Thursday, October 6, 2011

Lost in the Headlines

In the Daily News and the New York Post, the peaceful nature of last night's protest at Zuccotti Park, which brought 10-20,000 people to downtown Manhattan, was lost in headlines that emphasized a confrontation between police and maybe 200 of the protesters that took place late in the evening.

The front page of the News trumpeted "Brawl St.," complete with a cop blasting pepper spray at a protester. Inside, a news story provided a much more accurate depiction of the evening's events and stressed how clashes broke out only after nightfall. And a column by Jimmy Breslin grasped the importance of the rally and its union presence.

The Post gave over its front page to the death of Steve Jobs and ran "It's Brawl Street" on page 7. The Post acknowledged that the protest was peaceful before it turned violent late in the evening but emphasized the confrontation, thus allowing the last act in the drama to define the story about the rest of it.

The New York Times ran "Seeking Energy, Unions Join Wall Street Protest" on the front page above the fold beneath a four-column photograph of the demonstrators. This piece, clearly the product of lots of reporting on the unions and the occupy Wall Street movement, relegated the post-demonstration violence to one paragraph. But what the piece ignored in breaking news was compensated for with strong analysis and a great map of Zuccotti Park that helps explain the organizational depth of the protesters who set up camp in the park.

As we saw in the Sixties, a peaceful protest was defined by disproportionate coverage of a trouble-seeking minority of protesters. As is so often the case, it was the photos and headlines that were most misleading. Photographs are great for capturing action and anger, but they just can't carry the nuances best conveyed by words.

Journalists can and should do better. At the same time, the protesters who ended the night by looking for a confrontation on Wall Street, which was beyond the site of the rally, made their own mistake. Their actions made it easier for headline writers and photographers to misrepresent their movement. At the next protest, we need to see wiser heads prevail.

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