A North Carolina media expert weighs in on how to cover a minority view that, nonetheless, sure makes for juicy imagery.
Armed protesters in downtown Raleigh carrying rifles, pistols and even an inert rocket launcher.
Hundreds of anti-government, anti-public health demonstrators lining Jones Street in front of the capitol.
Both calling for North Carolina to get back to business as usual sooner than epidemiologists recommend.
These groups, which are now showing up in the state capital several times a week, present a conundrum for news outlets across North Carolina: How much coverage do they deserve?
Editors and news directors must decide how many resources to expend on covering protests by two distinct groups – ReOpenNC and Blue Igloo – that are calling for the state to restart its economy prematurely.
There is no doubt these protests are newsworthy. They are vocal. They are visible. They are creating conflict. Their staged protests are visually compelling.
Defining what is newsworthy is more like making a pot of stew than baking a cake. You add ingredients until the pot is right. And these protesters are adding ingredients that assuredly ripen that stew. Timeliness, controversy, proximity and relevance are all factors that go into determining when a story has risen to the level of warranting coverage.
It is news when an African-American family out for a walk in their neighborhood is harassed by a protester carrying a massive pipe wrench and holding his arm out in what can fairly be interpreted as a Nazi salute.
It is news when a ReOpenNC organizer and several other demonstrators are arrested during a protest on charges of failing to heed the governor’s stay-at-home order.
But these protesters also represent minority views, which introduces the danger that excessive coverage can lead readers and viewers to believe the movement is more prevalent than reality.
The ReOpenNC group, which is largely connected via a Facebook page with approximately 75,000 followers, represents less than 1% of the state’s 10.5 million residents. The Blue Igloo group is significantly smaller with perhaps a few hundred followers. It’s worth noting that being a “follower” of a group on Facebook does not require explicit support for a group’s viewpoint.
Public polling also supports that their views are in the minority. A recent Meredith Poll found that 76% of voters supported Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to extend the stay-at-home order to May 8 and a similar number, 72%, did not want schools to reopen this academic year.
A WRAL poll found similar results, with 52% of respondents saying the state should not reopen until June 1 or later.
All of this raises the question of how to balance coverage of these groups without giving them undue influence by amplifying their voices. That’s not a simple question to answer.
They’re creating compelling images – both video and still – at a time when those are frankly in short supply for news organizations. Video is the lifeblood of television. A strong photograph draws readers into a news story online and in print.
As most people are adhering to the various stay-at-home orders, there are simply fewer things to photograph. There are only so many days in a row that the lead video on the nightly newscast or front-page picture on the newspaper can be of a press conference.
It was during a Blue Igloo protest on Saturday that a News & Observer photographer captured compelling images of demonstrators carrying arms – including an inert rocket launcher – while marching through downtown Raleigh and stopping for Subway sandwiches.
He also captured a picture of the wrench-wielding man confronting a family out for a stroll on a beautiful day.
Raleigh television stations have used their helicopters and on-the-ground reporters to provide live real-time coverage of the weekly ReOpenNC protests, which are well-timed to lead the noon news.
Yet overplaying the story because it has compelling visual aspects runs the risk of leading the audience to believe this is the most important story of the day. These protests are relatively minor in the much larger story of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When we look back on this period of time in the coming months and years, we’ll be focused on how people were living their lives, surviving economic hardship and working to help keep each other safe. Unless one of these protests gets wildly out of hand, they will remain a minor footnote.
The coverage also tends to gloss over the fringe nature of these two separate groups. The ReOpenNC Facebook group is led by a woman, Ashley Smith of Morganton, who holds anti-vaccination views and referred to herself as a “sovereign citizen” to a newspaper reporter. The sovereign citizen movement is its own special kind of crazy. Its adherents generally believe they are not subject to the laws of any state. At times, its members have acted out violently toward government officials.
The Blue Igloo group is a not-so-veiled reference to the “boogaloo” slang used by far-right militia-fetishists itching for an armed revolt. It is a dangerous movement fomenting the language of a new civil war.
News organizations across North Carolina must strike a balance between covering these stories and inadvertently giving them too much credence.
It’s imperative that relevant background information about these groups is included in coverage and that the amount of space or time provided is tempered against the understanding that their views are not commonly held and are potentially dangerous.
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