Framing Peace as Violence: TV Coverage of L.A.’s May Day 2007

January 11, 2009

On May 1, 2007, thousands of Los Angeles residents took to the streets to reprise the massive immigrant rights march that captured the nation’s attention a year earlier. The day began with a peaceful march of about 25,000 people in downtown Los Angeles, followed by a smaller afternoon march to MacArthur Park. Sadly, violent police misconduct abruptly ended this second rally. In half an hour, more than 450 police officers forcibly broke up the rally of 6,000 to 7,000 people, according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s own report. The LAPD reported that no marcher was arrested for fomenting this violence. At the same time, it accepted responsibility for having injured 246 people with “more than 100 baton strikes” and at least 146 “less-than-lethal impact munitions” (i.e., hard rubber bullets).[1]

The LAPD report stated that the police attack was “unprovoked” and blamed the violence on, among other things, a failure of the police command structure and inadequate planning. Moreover, the report found that the police officers did not properly declare the assembly to be unlawful, so when they forcibly dispersed the marchers, they violated the marchers’ First Amendment rights.

How did the TV newsrooms represent this important event to the public at a time when the nation’s attention was focused on immigration policy? To find out, my research team and I examined 51 stories about the day’s events, broadcast by three national networks and five local L.A. stations. Our study combined three independent approaches: fact-checking (we evaluated the accuracy of the reporting by comparing it to the LAPD account); critical discourse analysis (we focused on the metaphors that anchors and reporters used when they spoke about the social agents involved); and visual semiotics analysis (we interpreted how the newsrooms visually represented the events).

Our results were disheartening. We found that local and network television newsrooms presented the events of May 1 using a conventional frame that we call the “riot-suppression narrative.”[2] Like all journalistic narrative frames, the riot-suppression narrative features a set of stock characters—villains, victims, and heroes. The marchers in this narrative are cast as violent (hence criminal) agitators, while the police are law-abiding government agents charged with disciplining disorderly civilians. And for this particular news event, the role of victim was reserved for news media personnel caught up in the police attack—not families with children in strollers, innocent marchers, or even the hapless street vendors—because the riot-suppression narrative always indicts demonstrators as the violent perpetrators.

The riot-suppression narrative, which we detected in all three of our analyses, did not become dominant until the news broadcasts of May 2. Before the LAPD attack, news stories from the morning of May 1 were framed in terms of two oppositions: the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency versus immigrants, and peaceful demonstrators versus anti-immigration advocates. Such a framing allowed, at least on the verbal, if not the visual level, humane depictions of immigrants. For example, during CNN’s May 1 edition of The Situation Room, correspondent Thelma Gutierrez stood in a crowd of about 100 marchers, most of them wearing white T-shirts and waving U.S. flags. The camera was positioned so that only Gutierrez was granted journalistic authority. It did not bring the marchers into focus, rendering them part of the background with no individual subjectivity. Indeed, most of the images of demonstrators in most of the stories we analyzed were distant or aerial shots. In this way the correspondent was portrayed as a unique person, while marchers were shown as undifferentiated masses.

Gutierrez framed the story as a march of peaceful demonstrators by saying: “Many of these people are wearing white T-shirts . . . as a symbol of peace.” She also noted that the demonstrators called for immigration policy reform. She mentioned the diversity of the demonstration and described the ICE deportation raids that separate families. But her positive comments toward the marchers were undercut by the camera, which continued to visually portray the demonstrators as a faceless mass.

Even after the LAPD attack, a handful of reporters at the scene reported the peaceful nature of the marchers, making statements like “We did not hear any order to disperse.” The following day, however, the framing of the stories swapped the perp and victim roles. Factual inaccuracies, we noted, became numerous as the riot-suppression frame became dominant. For example, on the morning of May 2, Fox News correspondent William La Jeunesse broadcast reports saying: “Police ordered the stragglers to disperse first by helicopter and siren, then loudspeaker and bullhorn. That’s when protesters began throwing bottles and rocks at police, knocking one officer off his motorcycle.” These false claims were then echoed in subsequent TV news reports from CNN Newsroom, FOX News Special Report With Brit Hume, and FOX News Report With Shepard Smith.

