14 min read

The Media's Role in Criminalizing Climate Protest

A new report shows how mainstream media's deeply flawed coverage of climate protest plays into efforts to criminalize climate activists.
The Media's Role in Criminalizing Climate Protest

Next week, we're going to start our new season, The Real Free Speech Threat, covering the growing criminalization of environmental protest around the world. It's our first big cross border series, and it will include dozens of stories, both in the podcast and online. One thing we'll be looking at in the media's role in enabling this trend.

Before you can criminalize protest, you have to vilify the protesters. And to do that effectively, you need the media's help. Evlondo Cooper at Media Matters reviewed media coverage of climate protests in the U. S. from May 30th, 2022 to July 31st, 2023 for a new study.

He documented a trend that we've been seeing too. Not only has the U. S. media perpetuated the idea that climate protesters are uniquely disruptive, and radical, but their general failure to cover anything about climate protest other than the disruption that they cause, further perpetuates this thinking.

Evlondo's research found that while multiple national outlets have run stories about climate protesters being annoying and destructive, not a single broadcaster has run even one story on the fact that nearly half of the states in the U. S. have now passed laws criminalizing protest. That fact is both shocking and worrisome.

Interview transcript

Amy: So I wanted to start by just asking you, what prompted you to start looking at how media was covering climate activism.

[00:01:39] Evlondo Cooper: Yeah. So I had been seeing these, infrastructure laws, the steady march in state after state of the criminalization of protests generally and climate protests specifically. And so I wanted to see how the media was covering it. The problem was we knew that the media wasn't covering specifically the criminalization of climate protest.

And so seeing this kind of global surge and climate activism, specifically around, kind of provocative climate actions and civil disobedience, we thought that was a way that we could kind of get at understanding how media was covering climate protests generally.

And to see if they were adding some context, to these protests.

[00:02:26] Amy: So yeah, I know that just purely anecdotally, whenever I pitch a story that's related to protest, it's kind of a hard sell. You know, it's like, What's really happening? Is it new? Nobody wants to cover a particular action because then it feels like you're just doing PR for the environmental organizations.

What do outlets , when they do cover protests at all, what are the sorts of stories that you're seeing?

[00:02:55] Evlondo Cooper: So the vast majority of the stories were kind of dry recitals of what happened. You know, first, there still wasn't even that much coverage of, I guess, these more controversial climate actions, right? So we have to put that in context, that, um, I think a lot of these actions are designed for kind of social media virility.

But. It's important, um, for me to understand that, you know, social media is its own kind of activism. But I think there are also a lot of persuadables. Older people, older voters, um, who were trying to get on board with understanding the need for urgent climate action, who still get most of their news from mainstream sources.

So that's why we wanted to kind of focus on the kind of traditional, um, corporate news media environment. And, but all you would see really is just a dry recital of, you know, a specific action. You didn't get any context about the urgency behind the action, why the people were protesting. And to me, it, it called to mind there have been a lot of really great justice movements that have employed controversial tactics and there are good faith disagreements within those movements themselves about which tactics to deploy. But I think a lot of those would have been much less successful if people didn't really understand why they were protesting in the first place.

And so the media presenting these climate activists as just disruptors, as nuisances, as knucklehead kids, who don't really know what they're doing or why they're doing it. paved the way for me, which I think is a more dangerous trend, which is what you have an organization like Fox News, which, covered the protests with way more than other, um, mainstream news outlets.

And their coverage was full of derision, climate denial, and, and mocking, and even calls for violence against the protesters. So I think. You have a, a mainstream news environment that when they cover these protests, they cover them as just the most basic kind of headline news rundowns. These activists did this at this, you know, gallery or they protested this sports event.

There's no climate context. There's no context about the escalating criminalization of their protests. There's no context about the violence being directed at them. And then you have a network swooping in and filling that gap with These are bad people who are protesting a fake thing and they deserve whatever they have coming to

[00:05:26] Amy: That's so interesting, just how much the vacuum creates. The ability to kind of, um, do the Fox News style coverage and have it land too. But yeah, it's been very interesting to me to see how much the coverage focuses on You know, how disruptive these kids are and like, like even, so the example that is top of mind to me right now is the, the recent, um, New York times piece where they talked about the, art protests and how they're costing museums money.

