Framing the Open America protests accurately means changing routines so public perception isn’t warped

The people protesting closures are hacking the journalistic news value of covering what is novel or contrary over what is normalized/accepted. The effect is amplifying a view the vast majority of Americans oppose. Which is fine; airing another view has its place.

But here’s the thing.

The protests have to be understood in the context of how right-wing protest and media operations work now. The protest is the visual show that becomes the seed of more coverage. It is just the beginning, and the goal is publicity, as Whitney Phillips has noted in her excellent scholarship regarding social networks and extremism.

Covering these protests the wrong way can afford them an ill-gained type of legitimacy in the face of public opinion. In this case, an overemphasis on visuals can warp a news consumer’s sense of what is real. Loud protesters, guns, screaming, tight TV and photo shots that make the crowds look greater in number to the untrained consumer.

Here is an example of visual framing I use in classes: Fox News and the famous toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue.

“You can’t keep them away,” intones the host as the video plays.

The tight zoomed composition, the commentary, the sound, Fox News’ particular orientation toward the Bush war on terror—those are all in play in how viewers decode the event. They contribute in a way that adds to the visual consumption, and the viewer creates metanarratives that go beyond the mere facts of what is on screen. This is how visual media works, how we can imagine things beyond what we see with our own eyes.

I remember being taken in by that moment myself as I watched it at home. Years later, I saw this photo:

The city square wasn’t nearly as densely packed as the narrative my mind created. This is not to say the event itself was not important, but rather to suggest that how you feel about what you’re seeing would be quite different if the TV cameras were showing the scene from the perspective in the photo.

Image can lie to us, in part because we don’t understand how editing choices and production techniques frame how we understand events. Fox News has issues, but I don’t think this is intentional. Tight shots and focus are how you create good TV. So this is not a gripe about Fox but rather a call that we have to be aware of how to compose visuals that reflect reality.

So back to the current protests. Being aware of subtexts in covering Opener protests is important. Frames should include up front, in headlines and chyrons, that these people are in the extreme minority of Americans. You can’t count on people watching to know the polling. If you don’t, you create an impression of support that isn’t consistent with reality. You can’t assume people watching that clip, that coverage, know what the polling actually says.

But selection, framing, and limited context is exactly how right-wing media works its magic. It takes coverage from legitimate media (“even the liberal NY Times is covering it, gosh!”) and uses that to create an air of legitimacy. Then Fox News, OAN, right-wing sites, YouTubers, social network pages go to work. They’ll start by citing that coverage out of context (headlines or snippets of text or video only), then use social networks to amplify. A poorly framed visual or headline is what goes viral, not the story that buries critical context 10 paragraphs down. That headline/visual is packaged with Hannity’s nutty take, not a link to the source. In this case, the source is used to give a frame of legitimacy to media content devoid of nuance or context. The NYT agrees, says the person who shares or believes without going to the source.

Social network scholars have been talking about this problem for a while (I mentioned Phillips before, but you should check out her work). The process of using news conventions to prop up conspiracy theories and make protests look overwhelming is how the news unwittingly is used to amplify conspiracy theory.

There are ways to combat this. News instead needs to be packaged with inoculants in headlines, audio, text packages on TV and in print. Anticipate disinformation efforts, produce content that is harder to selectively snip.

Imagine someone watching those Michigan statehouse events and knowing up front that these people were in the extreme minority. Then those in the audience see those visuals—people with armor and guns, yelling at and threatening public officials—and hear in context that the protests are largely astroturf efforts by rich GOP donors, buttressed by white supremacist groups who are seeing an opportunity to latch on? The interpretation changes. This is an armed, vocal minority trying to bully Americans with latent threats of violence.

That’s context that lets users understand better. This is hard work. News tends to be episodic in coverage. It’s not well suited for a world of viral conspiracy theory spread. But as we start to see Republican support for CDC expertise receding, we can’t say it’s coming from nowhere. These folks are being force-fed paranoia and the illusion that they are some type of silent majority.

This is how you get this.

I mean, it’s kind of astounding.

I have friends like Kilmeade on Facebook and Twitter. A lot of them, maybe more than most. This is not an uncommon view. They’re convinced they’re in the majority. “I don’t know anyone who ….” is something I read quite a bit; it’s the sign of some one in an echo chamber, but that shouldn’t matter to us. That’s their reality, and it’s driving their decisions and choices.

The news industry’s main job right now is figuring out how to tell its stories in ways that break down those silos. This isn’t normal right/left stuff. This disease doesn’t know ideology, and will not contain itself to people who are reckless. News, social platforms, etc. — they are not well set up for this moment. They have to pivot to a strategy that sees containing con artists as job one.

Empathy still matters. In the link above with the public opinion data, there is some hope. Knowing someone with COVID moves the needle toward supporting social distancing. But we shouldn’t get to the point of needing the public to know someone who has COVID before they want to help. The news can point the way, tell us stories about the good it’s doing in a difficult time.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. He studies activism and jounalism in the context of social networks and digital culture.