were notably different: Nonviolent protests and vigils
surrounded Zimmerman’s trial; in Ferguson, radical protester tactics interrupted peaceful
protests on several occasions. These differences provide the opportunity to assess if nega-
tive patterns of protest coverage are merely consistent with the realities of demonstra-
tors’tactics, or if these patterns emerge from reporters’unfamiliarity about the
demands and grievances of protesters. If determined by protester tactics, we would
expect that coverage of Ferguson would be more delegitimizing, despite the fact that
both journalists and the public were more familiar with the movement, which was in
its infancy during Martin’s demonstrations. Conversely, it is possible that episodic cover-
age focusing on violence comes from reporters’lack of knowledge about grievances and
demands of a newly-founded movement. In this case, we would expect that coverage of
the Ferguson protests would be more legitimizing and contextual, despite the radical
As of 2017, BLM has expanded into a chaptered organization calling for the active
resistance against the dehumanization of Blacks through state violence. The movement
partners with a network of other human rights organizations to advocate for Black and
marginalized lives in the United States. Though the organization remains decentralized,
formal policy demands were developed with a broader coalition in 2015 (Movement for
Black Lives 2017). The foundations of BLM protests in both the cases of Martin and
Brown were pivotal for this collective action advancement, but we know very little
about how frames, marginalization devices, and sourcing factors shifted in media cover-
age. This research seeks to understand how the press covered protests as different
external inﬂuences shifted the governmental and societal positions of the social
MARTIN TO BROWN 3
Media Patterns in Protest Reporting
The protest paradigm outlines the Catch 22 relationship that advocacy movements
have with the press. Peaceful protests are regularly looked over by the mainstream press
because they do not have the newsworthy cues that entice journalists to cover an event.
Media silence often leads protesters to resort to dramatic and radical tactics to attract
media attention (Boyle, McLeod, and Armstrongs 2012). When dramatic and radical pro-
tests are covered, mainstream journalists tend to dismiss and marginalize demands by
emphasizing adverse actions, following ofﬁcial voices in narrative construction, and focus-
ing on protester actions rather than the substance of protest itself (e.g. Chan and Lee 1984;
Dardis 2006; Gitlin 1980; McLeod and Hertog 1992). Critical scholars indicate that press pat-
terns are a manifestation of the media’s more profound ideological resistance to groups
that challenge the status quo (Boyle, McLeod, and Armstrongs 2012), ultimately equating
protest with deviance (Gitlin 1980). These media portrayals can have social and political
consequences, inﬂuencing what people think of reality and assigning blame to individuals
rather than referencing the issue in its societal context (Iyengar 1994). The problematic por-
trayals of Blacks in the media (e.g. Dixon and Maddox 2005) and Black protest in the media
(Kilgo 2017) trigger negative, stereotypical and racist thoughts about Blacks, and can thus
stall any social or political progress—results which have life and death consequences.
Scholars examining the relationships between protest and media have identiﬁed
three regularly occurring elements in news coverage that inﬂuence the protest paradigm:
devices, sourcing, and framing. These elements can work together to create master narra-
tives that delegitimize protesters in different ways including portraying movements as
violent threats to society or confrontational to civil servants. The absence of these elements
can also delegitimize movements. For example, patterns have shown coverage is regularly
absent of protester demands, resulting in news that does not reﬂect the substance of a
protest to a general audience. Each of the core items of the protest paradigm is explored
in the next sections.
Tactic-oriented marginalization devices. Scholars have identiﬁed several typologies of
marginalization devices used by journalists when covering protests (e.g. Dardis 2006). A
common protest coverage marginalization device includes the explicit emphasis on vio-
lence, often associated with protesters even though conﬂict may involve (and even be pro-
voked by) other actors, such as the police. Another marginalization tool involves calls to
non-violence, speciﬁcally those made in anticipation of violence that has not occurred.
Gans (1979) described such calls as newsworthy, explaining that the desirability for social
order is a persistent news value. Calls to non-violence can occur even in cases that do
not involve violence, and craft narratives that focus on hypothetical circumstances.
These calls endorse stereotypes of Black protests as violent and riotous. Ultimately, violence
and calls to non-violence cues marginalize protesters, especially when occurring in times of
Mentions of protesters as peaceful counter such violent depictions, helping actors
legitimize their presence and cause. These mentions are of interest in this research
because a signiﬁcant number of protests before and after the indictment were peaceful
(e.g. Greenstein 2013; Varadani 2014), though riots, confrontation, recklessness, and
looting certainly marked part of Brown-related protests.