The LAPD report contradicts La Jeunesse’s claims: “No complete dispersal order was given in either English or Spanish,” it states, adding that “this failure likely resulted in a number of people who had no idea that they were being ordered to disperse.”[3] Later on the same day, La Jeunesse offered Fox News viewers a more detailed (and more error-filled) report: “Police Department sources tell me that this incident actually sparked hours earlier when a man was arrested for shoplifting. Later, members of his group or gang, about 50 to a 100, came to the illegal immigrants’ rally here demonstrating and inciting the crowd.” Our research team found no police source for La Jeunesse’s report, no evidence of a shoplifting arrest, no late-arriving group (much less one that could be identified as a gang), or any group that incited the violence. Nor did the other network or local news stories confirm any of these embellishments.

Using the riot suppression frame, on May 2 newsrooms took pains to report the number of injured police officers and news media personnel, many of whom were caught up in the chaos. But they failed to mention, much less enumerate, the injured demonstrators. In contrast, consider how journalists regularly report on casualties in disasters like earthquakes or floods. If casualty figures are unavailable, they pointedly mention their absence and promise to relay them when they become available. For this May Day news event, however, television news omissions and inaccuracies were always at the expense of the marchers.

Our research (which is based on cognitive science), focuses attention on the metaphors used by journalists to portray the people involved in a news event. These metaphors are particularly powerful ways to construct mental images for viewers to make sense of news events and the people involved.[4] To this end, we found 1,342 spoken metaphors in the 51 news stories. Reporters or anchors described the immigrants as CRIMINALS, as ALIENS, or otherwise inhumanely 63% of the time, while they depicted them as WORKERS, as UNDOCUMENTED, or with otherwise humane metaphors 32% of the time.[5] The media depicted the demonstration itself as peaceful 34% of the time and as violent 59% of the time. The marchers were characterized as PEACEFUL or in otherwise humane terms 8% of the time, and VIOLENT, CRIMINAL, or in otherwise inhumane terms 83% of the time. In sum, the news media verbally depicted both the marchers and the police as equally violent, in contrast to the LAPD’s version of events. Note that this broad generalization mixes different reports (for example, local versus network and FOX versus MSNBC) and combines the reports on May 1 before and after the attack with reports aired on May 2. Subgroups of the stories revealed the same patterning.

If we focus only on local news stations, they initially spoke about immigrants in a balanced manner: 48% CRIMINAL or MASS versus 50% HUMAN or WORKER. However, following the police attack, IMMIGRANT AS CRIMINAL metaphors shot to 75%, reflecting the riot-suppression narrative that falsely indicts the victims. After the attack, local news accounts rendered DEMONSTRATORS AS VIOLENT 94% of the time.

While metaphor analysis of verbal reports provides important information, visual semiotic analysis of a subset of nine stories reveals a more complete picture. Visually, the shift to the riot-suppression frame was accomplished by replacing images of peaceful marchers with those of the LAPD in full riot gear striking demonstrators (and journalists) with batons and shooting them with rubber bullets. Yet the newsrooms sought to mitigate this direct visual evidence of police culpability. For example, they were careful to include statements of officials like Chief of Police William Bratton, who assured the public that only some police officers got out of hand, while a few anchors and correspondents repeatedly blamed demonstrators for instigating the violence by throwing rocks and bottles at police officers. But a review of all the video broadcast showed only one brief video clip of such an action. On the other hand, we found ample broadcast visual evidence that police officers violently attacked defenseless, peaceable marchers.

Our study shows a contradiction between what network television news presented and what the actual footage showed. Moreover, the networks limited the airtime allotted to interviews with demonstrators, while giving significantly more time to anchors, correspondents, journalists, and police personnel. Aerial coverage remained the most popular camera technique, which kept viewers symbolically detached from the demonstrators, who were rendered as faceless masses. When demonstrators were interviewed, they were shown enraged or injured and remained nameless. When anchors verbally described the police as violent (as occurred 87% of the time), we noted mitigating on-screen captions like “Excessive Force?”