Right. And I completely coincidentally, I happened to be interviewing Joanna Altman Smith the same day that that story came out. Right. So like. This is, she's one of the people who protested at the National Gallery. They put, um, water soluble kids finger paint on the display case of a Degas statue in the National Gallery.

So like, not an incredible amount of damage, very easy to clean up. You know, they read a manifesto and talked actually a lot about why they were doing this, and And whatnot. And she, she told me, she's like, I spent hours, hours and hours talking to the reporter who wrote that piece about all of the reasons why, like it was worth the risk for us.

And, and by the way, this is someone who's facing a charge as a person who is conspiring against the United States,

[00:07:01] Evlondo Cooper: It's insane.

[00:07:02] Amy: which is insane. She's facing 10 years in jail and half a million dollars in fines, um, for this action. She has had her passport taken, and none of that was in the story, you know, like, it's, there was nothing about, Um, the reason for the protest, there's nothing about the, overwhelming weight of the charges compared to what the action itself actually cost, so anyway, it's just... It's really interesting because I feel like, that kind of framing really helps the criminalization of protests because it does, it like makes all of these protesters seem like annoying mosquitoes, right?

It's very dehumanizing. was there anyone that you saw doing a good job of covering this and, like, did it tend to break down across sort of expected lines in terms of, mainstream media versus smaller or more independent outlets?

[00:08:06] Evlondo Cooper: Yeah. Well, okay. So on, on the broadcast side, no, I mean, they didn't, they didn't cover it enough for it to even be meaningful. Um, on cable, not really no. Sparse coverage and when it was, just dry recitation

no context. The newspapers provided a more nuanced picture. Um, the Washington Post published the most stories. And this is just looking at print. Because I know there were some on, like, online specific articles that were really harsh against the climate protesters.

And there was someone that were, that were really kind of, um, wonderfully defensive of their actions.

And you saw that kind of coexisting on the print side, too. Which to me is problematic because you're sending mixed messages to your, to your readers. You know, I know you're trying to present a kind of broad outlook on this. But like you said, any, any article that doesn't include the context about, uh, the scale of the protest versus the scale of the response, to me, is not doing its job.

So, but you did have a more nuanced picture among the print outlets. The New York Times published one or two decent pieces. so I think the overall, I can't say though that there were very many standouts because among print any standouts were kind of negated by harsh chastising or decontextualized articles that, didn't present the whole picture.

And I think part of what, what angers me about this. Is that a lot of these papers and especially on cable and you've seen and then you see present themselves as democracy defenders, right? But when it comes down to it, the people who are actually practicing democracy, the in the best tradition, civil disobedience on behalf of a righteous cause, there is draconian responses to them, whether it's legally or through the police.

We had, uh, a forest defender murdered in Atlanta protesting. Police facility, and this doesn't get covered. It doesn't get contextualized. And so instead of being democracy defenders, while they're good on, you know, the kind of right wing, uh, Trump stuff, they are completely falling down, to me, on the people who pose the biggest threat to the system, which are climate activists, leftist protesters, who are being demonized, dehumanized, as you mentioned, and being criminalized.

And this gets no attention in this Corporate media sphere.

[00:10:41] Amy: Yeah. Did you look at all at whether there was any difference in how publications covered different types of activism? Whether there's any difference in how they cover a climate protest versus something that's more, like general interest democracy kind of thing? I feel like I see a lot more annoyance with the climate protesters that I've seen with other types of protesters.

And it's really interesting to me. I'm like, where's this coming from?

[00:11:14] Evlondo Cooper: So, we don't have a data point for this, but I can definitely say that there is no small measure of respectability politics at play with regards to these specific protests, right? Because... You know, they, they cover Earth Day, right? You know, it's not, it's not particularly great coverage.

But Earth Day receives generally positive coverage, at least amongst the mainstream news. The youth climate protests were a few years ago, right? Were generally well received, you know? They're deemed to be, you know, proper way of protesting. You know, marching in the streets, holding signs. When it comes to anything slightly more subversive or direct, you do see a lot of this hand wringing, specifically with regards to climate. You know, you could argue that the BLM protests, were disruptive, they were loud, they were aggressive.