4DANIELLE K. KILGO ET AL.
Sourcing. Protest narratives, speciﬁcally those in mainstream media, heavily rely on
ofﬁcial sources (Bennett 2011; Gitlin 1980). For several decades, communication scholars
have investigated the impact of the dominance of ofﬁcial sources on the coverage of pol-
itical and public policy news (e.g. Bennett 2011; Bennetts, Lawrence, and Livingston 2007;
Gans 1979; Herman and Chomsky 1994; Tuchman 1978). The reliance on ofﬁcial sources
gives ofﬁcials control over the deﬁnition of public problems, suppressing oppositional
Journalists’dependence on institutionally positioned ofﬁcials stems from routine
newsgathering practices, where ofﬁcial sources help maintain the claim of objectivity
and reduce added reporting needs (Gans 1979;Lawrence1996;Tuchman1978). Addition-
ally, the beat system of newsgathering fosters a symbiotic relationship between reporters
and their institutional sources: Journalists provide publicity for ofﬁcials and ofﬁcials
provide the formal narrative for the bulk of daily news (Gans 1979;Tuchman1978). In
police reporting, journalism objectivity encourages perspectives that emphasize ofﬁcial
viewpoints and a broader discourse about crime control (e.g. Jewkes 2004;Lawrence
1996). For the protesters, the prevalence of ofﬁcial narratives can lead to the delegitimi-
zation of the movement’s views. Protesters are sourced less often in traditional media
coverage (Wouters 2015).
Protest frames. Scholarship has relied on news framing to understand the impli-
cations of coverage of social movement activities. Hertog and McLeod (2003) discussed
three relevant media frames within the protest paradigm: riot, confrontation with auth-
orities, and protest. The “riot”frame accentuates deviant and criminal protest behaviors,
such as the destruction of property. The “confrontation”frame emphasizes conﬂict and
encounters between protesters and police.Conversely, the “protest”frame delivers infor-
mation about protesters’causes and demands, balancing coverage by giving information
that ultimately can provide a space for debate.
Additionally, we identiﬁed the “rights”master frame in the coverage of BLM. Accord-
ing to Benford and Snow (2000), some frames function as master frames, becoming appli-
cable to many different social movement organizations over time (e.g. Benford and Snow
2000; Tarrow 1994). Only a few collective action frames are broad, ﬂexible and resonant
enough to qualify as master frames, including “rights frames”used by the civil rights (Valoc-
chi 1996), women’s rights (Freeman 1975), and gay rights movements (Valocchi 2005). This
frame furthers potential debate by structuring narratives and protester demands as human
or civil rights issues, highlighting more thematic occurrences of injustice. Ultimately, the
presence of the riot and confrontation frames negatively impacts advocacy movements
while the presence of the protest and rights frames provide more balanced coverage, treat-
ing protesters as legitimate political players.
Finally, Iyengar (1994) suggested separating the overall landscape of journalistic
framing into dichotomous frames: episodic and thematic. Episodic frames focus on individ-
ual episodes and singular events. On the other hand, thematic frames relate individual cir-
cumstances to a broader scope, drawing more attention to broader issues and ultimately
inviting more room for discussing protesters’demands and objectives. In the case of
protest coverage, reliance on episodic frames can harm protest agendas by focusing on
the placement of an event without further examining the context. Previous scholarship
revealed that in times of civil unrest, news media tend to cover protests episodically (e.g.
McLeod and Hertog 1999; Mourão, Kilgo, and Sylvie 2018).
MARTIN TO BROWN 5
Explaining Paradigmatic Shifts: Time and Platform
Recent research suggests that shifts in the protest paradigm do occur under certain
circumstances. This research assesses how time and platform of message delivery create
shifts in the predicted patterns.
Time. Research has found that time can shift the paradigm in some instances. Koop-
mans (1993) showed that there are cyclical differences for protest coverage of protester
activities and demands. Press coverage of social movements has been shown to be
more favorable toward protests when movements align with an adjusted societal and pol-
itical status quo (Boyle et al. 2005; Gitlin 1980). BLM protest demands did not change from
Martin to Brown, though certainly demands became more visible through increased atten-
tion through multiple media and communication channels. Instead, protester tactics
became more deviant over time, with several reports of rioting and looting associated
with otherwise peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson protests. This progression of deviance
over time is an important factor to consider when examining the protest paradigm’s rel-
evance in protests about race. Also, important for an examination of time is the coverage
of protests before and after the judicial decisions that formally shifted the description of
each case from possible homicide to legal shooting. The concept of time is directly
related with the situational shifts that occur in protest progression as well as public aware-
ness. This research examines how time (across events and judicial decisions) plays a role in
shifting journalist coverage.
