If you’ve never been part of a big protest in a major city, you should know that there’s nothing quite like it. Surrounded by people with whom you share at least one urgent belief, you move through the central arteries of a metropolis where regularly scheduled commerce and entertainment have been purposely disrupted by an outpouring of distress, outrage, idealism. Marching in a demonstration makes familiar sights strange—full of possibility but also, potentially, danger. Spend enough time in a crowd, and you’ll lose track of where it begins or ends; with street signs obscured, you look to buildings towering above the street for clues as to where you actually are. You read dozens of homemade signs, some of which are bound to irk you, for one reason or another, and strike up fleeting friendships with whoever gets randomly shuffled to your side. Sometimes there’s a commotion you can’t see the cause of, and it’s terrifying. Sometimes you feel bored, uncomfortable, achy, exhausted, claustrophobic. Sometimes the experience is transcendent.
Watching protests play out on video—even via live feeds—is a poor substitute for the sensory overstimulation of being there. The shaky, smeary amateur clips that circulate on social media probably come closest, allowing us to see through the eyes of one particular participant; the limitations of their perspective can be as significant as what they’re actually witnessing. News footage, shot by professional camera crews from vantage points that are often inaccessible to the people on the ground, adds another degree of distance. Yet that is how millions of people are observing the protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s unconscionable death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin as three other officers looked on. Broadcast and cable news, which have thrived throughout the coronavirus pandemic, continued to draw enormous audiences to their coverage of the unrest. And what viewers are seeing varies widely depending on where they get their news.
Like so many Americans, I’ve been glued to screens over the past few weeks, sometimes watching Twitter or Instagram video from the demonstrations on my phone as I watch news channels cover the same scenes from a different angle on TV. By now, most of us have some awareness of what differentiates the major networks’ sober, painstakingly evenhanded broadcasts, the liberal spin of MSNBC, the conservative slant of Fox News and the barrage of graphics, experts and takes that is CNN. It’s no surprise that just about every evening news anchor has toggled between just-the-facts accounts of the protests; reports of police brutality toward demonstrators; hand-wringing about looters; items expressing concern about public gatherings in light of the pandemic; and human-interest stories where black people and men in blue hug, listen to each other, march hand in hand. Nor would I expect any eyebrows raised at Fox News hosts holding forth, on Wednesday, under the headline “Attacks Against Law Enforcement Amid Nationwide Riots” while CNN announced “Large Protests in D.C. as Curfew Pushed Back Tonight” and the MSNBC chyron read: “Peaceful Protests Tonight in Cities Across the U.S.” We know that each outlet frames—if not, consciously or otherwise, selects—stories to fit either their respective in-house slant or a desire to appear neutral.
What we talk less about is the visuals that accompany those stories—which, in the case of protest footage, is often juxtaposed with the voices of hosts or guest pundits who may or may not be discussing the specific images we see onscreen. That, too, is carefully selected. You can tell because it differs so widely from channel to channel.
Most national news programs air live protest footage from two main angles. There are the breathtaking overhead shots of massive crowds in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, D.C. and beyond that establish a sense of the demonstrations’ scale. MSNBC and CNN (which has, since the protests began in late May, taken the lead among cable news channels in the coveted 25-54 demographic for the first time in 19 years) tend to use them as backdrops for monologues and discussions, sometimes in split screens or grids that give the view from multiple cities at once. They also place one or more camera crews amid the protesters; viewers get to read the signs, perceive the diverse demographics, note the generally peaceful atmosphere. Usually, there’s a reporter on the scene, as well, sharing impressions and talking with activists. On Tuesday, in what was unquestionably the most quintessential MSNBC moment I caught this week, a protester heckled correspondent Katy Tur for mentioning looting and she conceded that he was right to critique the media’s fascination with that aspect of recent events.
The most quintessential Fox News moment didn’t come until Wednesday—by which time the network was devoting much of its 7 p.m. hour to dissecting Rod Rosenstein’s testimony at a Senate postmortem on the Russia probe; expressing frustration that Monday’s fatal shooting of a retired black police captain, David Dorn, had not touched the same nerve as the wrenching video of Floyd’s death; and litigating Andrew Cuomo’s criticism of the NYPD. During an unrelated interview segment on The Story With Martha MacCallum, a camera trained on a protest in D.C. approached someone holding a sign that said “No More Black Bodies” and then suddenly started swiveling from left to right as though in a frenzy. Within seconds, the feed cut off. MacCallum and her remote guests filled the screen.
For the most part, Fox News—America’s most popular cable news network and one that, according to Nielsen, attracted an unusually large audience of 4 million to its live coverage of the protests on Saturday, May 30—has avoided the overhead shots and crowd perspectives its competitors favor. Though the network has placed some correspondents in cities where protests are taking place, they tend to report from places where there are relatively few activists present: the site of Floyd’s death, a storefront littered with shattered glass. Often, a split screen shows non-live footage of looting. When cameras do capture the protests themselves, it’s often from over the shoulders of a line of police, placing viewers in their shoes. From this angle, you don’t see their weapons or the plastic shields strapped to their chests. More than once, I observed a long closeup of a black police officer. As the MacCallum moment illustrated, Fox News rarely makes signs legible to its viewers or attempts to talk with protesters. The Black Lives Matter message, as well as the broad, mostly peaceful nature of the contingent assembled in support of it, remains obscured.
TV footage is never going to represent the experience of attending a protest in all its intensity and confusion. It isn’t easy, either, to fairly depict racial strife in America during such polarized times, with lives on the line and white supremacy on the rise at the same time as antiracist movements gain popular support. The median point on the political spectrum doesn’t always align with the most objective assessment of the situation. Reporters have been arrested, as CNN’s Omar Jimenez was, and injured by law enforcement at protests in an unprecedented assault on freedom of the press. Other journalists who’ve been covering recent events in good faith are taking risks, messing up, facing criticism. (Look at the turmoil at the New York Times this week, over an op-ed from Senator Tom Cotton that read to many in the paper’s own newsroom as an incitement to state-sponsored violence.) CNN headquarters in Atlanta became a focal point for some protesters. Rethinking old standards is not just healthy, but necessary.
But it isn’t just opinions—or words in general—that can manipulate and deceive. Visuals, while harder to pick apart, can be equally effective. And as TV news producers surely realize, they don’t have to be doctored to serve propagandistic purposes. It’s crucial to be aware of when we aren’t seeing the full picture, and to ask ourselves why. If there’s a crowd of thousands assembled at a protest, shouldn’t viewers get to observe what that looks like, read the signs, sense the mood of the crowd? When it comes to how we understand this moment, some of the most important images are the ones many of us don’t see.