And, you know, they got their point across, but the media didn't cover them like they cover climate activists, right? Because, rightfully so, criminal justice, demand for criminal justice, and racial justice are deemed to be worthy causes, and the protestors are given more leeway in how they, agitate for those causes.

But something about climate, where if it's not done in this very specific way, it's very kind of old school style protest. Anything slightly provocative is really, denigrated, and it's viewed as illegitimate.

[00:12:40] Amy: Yeah. You know, we did this episode, Mary and I, when we were doing a hot take, we, we did this episode maybe like two or three years ago, talking to Rev Yearwood about how, like, in the early days of the environmental movement, a lot of the environmental organizations were, very specifically not wanting to engage in either Class struggle or racial equity.

And part of why they had created this whole separate environmental thing was to be like, we're not engaging, you know, and now I feel like climate has become a broader. Movement and it has become more of a challenge to certain class and racial problems as well and I wonder if like, I don't know, maybe it's just as simple as like, hey, it's a threat to capital,

[00:13:30] Evlondo Cooper: I mean, let's get to the core of it, right? I mean, the core of the, of the problem is that the media, you know, despite, you know, We're talking about, uh, broadcast and cable news right now. They're, they're kind of, they don't really do a great job on climate already, right? Climate is not a top priority.

It's not covered like it needs to be. It's not providing the context and substance it needs to be, right? Outside of a few moments and a few instances. So already climate isn't taken seriously enough by these corporate news outlets. Then on top of it, you add climate driven protests, and then you add the climate driven protests that are deemed, disrespectful or, or illegitimate because of, of the form of protest.

You know, you have this ready made recipe, um, to either ignore or distort what the protests are. And then you add on the threat that they pose to, uh, vested interests like the fossil fuel industry. Because all of the demands are to, you know, immediately transition away from a fossil fuel economy in order to thwart climate change.

You gotta add that messaging in as well. I mean, it's just, it's a perfect recipe for poor, poor coverage.

[00:14:40] Amy: Yeah. Have you gotten any sense in, in looking at, um, all of the coverage that, that maybe part of it too is the way that, controversy sells, having a bad guy always kind of, you know, brings people into a story there's just that kind of framing happening too to make the story more interesting.

[00:15:01] Evlondo Cooper: I mean, definitely on a f I mean, that's, that's the thing, right?

On the Fox side, definitely, you know, however you feel about these protests, they are designed to get media attention and they do get a lot of social media attention. I thought they would be getting a lot more attention on broadcasting cable news, but they didn't, which is why Fox saw a ready made villain for the audience and they seized it.

You know, they seized that narrative and they hammered it home time and again. What you got from the, from mainstream corporate news was basically indifference, which to me, you know, Yeah. So it's weird. You have protests designed to grab media attention and it got mostly indifference from the, from the main, from the mainstream media sources.

But Fox definitely saw that narrative that you pointed out of a ready made villain.

I think, you know, you were talking about the weird tenor of the coverage of protests. Yeah, another weird thing for me, which I would have at least captured in some of the methodology, right, is Yeah, the media's complete lack of concern for, the surveillance capitalism state.

That is literally being built around us in the shadows, and you don't hear about it at all. And to me, more so than even protests, it's a direct threat to how journalists can do their jobs.

[00:16:19] Amy: totally. Yeah. It's really interesting and, and I wanted to ask you too about the, um, I know I've seen several stories in this vein and I'm curious if you saw this emerging as sort of a thread, but I do see coverage of like, who's funding these activists and not not just in the Fox News, you know, Soros checks kind of way, but like, you know, the near, again, the New York Times. Sorry, sorry, New York Times. But they, they ran a story, I don't know, maybe two years ago, where the focal point was that like a lot of the organizations that are funding activism, their money comes from oil heirs, basically.

[00:17:02] Evlondo Cooper: yes. Yes.

[00:17:04] Amy: But it was very much in this like Soros checks kind of Framing and again, there wasn't much in there about why the individual people showing up to these actions felt compelled to be doing this work and the idea that someone would be, engaging in activism as their job is like really vilified in the media, like, that automatically means you're not credible.

You're biased or whatever, like you're a paid actor, that kind of thing. And I mean, I don't know. I'm like, people have to eat and pay rent. I don't think it's terrible for someone to devote their life to something that they actually feel strongly about--that's usually applauded in many areas of society. So I'm curious what you've seen on the coverage of the money side of things.

