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The Protest News Framing Cycle: How News Attention and Framing Change over the Course of a Protest


When protests are successful, they force us to realize another world is possible. To be successful they have to communicate their message effectively and be persuasive. News coverage can often determine whether a protest will be successful or unsuccessful at amplifying its message and persuading audiences.

This dissertation examines the relationship of news organizations and protest movements. It asks three primary research questions. First, how does news attention to a protest rise and fall over time? Second, do news organizations pay attention to the causes and grievances of protesters? Third, how does news framing of a protest change over time? To answer these questions, I develop a theoretical model, the protest news framing cycle, and present the results of a longitudinal analysis of news attention and framing of protest movements.

To identify the frame-changing dynamic occurring over time, I conducted a content analysis of the news coverage of Occupy Wall Street and the G20 protests in London, Pittsburgh and Toronto. The study identifies longitudinal changes in news frames about the substantive issues of a protest and the conflict that ensues between protesters and city officials during a protest. Findings suggest that conflict has a significant impact on the number of news stories about protests. Further, the results demonstrate how news framing opportunities change as a movement reaches different stages of the news attention cycle. The cases studied here illustrate that when the protests grew, journalists focused on the protesters' grievances, including economic inequality, bank bailouts, ending the Iraq War, and climate change. As the movements peaked, news attention shifted to the intensifying conflict between city officials and protesters. Ultimately, prolonged conflict is typically followed by a decline in protest news interest.

These results reveal the small window of opportunity protesters have to attract public support before news attention wanes and underscore the importance of protester tactics in shaping the narratives of coverage. Protesters have to strategically weigh the costs of confrontational tactics because such tactics can elicit more news attention to the protest, but these tactics might overshadow the core message of the protest itself.

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