Platform shifts. The nature of digital journalism has also shown to shift paradigmatic
practices (Harlow et al. 2017; Kilgo et al. 2018). Internationally, online news initiatives have
gained signiﬁcant momentum, especially with the advent of social networks. Digital spaces
released news organizations from the spatial limitations and distribution costs associated
with television and newspapers and granted more opportunities to engage and attract
audiences with different types of content. Digital technologies also broadened the poten-
tial for diversity in newsrooms, and encouraged journalists to revisit routines, norms, and
practices for digital audiences (Boyle, McLeod, and Armstrongs 2012; Papacharissi and
de Fatima 2012).
The protest paradigm was also theorized within a media ecosystem that was more
industrial than digital news audiences encounter today. The Internet and the digital
world have shifted journalists’ability to retrieve information, interact with sources and
reimagine participation with their audiences. As a result, recent work reveals instances
where journalists diverge from protest paradigm patterns in digital realms, while conform-
ing to the paradigm in traditional media (Harlow et al. 2017; Harlow and Johnson 2011). In
other words, the inclusion of digital and the increasing importance of digital work has
shifted the paradigm. This study adds to this burgeoning literature on protest coverage
in digital spaces by comparing protest coverage among mainstream newspaper outlets’
online and print formats.
This literature review substantiates the research questions and hypotheses that look
for adherence to the protest paradigm through individual elements (marginalization
devices, sourcing and frames), and the temporal and spatial inﬂuences that might
predict paradigm shifts.
6DANIELLE K. KILGO ET AL.
H1: Coverage of protests related to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown will feature more
marginalizing paradigmatic features (frames, devices and sources) than legitimizing
H2: Coverage of protests will become more marginalizing over time as protests engage in
more radical tactics.
H3: The more news articles cite ofﬁcial sources, the more closely stories will adhere to the
H4: The more news articles cite non-ofﬁcial sources, the more legitimizing to protesters
they will be.
Additionally, this research looks within to coverage to identify independent variables (the
judicial decisions and the platform) that may inﬂuence coverage shifts.
RQ1: Did the judicial decision in either case change the paradigmatic structure of news
H5: Online coverage will be more legitimizing than print coverage.
To answer the proposed research questions and hypotheses, we selected articles
from a sample of national publications using systematic random sampling. National publi-
cations were purposefully sampled and included the online and ofﬂine stories from four
major newspaper outlets: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal,USA TODAY and
the Washington Post—all among the top 10 most-circulated papers in the United States,
according to Cision (2016). By selecting these four newspapers, we examine content
shared by elite US-based publications with a broad digital and international scope. In
addition to high circulation numbers, the premier status of these newspapers is linked
with similar levels of journalistic credibility (Johnson and Kaye 2004). Each publication
was accessible using the news archives available through Factiva. We used national and
elite newspapers in this sample, and therefore we have limited knowledge of local perspec-
tives. However, in a prior analysis of Ferguson coverage, local perspectives had only
minimal differences from legacy or elite papers (Mourão, Kilgo, and Sylvie 2018).
Using the Factiva search engine, we identiﬁed articles by using a string of keywords,
as suggested by Lacy et al. (2015): 1) “Travyon Martin”and “George Zimmerman”and 2)
“Michael Brown”or “Darren Wilson.”We selected two time periods for each case: the
ﬁnal month of court proceedings and the month after the judicial decisions (including
the day of). For the Martin/Zimmerman case, this included June 12 through July 12, and
July 13 through August 13, 2013. For the Brown/Wilson case, this included October 23
through November 23, and November 24 through Dec. 24, 2014. A total of 1127 stories
were retrieved for these periods. Since we assess variation over time, we chose systematic
sampling, following the suggestion of Neuendorf (2001), using skip intervals of 4. The ﬁnal
coding sample resulted in 280 ﬁnal stories to code: 153 for Brown and 127 for Trayvon. In
terms of pre- and post-trial coverage, this sample included 103 pre-trial articles and 177
MARTIN TO BROWN 7
The following variables were coded for each post: source type, marginalization
devices, and protest frames. An initial coding scheme was created, and two coders, both
authors of this research, trained in three coding sessions. Intercoder reliability tests were
performed using 10 percent of the data, and Krippendorff’s alphas were used to calculate
reliability measures, per the recommendation of Lacy et al. (2015).
