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How the local Commercial News Coverage has Hijacked the narrative around Black Lives Matter protests in Grand Rapids

June 5, 2020

Critical analysis and media literacy are essential for moments like these, especially when marginalized black voices are pleading with the rest of society to listen and learn.

This urgency around critical thinking is particularly important as it relates to news coverage, especially since most news coverage we consume is commercial, with tremendous financial pressures, along with the fact that news rooms, news executives and editors are dominated by white people.

Therefore, I thought it would be useful to look at how 4 of the largest daily news sources in Grand Rapids have been reporting on the protests in town since Saturday, May 30 through the June 3rd protest in Grand Rapids. This is only 5 days of coverage, but it can tells us a great deal about how the commercial news media has been framing the protests and how they influence public perception, particularly white consumers of local news media, which are still the majority in West Michigan.

The number of stories we tracked were 22 from MLive, 23 from WOODTV8, 19 from WZZM 13 and 33 from WXMI 17.

In a media saturated world, it is well documented that people will often not go beyond the headlines, so we looked at all of the headlines from each of these news sources during the 5 day period.


The MLive headlines had several themes, but out of the 22 MLive stories we looked at, there were only two with the words Police Brutality in it, compared to 14 headlines with the word Riot in it. WOODTV8 has 14 headlines with the word Riot, with not one headline that had the words Police Brutality. WZZM 13 had 4 headlines with the word Riot, along with others focused on property destruction or violence, but not one that had the words Police Brutality in the headline. WXMI 17 had 14 headlines with the word Riot, but none with the words Police Brutality.

Right away this should tell us something about how powerful language can be used to mold public perception. There were also lots of headlines from all four news sources that used the word Peaceful, but such a term is often also misleading, since it doesn’t provide a larger contextual framework. For instance, there were several headlines using terms like curfew and National Guard, but never referring to them as “violent,” even though the presence of the National Guard, the GRPD – both of which are heavily armed –  and the imposing of curfews, would be considered violent by many.

I mean, the use of the term peaceful in this recent coverage is exclusively centered around public behavior, but not institutional behavior. Consider all the stories of the GR Police Chief and other cops kneeling with protestors. If protesters had sidearms they would not be considered peaceful, but cops and members of the National Guard can have guns, tasers, mace, clubs, etc., and that is not seen by many and certain not by the media as an expression of violence.

Each of the four commercial news sources we looked at also had stories that about the GRPD setting up an online portal for people to submit information, pictures and video in order to arrest people involved in last Saturday’s protest. Why did the commercial news media feel the need to report on this, if it were not for the fact that they agree with the same principles of “law and order” that the GRPD promotes.

In addition, each of the four commercial news sources we looked at, had multiple stories about either the “cleanup” or businesses that were impacted from any property destruction last Saturday night. MLive has 4 of such stories, WOODTV8 had 6, WZZM 13 had 2 and WXMI 17 had 9 stories that centered around the organized clean up or business impacted from last Saturday.

Sources cited

Who the news media talks to is important, since it centers some voices over others. Media Watchdog groups like Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting have been documenting how news sources influence our understanding of issues and events. GRIID has been doing some of the same kind of work, looking at the Grand Rapids news market, so we are familiar with how central sources are to the overall narrative of news stories.

In the MLive stories we looked at during the 5 day period, we found the following sources cited:

  • Government officials – 12
  • GRPD – 11
  • Downtown Business owners/employees – 11
  • Protesters – 7
  • Those assisting with the clean up – 3
  • Residents opposed to “vandalism” – 2

WOODTV8 sources cited:

  • Government officials – 15
  • GRPD – 14
  • Downtown Businesses – 7
  • Those assisting with clean up – 7
  • Protesters – 6
  • Urban Leaders – 2
  • Former cop – 1
  • Mother of cop – 1
  • Resident who witnessed 1967 riot – 1

WZZM 13 sources cited:

  • Government officials – 12
  • GRPD – 10
  • Protesters – 10
  • Urban Leaders – 2

WXMI 17 sources cited:

  • Government officials – 14
  • GRPD – 10
  • Those assisting with clean up – 7
  • Downtown Businesses – 6
  • Protesters – 5
  • Lawyer – 1
  • Witness – 1

The sources cited from each commercial news source, also indicates which voices were centered in the coverage of the protests and government response over the 5 day study period. Government and police voices are the most dominant, with business and clean up voices combined taking up the next most space, with protesters being the least important. In addition, the protester voices that did appear in the commercial news sources we documented, were voices that were primarily after the uprising/riot took place, always with the news media framing these protest voices as “peaceful” and almost completely avoiding the larger structural issue of White Supremacy. What should have been an opportunity to amplify black voices, resulted in the same voices that are always centered – state voice, business voices and cop voices.

Internalizing the values of the System

This brings us to the larger issue of how these news stories were collectively framed. Media framing is often described as the angle or perspective from which a news story is told. While news is often thought to be objective and value free this is rarely if ever the case. In fact, what media researchers have been saying for decades is that commercial news sources tend to internalize the over-arching values of the dominant culture and the larger systems of society, which are fundamentally systems of oppression.

This means that the coverage of what took place in Grand Rapids since last Saturday, was framed through the dominant social, cultural and political values. For example, protesting can only be viewed through the lens of peaceful or non-confrontational, when in fact a great deal of public dissent and protest has been very confrontational throughout US history and often operates outside of the legal framework – civil disobedience, insurrection, uprisings, strikes and occupations are all part of how people have protested/dissented. Therefore, to create the good/bad protester framework in just dishonest.

Another major value that the commercial news media has internalized, is the fact that they rarely recognize structural violence or structural looting. Every day in Grand Rapids, black people are are subjected to poverty, police harassment/intimidation, limited resources, limited choices, redlining and gentrification, yet these issues are rarely acknowledged. Therefore, when people rise up and demonstrate their collective anger and pain, the commercial news media sees vandalism and disrespect for the law, when in fact what is often happening is a collective response to the the oppression of White Supremacy, Capitalism and State violence. The City of Grand Rapids brings the National Guard in to “restore order,” when in fact the order they are restoring is racial injustice, a massive wealth gap, despair and whiteness.

Looking at these news stories collectively affirms our analysis and demonstrates that the commercial news media in Grand Rapids plays a major role in how the dominant culture views West Michigan. We need to come to terms with the fact that are growing number of people, especially black people, who are tired of living under the boot of West Michigan Nice.

MLive stories

Grand Rapids protesters scatter after police, National Guard move in


Michigan National Guard Humvees line street in downtown Grand Rapids


Protesters walk through Grand Rapids, cars honk in solidarity


WOODTV8 stories

WZZM 13 stories

WXMI 17 stories

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