Such newsroom skepticism, however, was strained in the face of the abundant videotaped evidence from numerous professional and amateur sources of the unprovoked LAPD attack on families, ambulant vendors, and well-seasoned and remonstrate journalists and their camera crews. Consequently, a striking feature of the May 2 reports were the many disclaimers that reporters made regarding the judgment that the viewers at home should withhold. For example, two local newscasts shared a video clip showing “media attorney Royal Oaks [who says] by looking at images it appears that police may have abused their authority, but he stresses that until a thorough investigation is conducted, no one should rush to judgment.”[6] Local newsrooms also made serious efforts to get statements from official spokespeople for the police associations. These statements were aired without a concomitant response from the rally organizers.[7] For example, KABC Eyewitness News told its viewers: “The police union has issued a statement asking the community not to rush to judgment. As they put it, ‘Sometimes policing isn’t pretty.’ ”

Our three analyses allow us characterize the television news reporting of the violent events of MacArthur Park as a journalistic debacle. Using constitutive metaphors that construct social roles and set up narratives that interpret actions as normative behaviors, the television news did not depict the LAPD’s unprovoked actions in ways that represented the police as the perpetrators of violence, as the police commission did in its report.

When television news media falsely and repeatedly depict peaceable marchers as violent instigators, the political ramifications are substantial. The police actions fit the definition of “political violence.”[8] The media coverage of such events likewise needs critical oversight.

The immigrant rights social movement had galvanized the nation’s attention with the Great May Day Marches of 2006. On that day, 5 million people marched in more than 100 cities across the country. Its sheer size took the nation by surprise, and its political impact could not be denied. It effectively forced many previously unconcerned U.S. citizens to reconsider the place of the formerly invisible immigrant workers in our society.

In 2007, however, when the news media effectively cast these marchers as agents of violence, the peaceful nature and message of the demonstrators was lost on the nation. The news media worked the standard framing of an alleged confrontation; the news media also made peaceful marchers out to be the instigators of the violent police response. With such a framing, the nation passed over the political issue of immigrant rights and depreciated the moral legitimacy of the peaceful marchers. Since the portrayal of moral legitimacy to a national audience is a key element of an effective social movement, on May 2 the television news media undertook a political role that reduced the public estimation and support of this movement.[9]

1. The full report, titled “An Examination of May Day 2007 MacArthur Park,” was issued in October 2007 and can be downloaded at

2. We base our riot-suppression narrative on McLeod and Detenber’s “protest paradigm.” See Douglas McLeod and Benjamin H. Detenber, “Framing Effects of Television News Coverage of Social Protest,” Journal of Communication 49, no. 3 (1999): 3–23.

3. LAPD report, 9, 50.

4. See Otto Santa Ana, Brown Tide Rising: Metaphoric Representations of Latinos in Contemporary Public Discourse (University of Texas, 2002), chapters 2 and 3.

5. These latter figures do not add up to the overall totals since we do not refer to so-called minor metaphors (which rarely occur) and metaphors that are neither violent nor peaceful.

6. KCAL 9 News at 4 p.m. and KCBS 2 News at 5, both on May 2.

7. As in: “The president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League released this statement earlier today. Allow me to quote it here. ‘The clash at MacArthur Park started when officers tried to disperse demonstrators that moved off the sidewalk into the street threw rocks and bottles at officers.’ They go to say: ‘The officers gave a legal dispersal order. That is important. Our officer gave a legal dispersal order and were met with the violence. In coming days, it will become clear what transpired. Until then there should be no rush to judgment.’ ” KNBC Channel 4 News at 5 p.m. KTTV-FOX Ten O’Clock News aired a similar report.

8. Hillel Nossek, Annabelle Sreberny, and Prasun Sonwalkar, “Introduction,” in Media and Political Violence (Hampton Press, 2007), 1–22.

9. Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Collective Action, Social Movements and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Otto Santa Ana, an empirical sociolinguist and critical discourse analyst, is Associate Professor in UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies. Research assistance: Layza López, Edgar Munguía, Omar Torres, and Martín Vallejo. A longer, more detailed version of this article is being reviewed for publication by Aztlán: A Journal of Chicago Studies.


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