Article Source Type
To code for source type, we identiﬁed the name of the publication and the location of
the article (online or ofﬂine). All data and location information were included with each
article downloaded from Factiva (α= 1).
Marginalization devices included the explicit mentions of protesters as “violent”or
“peaceful.”“Calls to non-violence”included any actor, either through quotes or editorial
commentary, advocating for non-violent behaviors from protesters. Marginalization
devices were not mutually exclusive, as violence and peaceful depictions of protesters
may appear in the same articles. Violence and peaceful alpha levels were each α=1.
Coders identiﬁed the absence or presence of seven different types of sources: ofﬁcials
(elected ofﬁcials, police ofﬁcers, representative of government ofﬁces); protesters; bystan-
der sources; sources from the accused (Zimmerman or Wilson or afﬁliated lawyers); family
sources (family members or legal representatives of Brown or Martin); expert sources (scho-
lars, doctors, spiritual leaders, journalistic, legal professionals, researchers); social media
sources (articles directly sourcing social media conversations); and other. Because of low
frequencies of some sources (n< 5), sources analyzed in this study included ofﬁcials, pro-
testers, family members and experts. The average for reliability scores for all seven variables
were α= .82.
Coders identiﬁed the presence of four protest frames: riot, confrontation, protest, and
rights. Articles were coded as including the riot frame if they mentioned riots, destruction
against society or property, recklessness or law-breaking behavior (α= .71). Articles were
coded for including the confrontation frame if they speciﬁed conﬂict between protesters
and the police, either through altercations, arrests or clashes (α= 1). Coders identiﬁed
the presence of the protest frame by examining if the article had a mention that explained
the protesters’motives or demands or discussed overall explanations of the social move-
ment’s ideology within the context of the conﬂict (α= 1). Finally, coders identiﬁed the pres-
ence of the rights frame if the article framed the protest and debate as a civil or human
rights issue. Rights frames were present when stories discussed the over policing and
mass incarceration of Black Americans, “driving while black,”and injustices in the criminal
justice system (α= .90). Additionally, episodic and thematic frames were mutually exclusive
and were coded for the overall presentation of the article (α= .94).
8DANIELLE K. KILGO ET AL.
The ﬁnal sample had 280 stories, 31.9% of coverage related to Trayvon Martin and
68.1% of coverage related to Michael Brown. Of the stories coded, 57.9% mentioned pro-
tests (162 stories). The majority of the articles came from Washington Post outlets (61.3%),
followed by stories from The New York Times and its online sources (20%), 11.8% were from
The Wall Street Journal and WSJ online, and 6.8% from USA Today. Print stories comprised
65.2% of the data compared to 34.8% of online-only pieces.
H1 [Coverage of protests related to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown will feature
more marginalizing paradigmatic features than legitimizing features] was answered by
examining overall data characteristics (see Table 1). Overall, when it came to marginaliza-
tion devices, 19% of the stories mentioned “peacefulness,”37.7% mentioned “violence”
and 21.6% of the stories contained “calls to non-violence.”Ofﬁcial sources were present
in 51% of the stories, while protester sources were present in 36.2%. About 18.5% of the
stories had Martin/Brown’s family members as sources, and 34.1% had expert sources.
For protest frames, 29.6% of the stories had the “riot”frame and 39.8% the “confrontation.”
The “protest”frame, which mentions the cause of the protests, was present in 66.5% of the
stories, meaning that in 33.5% of the articles analyzed, the protests were mentioned
without any apparent cause. The “rights”frame was present in about 30% of the stories.
The vast majority of the coverage (80.4%) was episodic. The overall predominance of nega-
tive marginalization devices and ofﬁcial sourcing suggests that journalists adhered to
expectations of the protest paradigm. Framing frequencies, however, showed journalists
did provide signiﬁcant space for demands and grievances of protesters. Therefore, H1
was only partially supported.
