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From Protest to Agenda Building: Description Bias in Media Coverage of Protest Events in Washington, D.C.

Jackie Smith, John D. McCarthy, Clark McPhail and Boguslaw Augustyn
Social Forces
Vol. 79, No. 4 (Jun., 2001), pp. 1397-1423
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2675477
Page Count: 27
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From Protest to Agenda Building: Description Bias in Media Coverage of Protest Events in Washington, D.C.
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Abstract

Social movements often seek to draw attention to issues they deem important by organizing public demonstrations with the aim of attracting mass media coverage. But only a small proportion of all public demonstrations receives any media attention. This article asks whether even the minimal coverage that demonstrations receive reveal any influence of social movements in shaping how issues are framed by the mass media. Analyzing newspaper and television news stories on Washington, D.C. protests held during 1982 and 1991, we ask whether news reports on protests are framed in ways consistent with the aims of protesters. Do demonstrators receive media coverage that highlights the issues about which they are concerned, or does coverage focus on the protest event itself to the exclusion of the social issues that movements target? Our results support much of the surmising among media scholars, that even when movements succeed at obtaining the attention of mass media outlets, media reports portray protests in ways that may undermine social movement agendas. Despite this obstacle to communicating protest messages through demonstrations, movements engage in other forms of communication that can affect public interpretations of mass media frames.

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