Photo by Lois Kapila

Some on social media have criticised media coverage of the Take Back the City (TBTC) protests in recent weeks.

Media researchers and commentators keep a close eye on coverage of protests. That’s because how news media represent social and political demonstrations can shape public perceptions and political responses.

As the news cycle evolved over one phase of the movement, from the occupation of Fredrick Street to the TBTC March, some themes emerged on social media. Some users complained of a lack of news coverage, and said coverage was either too kind or too critical of the protesters. Others questioned the portrayal of Gardaí.

TBTC did get coverage. There were more than 110 articles published in nine of the major Irish digital news outlets from 9 to 24 September. That’s a low estimate, ignoring reports on other news websites, television, and radio.

While the occupation was not on SixOne on the day, homelessness was a feature story and the march was featured on both RTÉ and Virgin News. “We were on the RTÉ news,” said Michelle Connolly, a spokesperson for TBTC.

Hosts and callers discussed the protest on several of RTÉ’s and Newstalk’s radio shows. Was it enough? Some will say it wasn’t enough, others, that it was too much.

Connolly said there was a decent media presence on the ground at the occupation and that over the course of the protests, they have ongoing contact with journalists.

“They do contact us, and we are open to talking to almost anyone. They use the social-media content we post up, and we are happy for them to do that. They ring us and call down,” she said.

But there are questions about how the protest was represented. Some on social media have said that coverage was biased against protesters and soft on Gardaí.

This narrative is consentient with “the protest paradigm”, a concept from communication studies that describes a broad pattern in news coverage of demonstrations that often delegitimises and demonises protests and protesters.

While there were some examples in recent coverage that would be typical of this, it was not as ubiquitous as it may have been before the digital era. The power of the paradigm seems to be shifting and weakening over time. Researchers have found that news media are incorporating a wider range of voices and can embrace dissent.

Examining the type of articles, the sentiment, and who was identified as the protagonists of conflict, the representation of the protest as a problem was not as explicit as some might think.

Some of the coverage of the TBTC protests was just informational – the who, what, when, where, why of the situation. This still involved potentially loaded language such as “bringing the city to a halt” or “standstill” or “protesters arrested”. But by the same measure, there was also coverage of the Gardaí in balaclavas, particularly in the use of photos.

Some articles depicted overt support for the protest in the coverage of Labour’s, the Social Democrats’ and campaigner Peter McVerry’s backing of the protesters.

The perspectives of protesters were also included in media discourse. Also, at times, the protesters were depicted as being subject to abuse, suffering injury, and having to face the “heavies”.

Part of the protest paradigm is the idea that news coverage will be mostly favourable toward the police and state. However, the coverage of the occupation, in particular, was critical of how the Gardaí handled the situation, particularly with the use of the term “heavies” to describe the balaclava-clad public order officers.

News coverage stayed on the story with criticism of Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan’s suggestion to ban the filming of gardaí, in one piece described as “unforgivable”.

On the other hand, there were also representations of gardaí as victims. There was coverage of one garda being racially abused, and coverage was particularly negative towards social-media threats to gardaí. But there was little explicit sympathy for the handling of the eviction or protests in Frederick Street.

Some of the media criticism focused on RTÉ having Paddy Cosgrave on Morning Ireland to discuss the march and the issue of housing, rather than someone from TBTC.

The organisers also thought this was bizarre. “It was very strange; we were baffled by it really. There was no contact with us, which is why we were shocked. We would have made an effort to send someone,” said Connolly.

Having the movement represented by someone not central to it annoyed organisers  because the discussion omitted some of their core concerns, she said.

Across the spectrum of news media, the coverage of TBTC wasn’t simplistic. It wasn’t ignored, there was a range of voices in the discourse, substantive issues around housing are being discussed, and organisers and journalists are engaging with each other.

In the past, news media have rightly been criticised for conforming to the protest paradigm, and they may yet again.

But with a range of representations, the inclusion of user-generated content, and a more open approach to protest in general, Take Back the City took back the paradigm.

The Garda press office did not respond directly to queries about media representation.

Niamh Kirk is the Newman Fellow in Digital Policy at the School of Information and Communication Studies and The Centre for Digital Policy, University College Dublin.

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