H2 predicted that coverage of protests would become more delegitimizing over time
as protests became more radical. Results show that 11.5% of the stories about Trayvon’s
protests mentioned violence compared to half of the stories on Brown (50%) and the differ-
ence was statistically signiﬁcant [χ
(1) = 22.25, p< .001]. For Martin protests, 13.5% of the
Marginalization devices, sources and frames by case
Trayvon Martin (N= 53) Michael Brown (N= 111) χ
(df = 1)
Peaceful 13.50% 21.60% 1.53
Violent 11.50% 50% 22.25***
Calls for non-violence 25% 20% .52
Ofﬁcial 47.20% 53.20% .514
Protester 47.20% 30.90% 4.09*
Family 26.90% 14.50% 3.59*
Experts 37.70% 32.40% .45
Riot 5.80% 40.90% 20.91***
Confrontation 9.60% 67.70% 29.13***
Protest 75% 62.40% 2.51
Rights 28.80% 29.40% .00
Episodic 78.80% 81.10% .11
*p< .05, ***p< .001.
MARTIN TO BROWN 9
stories included references to peaceful protests, compared to 21.6% of Brown protests, and
the difference was not statistically signiﬁcant. Similarly, calls to non-violence appeared in
both cases (25% for Martin and 20% for Brown), but chi-square results revealed no statisti-
cally signiﬁcant difference (see Table 1). As such, when it comes to devices, the coverage of
Brown’s protests had more mentions of violence than Martin—evidence that supports the
proposed hypothesis. In both cases, however, about 20% of the stories contained calls for
non-violence, even though Martin’s protests included all peaceful demonstrations. Calls for
non-violence were often incited by ofﬁcial sources, imploring communities to avoid resort-
ing to rioting and, what Taranto (2013, para. 1) referred to as public fear of “the danger of
In terms of sourcing, results revealed that stories used ofﬁcial sources (47.2% for
Martin, 53.2% for Brown) and expert sources (37.7% for Martin, 32.4% for Brown) at
similar rates. Differences were found between the use of protesters as sources, with
more space given to Martin’s case: 47.7% of the stories had a protester source compared
to 30.9% for Brown’s[χ
(1) = 4.09, p< .05]. Similarly, Martin’s coverage included more
quotes from the victim’s family (26.9%) when compared to Brown’s family (14.5%) [χ
= 3.59, p< .05]. Martin’s mother was often used as a voice to support peaceful protests.
In a Washington Post article, the mother was quoted as saying, “‘We have moved on
from the verdict,’she told the crowd. ‘Of course we’re hurting. Of course we’re shocked
and disappointed. And that just means we have to roll up our sleeves and continue to
ﬁght.’” (Somashekhar, Lydersen, and Dazio 2013). Contrarily, Brown’s mother and step-
father were clouded by controversy after the verdict, with footage of the stepfather
Louis Head yelling, “Burn this bitch down.”Though this incident was discussed in coverage
(e.g. Davey and Fernandez 2014), this may be one possible reason for the reduction in the
use of family as sources.
When it came to frames of protest, chi-square results indicate riot [χ
(1) = 20.91,
p< .001] and confrontation [χ
(1) = 29.13, p< .001] were more prevalent in Brown’s case
(40.9% for riot, 67.7% for confrontation) than Martin’s (5.8% for riot, 9.6% for confrontation).
The differences in the legitimizing “protest”and “rights”frames were not statistically signiﬁ-
cant. Overall, coverage shows that delegitimizing elements of protest coverage appeared
more frequently in coverage of the protests related to Brown’s death than protests
related to Martin’s death (Table 1). Findings also provide evidence that legitimizing
elements did not increase as a result of these changes. H2 was accepted.
H3 and H4 predict the relationships among the use of sources and the protest para-
digm characteristics (Table 2). H3 hypothesizes that stories that cite ofﬁcial sources will be
more likely to adhere closely to the protest paradigm. Results reveal that ofﬁcial sources are
associated with mentions of peacefulness [χ
(1) = 2.29, p< .01], calls for non-violence
(1) = 7.73, p< .01], and marginally associated with violence [χ
(1) = 2.76, p= .06].
These results show that ofﬁcial sources emphasized the character of protesters’tactics.
For example, November 12, 2014, a story by The New York Times quotes Missouri Gov.
Jay Nixon highlighting peace and violence: “In the days immediately following Michael
Brown’s death, peaceful protests were marred by senseless acts of violence and destruc-
tion”(Yokley and Davey 2014). Ofﬁcial sources also were signiﬁcantly associated with the
“confrontation”frame; i.e. stories that emphasized clashes between police and protesters
(1) = 3.49, p< .05]. H3 was supported.
