The Vocabulary of Protest

Some day I’m going to compile a list of all the adjectives used by journalists writing about protesters. Sometimes protesters are irresponsible, obstructive or stubborn, other times they are aggressive or violent, and usually the word anarchist crops up sooner or later.

What’s interesting about these adjectives is that they are never chosen by the protesters themselves. Rule number one of journalism – represent all sides fairly – goes out of the window when people have the temerity to express their opinions outside the officially sanctioned method of putting an X in a box twice a decade. Pacifists are described as anarchists, anti-capitalists are communists, environmentalists are eco-terrorists. Always the actual aims of the protesters are obscure. (note: in this post I am talking about the “mainstream” media — people at places like Indymedia often do a better job of interviewing protesters, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.)

The reason for these strange and inaccurate descriptions is that journalists get their information from “official” sources – police, corporations, academics, the government. These sober voices pronounce their carefully reasoned judgements on the motley mobs of crazy people out in the streets below, and the journalist dutifully transcribes. The result: a hopelessly biased story that sounds perfectly fair and neutral.

It’s not always the journalist’s fault, though. As I’ve discovered, an individual can only do so much within a large news organisation. A story, once submitted, goes through editing by sometimes dozens of people, so that the story can often change beyond recognition.

Reading this story on a Greenpeace protest against over-fishing of cod, for example, I thought at first it was a classic example of lazy journalism. A legitimate protest about an important issue had been completely overlooked, and the headline was an echo of the fishing industry’s view: “Greenpeace protest ‘was suicidal'”.

On closer reading, however, I felt a little sorry for the reporter. He or she had actually spoken to the protesters and got their side of the story, including the claim that a trawler failed to change its course and swept them aside as they were in the sea holding their protest. There was even a quote from campaigner Willie Mackenzie:

The fishing industry and politicians have ignored the scientists and continued to batter cod stocks. We’re in the North Sea to save the cod from extinction. We’ve had to take action today to stop cod being caught because otherwise it will disappear from the seas and our dinner plates.

The trouble was, this quote came right down at the bottom of the story. Research has suggested most readers only pay attention to the first couple of paragraphs of stories, so positioning is critical. And positioning is ultimately determined by editors. Most importantly, reporters (at least in the places I’ve worked) have no say over the headline, and often don’t even find out what it is until the story’s published. The headline sets the whole tone for the story, in this case that the protesters were suicidal and the poor fishermen were put at risk by their crazy antics.

Imagine, for example, a simple experiment in editing: the same story with the same facts, but with the order reversed. It begins by quoting Greenpeace saying its protesters’s lives were endangered by the fishing boat refusing to change course. The fishing industry response comes at the bottom, so that they are the ones who appear to be on the defensive. And instead of “Greenpeace protest ‘was suicidal'”, the headline reads “Trawler ‘was reckless'”.

Same facts, very different story. So much for journalistic neutrality. Who knows, maybe the reporter did actually file a piece similar to my ‘alternative’ version, and had it switched around by the editors. If that happens often enough, the reporter will probably stop even interviewing the protesters altogether, just sticking to the “official” sources that will go down well with his editor. Then you’ll end up with something like this.