[00:18:01] Evlondo Cooper: Yeah, I remember reading that article, and they seem more upset that she was a class traitor than, you know, than anything, right?

I mean, you know, I, I think transparency and funding, if journalists can dig into that stuff and, and, and highlight it, I think it informs public discourse, but, you know, it's very one sided because ALEC is pushing a lot of these, infrastructure laws and the fossil fuel industry is behind them.

It's funding them to push these criminalization of protest, domestic terrorism, all this kind of draconian stuff. But you never hear about this industry who's being greenwashed in the mainstream media on the backhand, uh, pushing laws that would literally undermine democratically protected protests. So, um, yeah, if you want to cover the money trail, cover it for both sides.

And I think you'll find much deeper pockets on the fossil fuel end than you will on a few rich progressives funding some climate activists group.

[00:19:04] Amy: Yeah. I can't think of a single mainstream outlet that I've seen even cover the critical infrastructure laws, which like, Seems like a pretty big deal. HuffPost has covered it, The Intercept, Unicorn Riot, you know, these kinds of outlets, The Guardian has covered it. That seems like it would make for really good TV, that story, you know,

[00:19:29] Evlondo Cooper: I always think like the journalists, print and online journalists work so hard. These stories are already pre packaged, right? So building a news segment around it to me doesn't seem like that big of a stretch because most of the work's been done, but you still don't see it.

[00:19:43] Amy: And then, yeah, because it's been, , very well documented that, the fossil fuel industry funded that work. The American Fuel and Petrochemicals helped to write the legislation. I mean, it's, you know, it's all there. In some ways, you know, like we're doing this series and some of the stories I'm kind of like, isn't that old news?

But I'm like, well, it hasn't actually really broken through somehow to people that this is happening and I also feel like actually it has bipartisan appeal. When I talked to people who are, otherwise fairly right wing about And I don't even tell them that it's related to climate protest in particular, I just

[00:20:25] Evlondo Cooper: right? Right.

[00:20:26] Amy: talk about the criminalization of protest.

They're like, that's not right. You know? What? That shouldn't be happening. You know? So, I don't, I don't know. It's very strange.

[00:20:37] Evlondo Cooper: mean, there are people in my life who, you know, who I love, but who get their news primarily from kind of the main corporate. They don't get much of the news from online news sources or independent news sources. And yeah, they don't. You know, every time I publish something or share something with them, they have no idea that this stuff is going on.

I mean, no idea. And to me, that's

[00:20:58] Amy: Yeah, totally.

[00:20:58] Evlondo Cooper: dereliction of duty.

[00:21:01] Amy: Yes, especially when you're talking about laws that criminalize sort of a key part of democracy in this way, I just, I, it's really shocking that it's not everywhere. In general, I feel like the we just are so far away from the media kind of taking any responsibility for this stuff.

[00:21:21] Evlondo Cooper: I mean, I guess it wouldn't matter as much if so many voting age people still didn't, primarily get their news from one of these mainstream news sources.

And I think these are people that we need to reach in order to actually drive climate action, put pressure on politicians and policymakers. And, you know, I think that's why it's so important. If they're not hearing about any of this stuff,

[00:21:45] Amy: yeah,

[00:21:47] Evlondo Cooper: it's, it's only going to get worse.

[00:21:49] Amy: Yeah. Is there anything that you found in the study that we didn't talk about already that you want to make sure people know about?

[00:21:57] Evlondo Cooper: I think the media, they think that if they mentioned climate change or connected to an extreme weather event, You know, that, that is an improvement, but this is what should have been happening 10, 20 years ago.

What they don't understand is that they have to rapidly improve their coverage to catch up to where we are now. We're way past just mentioning climate change and being like, hooray, you, you mentioned climate. I mean, thank you for doing it. Again, keep doing it.

[00:22:21] Amy: Yes.

[00:22:23] Evlondo Cooper: You have to like rapidly scale up, um, the, the quality of your coverage.

And I just don't, I, I think they're still caught up in what we were mentioning climate. We're saying extreme weather. But we're way past that and they need to really, and the more people, more groups can agitate for that kind of rapid improvement and shame, shame them, I think the better.