Stories that sourced protesters were signiﬁcantly more likely to also emphasize vio-
(1) = 4.93, p= .05], suggesting that across the board, authorities and protester
10 DANIELLE K. KILGO ET AL.
sources were related to violent coverage (H4). When protester sources were present, the
cause of the protests was mentioned about 30% more often than when protesters are
not present as sources [χ
(1) = 15.86, p< .001]. In addition, in 37.7% of the stories with pro-
tester sources, the “rights”frames were present; i.e. the issue was framed as a “civil rights”
(1) = 3.35, p< .05]. Overall, there is strong support for the hypothesis that protes-
ter sources lead to more legitimizing coverage with stories giving more coverage of their
ideas and interpretation, and less emphasis on confrontation with the police (H4
RQ1 sought to understand how pre-trial coverage differs from post-trial coverage).
Overall, chi-square results reveal that descriptions of protests as violent [χ
(1) = 13.46,
p< .01] and peaceful [χ
(1) = 13.76, p< .001] were more prevalent before the trials (see
Table 3). This contradiction can be explained by stories that emphasize conﬂict,
Relationship between sources and marginalization devices and frames
Yes No χ
Yes No χ
Peaceful 27.70% 10.00% 2.29** 27.60% 13.50% 4.93*
Violent 43.90% 31.30% 2.76 38.50% 36.20% .08
Calls for non-violence 30.50% 12.50% 7.73** 25.90% 19.20% .97
Riot 34.10% 25.00% 1.62 36.20% 26% 1.87
Confrontation 46.90% 32.50% 3.49* 43.10% 37.90% .42
Protest 67.90% 65% .15 86.20% 55.30% 15.86***
Rights 24.70% 33.80% 1.59 37.90% 24.30% 3.35*
Episodic 78.80% 81.90% .26 86.10% 77.90% 1.67
*p<.05, **p< .01, ***p< .001.
Marginalization devices, sources and frames over time
Pre-trial (N= 38) Post-trial (N= 126) χ
(df = 1)
Peaceful 39.50% 12.80% 13.46**
Violent 63.20% 29.80% 13.76***
Calls for non-violence 34.20% 17.70% 4.66*
Ofﬁcial 60.50% 48.40% 1.71
Protester 28.90% 38.40% 1.13
Family 21.10% 17.70% .21
Experts 39.50% 32.50% .53
Riot 36.80% 27.40% 1.32
Confrontation 50.00% 36.60% 2.18
Protest 47.40% 72.40% 8.13**
Rights 18.40% 32.50% 2.79
Episodic 86.80% 78.40% 1.31
<.06, *p< .05.
MARTIN TO BROWN 11
highlighting that some protesters were peaceful, but others were violent. For example, a
New York Times story posted “Mr. Crump’s statements came after another night of peaceful
but at-times tense protest in Ferguson”(Smith 2014). The article continues by quoting
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who suggested that violent action could lead to aggression
After the trial, coverage began to shift away from describing protests as peaceful or
violent, with stories that focused more on protester ideas, and grievances than physical
descriptions of their actions. This is evidenced by the increase in the protest [χ
8.13, p< .01], and rights frames [χ
(1) = 2.79, p= .06], which only approached signiﬁcance,
but also increased after the verdict. The ﬁnality of the court agreement exposed an oppor-
tunity for journalists to revert to an objective approach. Thus overall, we can see that jour-
nalists tended to shift to more legitimizing coverage after the trial, despite the uptick in
violent protests surrounding Wilson’s non-indictment.
H5 predicts online coverage will have more legitimizing and less delegitimizing fea-
tures than print coverage. Results show that ofﬂine sources are more likely to use all types
of sources, and the difference is statistically signiﬁcant for protesters [χ
(1) = 6.02, p< .05]
and approaching signiﬁcance for ofﬁcial sources [χ
(1) = 2.46, p= .06] (see Table 3). Across
the board, online stories rely less on sources. When it comes to frames, ofﬂine stories are
more episodic (90%) than online pieces (76%) [χ
(1) = 4.49, p< .05]. There were no differ-
ences in use of devices between the two types of stories (see Table 4). H5 was not
The recent law enforcement-involved shooting deaths of unarmed Black people has
ignited protests across the United States. This study examined the progression of protest
coverage found in national news organizations’content from two key shooting deaths:
Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. We ﬁnd that despite the maturing of Black Lives
Marginalization devices, sources and frames by outlet type
Ofﬂine (N= 54) Online (N= 110) χ
Peaceful 19.10% 19.20% .00
Violent 34.60% 39.40% .35
Calls for non-violence 26.90% 19.30% 1.21
Ofﬁcial 60.40% 47.30% 2.46
Protester 49.10% 29.40% 6.02*
Family 17.30% 12.80% .57
Experts 25.00% 15.60% 2.05
Riot 32.70% 27.50% .46
Confrontation 42.30% 38.90% .17
Protest 67.30% 65.70% .04
Rights 34.60% 25.90% 1.29
Episodic 90.40% 76.40% 4.49*
<.06, *p< .05.
