Cheers and jeers: Local media coverage of student protests for immigrant rights

Thousands of California high school students walked out of classes on Monday, adding their voices to the weekend’s protests against proposed legislation, still pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, that would make being an illegal immigrant a felony.

Sounds like a great story, right? Lots of minority teenagers organizing on their own to take civic action and participate in politics. This is exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, according to everyone who always is saying that young people are apathetic and ignorant when it comes to politics.

Unfortunately, some Central Coast media chose to focus on the negatives of the protest: kids not being in school, getting into fights, blocking highways.

Right. It’s a protest. That’s what happens.

Anyway, I hadn’t been paying that much attention to local coverage of what happened this week in Watsonville, where 75 percent of the population is Latino (according to 2000 census via wikipedia), until I noticed this item in the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s Editors’ Notebook.

Sentinel Managing Editor Don Miller wrote:

The sight of students blocking traffic, waving Mexican flags, and fighting and failing to heed police and school officials is probably not going to win many converts.

Right. Okay, now let’s check out the stories the Sentinel wrote about the student protests:

  • Looks like this was posted as “breaking news” online during the day on Monday. A police captain is quoted, but no students. The story starts off explaining why they’re out there, and then says things “turned ugly” in the fourth paragraph with no explanation of why things are happening “as the students threw bottles and fists.”
  • 800 PV students rally for immigrant rights (Tuesday 3/28):
    • The lead mentions traffic jams, but no violence, and does mention why the students were protesting. Mentions of arrests and police action come before the first quote from a student about the protests. In the eighth paragraph, the writer says “the proests seemed to lack leadership” without any attribution or evidence. There are plenty of good student voices, though, and the story doesn’t seem tilted that hard in any direction.
  • Nearly 1,000 Watsonville students rally again (Tuesday 3/28 online only, I think):
    • In the lead, the students “ditched class.” Again, the police captain is the only source quoted. After the lead, there’s no mention of why the students are protesting, and no quotes from students.
  • Day two of protests turn violent at Pajaro Valley High (Wednesday 3/29, the next morning’s story that includes material from Tuesday’s online update):
    • The lead has the students “precariously close to clashing with dozens of officers.” The story mentions the immigration issue in the lead and the first few paragraphs. There are no student quotes about the issue; the rest of the story details the protest march and arrests, mostly from the police’s point of view.
  • Two more stories from Wednesday’s paper, here and here, have only adult perspectives, with no student quotes.
  • Danah Boyd, a Berkeley researcher who studies youth and social networking, wonders aloud about why some of the press took such a condescending attitude toward the protestors. Was it because they weren’t white? Would the reaction have been the same if thousands of students walked out of their classes to protest the war?

    Boyd asked:

    By trivializing the youths’ participation, the press failed to capture the significance of this political act. How long has it been since so many students took a public stance? Has it been since Vietnam? What is gained by belittling the students, punishing their act, and pooh-poohing their engagement with the public sphere?

    As an aside, especially to my classmates in 290 spending a portion of their spring break working on our youth & media lit review, the students used cell phones, text messaging, and their MySpace accounts to plan the protests…

    But back to the local media critique:

    The Salinas Californian took on the protest story with a positive angle, leading off their Wednesday coverage with The student walkouts and rallies for immigrant rights that swept across Salinas and the nation this week mark a level of Latino activism unmatched in decades.”

    Where are the students ditching school? The conflicts with police? The violence? Oh, you mean that wasn’t what the story was about? It was about politics and culture? Oh.

    In another Wednesday story, the Californian has the protests being “marred by minor violence” in the lead, but gives a balanced account, including quotes from students on why they walked out. The bottles being thrown in this story are clearly tagged as water bottles (think plastic) and it’s clear where, when, and at whom they’re being thrown. The story also ties the protests in with others around the region, giving the story context.

    My favorite part about the Californian’s coverage is the “Special Report” on illegal immigrants, dated December of 2005, but apparently reposted on the newspaper’s website to add even more context to this week’s events.

    Watsonville’s own newspaper, the Register-Pajaronian, took a balanced tack on the protests, with a detailed story full of quotes. The writer manages to work in the chronology of events without depending on the police captain for much, with lots of quotes from students about the issue and the march, not to mention quotes from an actual farm worker who participated in the protests.

    Even in the Register-Pajaronian’s stories that take adult angles on the protest, dealing with traffic here and consequences here, I feel like I’m getting much more of the story than I did in the Sentinel.

    What’s the moral of the story?

    As one familiar voice at our student newspaper would say, “You need some more student voices in there.”

    Protests happen all the time. Tell us what’s different about this one, and tell us what it’s about. The fact that there is a protest is not news; the fact that thousands of students all over the state walked out IS news. The fact that protesters and police clashed — is completely normal. Tell us if there are any arrests or injuries, and move on. Focus on the issue – why are they there?

    Cheers to the Watsonville and Salinas papers, an honorable mention to the Monterey County Herald, and jeers to the Sentinel.

    3 thoughts on “Cheers and jeers: Local media coverage of student protests for immigrant rights”

    1. […] Ryan Sholin, a student in San Jose State's journalism program, critques the way Central Valley newspapers have covered the student walkout story:  My favorite part about the Californian’s coverage is the “Special Report” on illegal immigrants, dated December of 2005, but apparently reposted on the newspaper’s website to add even more context to this week’s events. […]


    2. Hmm. This came up in Mack’s copy editing class recently, but it was about an obituary. I’m not sure regular ol’ public figures get the lowercase-preferred special treatment, unless they’re dead or famous. At the same time, I don’t exactly adhere to AP style here…


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