International protest events and the hierarchy of credibility: media frames defining the police and protestors as social problems.

AuthorSchulenberg, Jennifer L.


The 2010 G20 Summit was covered extensively by the media and involved the largest mass arrests and investigations into police conduct in Canadian history. One thousand one hundred and five people were detained, 330 charges laid, the Crown Attorney proceeded with 66 cases, which resulted in 32 guilty convictions, with the remaining 264 cases stayed, dismissed, or withdrawn (Hussey and LeClerc 2011; Monaghan and Walby 2012). Several hundred police officers were disciplined internally, with two officers charged with assault based on video evidence provided by citizen journalists (McNeilly 2012).

The purpose of this paper is to analyse how mainstream corporate print media framed protesters, police, and events at the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. An argument will be made that the hierarchy of credibility needs to be reconceptualized as it can shift over time when crisis events occur. A neglected area in current research is the application of Becker's (1967) hierarchy of credibility to international protest events and the question as to the consistency of primary definers in media coverage over time. The findings of the present study examine these issues and also contribute to an ongoing conversation on the institutional nature of police-media relations in the context of a public order crisis.

From this standpoint, we investigate four research questions: (1) What aspects of the G20 Summit are selected by the media to set the boundaries for our understanding of the events and those involved? (2) Which frames are used by the media to create images of the police and protesters as social problems? (3) To what extent are media depictions of international protest events consistent with the hierarchy of credibility? and (4) In what way do media portrayals of police and protesters vary over time?

To contextualize the study, a brief overview of the relationship between the police and the media at international protest events is provided, followed by a summary of the hierarchy of credibility, media frame analysis, and the analytical approach. The findings are presented within the issue-specific frames of security preparedness, policing protest, and controversy, using the generic frames of attribution of responsibility, conflict, human interest, and economic consequences. Finally, we question the default assumptions about who constitutes primary definers of reality and review the relationship between the media, their techniques, and temporal shifts in the inferential structure of police and protesters.

Order maintenance and protest policing

Scholars have consistently shown that there has been a shift over time in the way public order and protest events are policed. Research indicates a trend in policing behaviours of moving from "hard" to "soft" tactics (Gillham, Edwards, and Noakes 2013; Gorringe and Rosie 2013; Rafail, Soule, and McCarthy 2012). This trend, though, is not necessarily linear or consistent across geographic locations (Rafail, Soule, and McCarthy 2012). In addition, some argue that policing of international protest events is an exception to this trend and that these events should be viewed as a distinct category, as they do not occur in the context of national cultures and policing (Martin 2011; McPhail, Schweingruber, and McCarthy 1998).

Research finds that escalated force was the style of policing favoured in the United States during the 1960s protest wave (Rafail, Soule, and McCarthy 2012; Stott, Scothem, and Gorringe 2013). This style of protest policing was repressive and involved mass (often unprovoked) arrests, use of force, and a refusal to communicate with protesters before or during a protest. However, the use of this approach declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as police began to see protests as a legitimate form of political expression and showed increased concern for protecting First Amendment rights (Gillham, Edwards, and Noakes 2013). Negotiated management became the alternative style of protest policing, although this shift in approach has not been accepted uncritically (De Lint and Hall 2009; Martin 2011; Monaghan and Walby 2012; Zajko and Beland 2008).

Negotiated management focuses on engagement with protesters prior to protests. There is an emphasis on peacekeeping strategies, such as standardized protest permits, arrests as a last resort, less reliance on surveillance, and an under-enforcement of the law (Ericson and Doyle 1999; Gillham 2011; Gillham and Noakes 2007). However, when economic and trade interests, involving internationally protected persons, are at stake, policing is often openly coercive and the rights of protesters are less important than maintaining social control (Baker 2008; Della Porta and Reiter 2006; Martin 2011; McPhail et al. 1998). Thus, the use of negotiated management techniques is neither universal nor uniform, as police responses vary depending on the situation and event (Rosie and Gorringe 2009; McPhail et al. 1998).

The attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States accelerated the adoption of a new protest policing technique: strategic incapacitation (Gillham, Edwards, and Noakes 2013). While negotiated management emphasizes cooperation and communication between police and protesters to pre-empt violence, strategic incapacitation aims to ensure the security of the event by neutralizing possible threats from transgressive protesters (Gillham 2011). The use of non-lethal weapons, preemptive arrests, surveillance, and infiltration of protest organizations together with the control of geographic space is increased to maintain public order (Ericson and Doyle 1999; Gillham 2011; Gillham and Noakes 2007; Martin 2011; Monaghan and Walby 2012). According to Zajko and Beland (2008), policing international protest events is increasingly characterized by the use of highly repressive tactics in situations where spatial control is threatened. While some international protest events have seen successful use of negotiated management techniques (e.g., the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles Scotland), at other times, it has been rejected from the beginning and strategic incapacitation has been the preferred policing strategy (Ericson and Doyle 1999; Gillham 2011; Gorringe and Rosie 2008; Sheptycki 2005).

Police and the media

We adopt the position that the media serve an agenda-setting function, where media priming directs attention to an issue, with cues as to how readers' personal beliefs should be transformed into an attitude consistent with the frame presented (McCombs and Shaw 1972; Nelson, Clawson, and Oxley 1997; Smith, McCarthy, McPhail, and Augustyn 2001). Instead of presenting a neutral position, frames tend to support specific actors or discourses (Cooper 2002). The media position themselves as agenda setters and mechanisms of social accountability by establishing who is accountable, what they should be held accountable for, and what should occur as a result of this accountability (Bonner 2009).

Researchers have long stressed the importance of police relations with the public, especially as it relates to police legitimacy. Police struggle to maintain legitimacy in the face of competing pressures. There is often a discrepancy between public expectations of police and what actually can occur, given the limitations and nature of the job (Chermak and Weiss 2005). The police are accountable not only to the public but also to other stakeholders and political agents, with diverse expectations (Chermak and Weiss 2005). To maintain their legitimacy in the face of competing expectations, they need to develop and maintain a relationship with the public so that their work is viewed as effective and necessary (Gourley 1954; Lee and McGovern 2013).

Motschall and Cao (2002) note that, increasingly, police organizations are using relations with the media to help build and boost public support for their activities. In fact, many police organizations are implementing professionalized public information or media relations units (Chermak and Weiss 2005; Huey and Broil 2012; Mawby 2010a; Motschall and Cao 2002). These units are responsible for disseminating information to the media on responses to crime and efforts to enhance public safety (Chermak and Weiss 2005). Researchers argue that mass media images are a source of police information for the public, and these images, indeed, help enhance the legitimacy of the police (Huey and Broil 2012).

Crime stories make up a significant portion of news stories, and reporters rely heavily on police sources (Chermak and Weiss 2005). Research finds an asymmetrical relationship between the police and the media (Lee and McGovern 2013; Mawby 2010a). Since the police, often through professional media units, release the information to the media, they are in control of what message is provided. In this sense, they are gatekeepers for the information. Police may reveal information that they know will benefit their operations and their image (Huey and Broil 2012; Sacco 1995; Welch, Fenwick, and Roberts 1997).

However, others suggest the police-media relationship should be viewed as one that is negotiated and symbiotic (Huey and Broil 2012; Mawby 2010b). For example, while newspaper reporters often rely on verbatim use of police press reports (Lee and McGovern 2013), media can also serve a watch dog function and question the legitimacy of police practices (Huey and Broil 2012). While police may be frustrated with how they are portrayed in the media (Huey and Broil 2012), they rely on that media depiction for public support and consent (Lee and McGovern 2013). There is a tenuous balance between revealing too much information so as to jeopardize an investigation and imposing excessive information control so that the public becomes suspicious of police behaviour and effectiveness (Huey and Broil 2012). Furthermore, intensive media coverage can cause people to modify their position on appropriate or justifiable enforcement...

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