12 DANIELLE K. KILGO ET AL.
Matter during this period and increased familiarity with incidents like those that resulted in
the deaths of Martin and Brown, journalists still struggled to diverge from the inﬂuences
and routines that create the protest paradigm. When confrontation and violent unrest
were present, journalists emphasized these features and, as such, this project does not
support speculations that news routines changed as journalists became more familiar
with protest demands and agendas. Nor does our research align with Elmasry and el-
Nawawy’s(2016) assertions that coverage was overwhelmingly sympathetic to Ferguson
protesters. Methodological differences are the key to understanding these differences:
Our work was more longitudinal while Elmasry and El-Nawawy looked at key peaks in
heightened activities. The not-guilty verdicts in legal proceedings did create signiﬁcant
shifts in journalistic practice: Coverage prior to the judicial rulings focused on protesters’
tactics (violence versus peaceful) and changed to the realm of ideas (grievances and
demands) after the acquittals.
In terms of the coverage of radical tactics, coverage patterns were comparably pro-
portional to the realities of the two cases: There were protester arrests, confrontations,
looting and rioting in Ferguson while nationwide efforts to protest Martin’s death remained
non-confrontational throughout the period examined. However, regardless of violence
levels, news coverage did not emphasize the peaceful activities that surrounded either
case; instead, activities were most often covered when conﬂict occurred or potential con-
ﬂict was expected, as anticipated by literature (Boyle, McLeod, and Armstrongs 2012; Dardis
2006). The inability to get media attention without resorting to violence can have unsatis-
factory results, such as receiving no coverage at all, as was the case for protests of Martin’s
death. In absolute numbers of stories devoted to each case, Martin had 10 percent less cov-
erage than Brown in elite publications. In other words, it is much harder for peaceful pro-
tests—like the ones surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin—to get any media attention.
Also, coverage did not become more inclusive of protest and rights frames in the year that
progressed between the two cases, regardless of the building national conversation about
Black Lives Matter (Freelon, McIlwain, and Clark 2016). Future studies should examine if the
inclusion of protest and rights frames progressed in the coverage of police violence against
Blacks, especially as more incidents occurred, such as the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, Jr.
and Sandra Bland, or the 2016 deaths of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile. What’s more,
even in the face of completely peaceful protesting—as was the case with Martin—coverage
still associated demonstrations with violence through “calls to non-violence.”In one op-ed
piece in our sample, Pollack (2014) explained that the accentuation of violence was a result
of the “lack of familiarity”with the Black community, reinforcing the thematic link of Black
protesters to violence.
Ofﬁcial sources dominated coverage in both cases and during both time periods,
contrary to previous studies that suggest bystanders and protesters may have more of a
voice in breaking news events like demonstrations (Keyser and Raeymaeckers 2012;
Wouters 2015). Police and ofﬁcers of the state had more narrative power in news coverage
than other sources for the protests analyzed. Our ﬁndings are limited in that the context of
ofﬁcial quotes is not considered. Future research should explore the stance of ofﬁcial
sources—or the agreement levels between political elites—analyzing the degree to
which they oppose protesters’narratives. We acknowledge that the use of ofﬁcial narratives
is a staple in journalistic routine, especially when ofﬁcial sources, such as the police, are
involved in the incident in question. As such, rather than simply suggesting journalists
should source protesters more, they should also consider the competing narratives that
MARTIN TO BROWN 13
may exist between ofﬁcial sources, giving a more holistic view of the various stances of
those in power.
