Power and Peace: A portrayal in a prejudiced world of police and protestors

Power and Peace: A portrayal in a prejudiced world of police and protestors

Group 11: Rocky Frahm, Aurora Gangan, Caroline Kelly, Bo-Ryoung(julie) Lee, Kate Stern

I. Introduction

The topical focus of our group is power. While there are many different aspects of power to be observed in a movement like Occupy Wall Street, we chose to look at it through the text of the New York Times (NYT). The NYT is considered, according to common knowledge, to be an unbiased source of news, and therefore should present the Occupy movement neither positively or negatively; however evidence has been found that The NYT is a biased source of news, as it does not always present controversial social events equally. This led us to our thesis: although the NYT is often claimed to be an unbiased news source, analysis methods reveal NYT’s distortion in portraying the antagonistic relationships involved in the Occupy Movement.

In this paper, we flesh out the means by which the NTY portrays the power imbalances. The three patterns of interest we explore are: (1) NYT portrayed the violent suppression of police officers as justifiable actions when encountering the protesters; (2) people labeled “protestors” were not able to represent themselves properly; and (3) the word “power” appears to be more associated with the 1%, corporations, and government forces. To analyze these patterns, we use the discourse analysis strategies (tools) of semantic relation and representational meaning, syntagmatic choice, and collocation.

II. Methods

Firstly, we employed the discourse analysis methods of semantic relation and representational meaning. These were effective in analyzing stories about a social event that contains polarity such as the Occupy Movement. This peculiar phenomenon can be approached in totally different ways depending on how semantic relations (Fairclough p.145) are structured and how social actors and social events (Fairclough p.138) are placed in the clause. The main motivation to use these strategies originated from the view of a discourse analyst who sees all discourse as social practice (Gill p.175). These strategies were helpful in scrutinizing the portrayal of power relations in news media and provided insight for “what seems ‘right’ or what ‘comes naturally’ for that particular interpretive context” (Gill p.175).

Secondly, we use the syntagmatic choice as a strategy for analyzing language, specifically grammatical sentence structure. This looks at the relationship between elements. For instance, within an image or text, the rearrangement of elements within the image, such as the positioning of words in a phrase, would affect the perceived meaning on the audience. Regarding our topic, the order of words or choice of grammatical structure heavily influences the perceived meaning on the audience.

Lastly, we used ‘collocation’ which refers to “the relation between a word and individual word-forms which co-occur frequently with it” (Lindquist 2009 p.57) to figure out the habitual co-occurrence near the key terms. The results stemming from an analysis with collocation indicates the difference in the habitual co-occurrence of language usage between the descriptions of the 1 percent group and the 99 percent group. Indeed, the aforementioned can be used as an evidence to pinpoint the presence of distorted perspectives of NYT towards the Occupy Movement.

Discourse Genre

We chose to look at the national newspaper, The NYT as our discourse genre. We chose this source for a few important reasons. The first being that it is a national source, meaning that it covers news beyond its local frame and reports without a bias and aims to appeal to all types of audiences. The second reason why we chose The NYT is for its actual proximity to the start of the movement. Because the movement started on Wall Street in New York City, we thought that the NYT might have a slight advantage over other national sources due to its numerous staffers that have a closeness advantage to the occupiers and happenings of the movement.


Our group employed the software called, Lexisnexis, to collect the data for this project. There were 262 articles, 248,900 words from NYT from October 1st 2011 to present, when searched with the key term “Occupy Movement”. We decided to use the very first 150 articles as our sample data for this project because we concluded that the articles issued near September have more contents pertinent to the Occupy Movement, which in turn, would provide more reliable corpus. Since our corpus defined as topical corpus which “is designed for a narrowly defined research purpose”(Bauer p.31), it is limited them down to our topical key terms. Therefore, this collection of 150 articles involves a fair representativeness as a corpus for discourse analysis.

III. Analysis

(1) NYT portrayed the violent suppression of police officers as justifiable actions when encountering the protesters –semantic relations, representational meaning

The first pattern that we discovered is that NYT tended to portray the violent suppression of police officers as justifiable actions when encountering the protestors. For example, an October 30th 2011 NYT article reported the following:

At another time, Ms. Quan, the mayor of Oakland, might have joined the hundreds of protesters who have camped out near City Hall as part of Occupy Oakland. Instead, she is now a focus of their wrath. Late Thursday night, protesters chased her from a rally, shouting ”Go home,” and refusing to let her speak. The protesters were reacting to her decision to shut down the encampment, which led to a night of street violence on Tuesday, with police unleashing tear gas on the demonstrators. Ms. Quan said the area had become unsanitary and unsafe.