Regarding the differences between online and ofﬂine coverage, results reveal that
the content is relatively similar; that is, there may not be a change in media norms and
expectations when covering protests for online and ofﬂine content. One of the few differ-
ences found was that episodic coverage was signiﬁcantly more likely to appear in print than
online. This may be a result of the more frequent presence of blogs and opinion pieces dis-
tributed in online venues. In the 39 editorial articles that appeared in our sample, 27 articles
were published online while only 12 were published in printed publications. From these
two ﬁndings, we make inferences that the structure of online and print articles from
legacy media might be presented or packaged differently. However, the content relevant
to protest remains remarkably similar. Additionally, while this study compared online/
ofﬂine sources within the same news organizations, future research should assess differ-
ences across various online-ﬁrst organizations (e.g. Hufﬁngton Post, Buzzfeed) and print.
This study excluded the local St. Louis dispatch because previous analyses found few
differences in local and national protest coverage (Mourão, Kilgo, and Sylvie 2018). Conver-
sely, we acknowledge that other research has shown that controversial race-related issues,
like the Jena Six Controversy, were framed differently by local and national papers (Holt and
Major 2010). As such, the framing of the deaths themselves and the controversy surround-
ing them may be crucial to consider alongside protest coverage (Kilgo 2017).
Our comparison of coverage before and after judicial decisions revealed that news
shifted from focusing on tactics to focusing on ideas once both Zimmerman and Wilson
were found not guilty. Violence was more likely to be discussed before the acquittals,
while post-trial coverage was signiﬁcantly more likely to include legitimizing frames.
Together, these results indicate that the verdicts are a key factor in journalistic framing,
shifting the focus from tactics to ideas. We speculate that the judicial decisions and
coinciding public discourse may have made journalists more willing to incorporate protes-
ters’demands that now must be met at a federal level of the judicial system. Though it is
possible that journalists refrained from covering the demands of the protesters as an
attempt to maintain objectivity and avoid inﬂuencing the judicial process, these ﬁndings
speak to critical scholars’understanding of the protest paradigm as a form of hegemonic
control—only after a judicial decision is granted, news coverage gives legitimacy to protes-
ters’demands. The injustice is, therefore, only considered after there is no space for formal
The implications of these results tie not only to media practice and the reinforcement
of the protest paradigm, but also to the interactions between media and policy. The relative
lack of legitimizing frame progression found in this research between cases reveals a con-
tinued stall in policy that remedies disparities Black people face. Policies associated with
police targeting of Black people (e.g. the war on drugs) as well as those that made econ-
omic and racial disparities deep within the Black community (e.g. zoning decisions, annexa-
tion, gentriﬁcation) are all thematically relevant aspects of each event’s“realities,”the
judicial process, and the societal implications. The continued lack of contextual information
and the marginalization of advocacy movements related to these issues suggests that
recent efforts advocating for policy change may fall on deaf ears. Our study ﬁnds that
some advocacy demands were discussed, but delegitimizing coverage was ever-present,
prompting the assertion that those demands mattered more under speciﬁc circumstances. In
this case, demands mattered most after Zimmerman and Wilson were set free.
14 DANIELLE K. KILGO ET AL.
The omission of multimedia and visual content is one limitation of this study and is
relevant for future exploration as was illustrated recently by Harlow and colleagues (2017).
While their research suggests multimedia invites breaks in the paradigm during social
unrest for international issues, our results reafﬁrm its persistence in domestic news, indicat-
ing a need for more systematic inquiries that includes both modes of communication and
location of protest. Another limitation of this study is the sample selection of highly-circu-
lated newspapers, and future work should consider and compare these ﬁndings with other
types of news organizations and news content, such as digitally native or alternative media
sources. Further examination of the online spaces (i.e. social networks, digital news sites,
and news-consumption platforms) might also lead to a networked understanding of differ-
ent impacts of certain media frames.
Despite these limitations, our ﬁndings have strong implications for journalism prac-
tice. Results show coverage exempliﬁed conﬂict and controversy when protester tactics
supported those narratives, and consistently gave less space to the demands and
agendas of protesters. Journalism educators should strive to teach future journalists to
ﬁnd newsworthiness in peaceful protest and to emphasize this peacefulness as a descrip-
tive articulation. Also, journalists can overcome some of the negative impacts of relying on
ofﬁcial sourcing by seeking out non-ofﬁcial voices and explaining differences between
various ofﬁcial stances. While mainstream reporters are sometimes reluctant to be per-
ceived by the public as activists, using protesters’quotes and giving them as much
space as they would to ofﬁcial sources is a way of challenging the paradigm within the
boundaries of objectivity. We argue that by diversifying sources and treating protesters
with an equal footing, journalists can avoid perpetuating news coverage that is detrimental
to any groups challenging the status quo.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
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