First, from a ‘semantic relation’ perspective, “which led to” is an element that marks the causal relationship between “street violence” and “her decision”. Also, the preposition “with” functions the same as “which led to”, since it indicates a causal relationship between the “street violence” triggered by the protestors and the “unleashing tear gas” by the police.  Providing such causal notion in the context can be interpreted as the violence of the police officer being reasonable since it is only a mere response to the aggravated protestors. In addition, when approaching this paragraph to analyze the representational meaning, the protestors are described as more ‘activated’ social actor ‘who make this happen’(Fairclough, p.145) while the police officers are described as ‘passivated’ social actors who were affected by the process. This representation of the social event (street violence) of the paragraph in NYT indicates that the cause of ‘unleashing gas’ has shifted from the police officers to the protestors.

Here is another example how semantic relation is illustrated between the protestors and the police officer speaking about the violence. The following is an excerpt from May 16th 2012 NYT article:

“Some of the protesters removed their tents, but others did not. When the police took the tents down, some of the remaining protesters locked arms and refused to move, leading to the pepper spray use…” Here, “leading to” is a conjunction which marks the causal relation between the police’s usage of force and protestor’s refusal to cooperate. Again, in this paragraph, the protesters are illustrated as a group who triggered the violent suppression of the police officer.

Both excerpts above demonstrate that NYT contains an unbiased depiction towards two different power groups. When they describe the detail of an instance of a violent scene between the protesters and police officers, they employed causal semantic relations that justify the violent behavior of police towards the protestors. Therefore NYT is not stranger to biased media sources.

(2) People labeled “protestors” were not able to represent themselves properly

As previously described, syntagmatic choice is a good filter of analysis when looking at the representation of power and protesters. This is mainly because the relationship between elements (i.e. phrasing of words) is biased against the protestors. By this, we mean the way the text is grammatically written produces biased meaning. For instance, in an excerpt from the NYT on May 14, 2012, the author describes the situation by saying:

“The powerful 1 percent that controls your publication does not represent the majority of Americans who actually purchase and read your paper.”

In this sentence, the author places the top 1% before the rest of the “majority of the Americans” in terms of location in the sentence. This gives the effect that they, the 1%, come before everyone else in other aspects of life; they come across as most important. In another instance, on May 12, 2012, another author from the NYT wrote:

“We are at the end of the 30-year Reagan era, a period that has culminated in soaring income for the top 1 percent and crushing unemployment or income stagnation for much of the rest. The overarching challenge of the coming years is to restore prosperity and power for the 99 percent.”

This excerpt follows the same pattern; the 1% comes first, and the 99% after them. The same effect results.

Regarding syntax, simply put, the placement of words has an obvious effect on meaning. This is shown in the two texts mentioned above. Because the author introduces the 1% first places emphasis on that crowd over the 99%. Symbolically speaking, they are deemed more important, and are the main focus worthy of speaking first.

(3) The word “power” appears to be more associated with the 1%, corporations, and government forces.

Another pattern we noticed deals with the word “power” in general. Throughout the articles in The NYT, the word power appears to be more associated with the 1%, corporations, and government forces. We came to this conclusion by looking closely at sentences that contained information regarding our topic. Context and cotext are important to pay attention to when trying to find and determine meaning. The cotext are the words that appear on either side of the key word. (Adolphs, 2006) When reading for cotext, electronic tools are extremely helpful as they can create different tables and highlight patterns that bring certain issues and information to attention.

With the help of technology, we developed collocation tables and concordance lines to help find the meaning that was associated with the word power. The excerpt provided below blatantly defines the 1% as the more powerful group:

“The powerful 1 percent that controls your publication does not represent the majority of Americans who actually purchase and read your paper.”

As you can see, “1 percent” directly follows the word “powerful”, and not to far away lies the word “control”. These words give meaning to the 1% and help to describe them in a way that is much different than the 99%. These instances and patterns throughout our corpus of The NYT insinuates that while The NYT is said to be an unbiased source, they seem to be identifying the 1% as having more power than the 99%. This next excerpt also directly describes the 1% as more powerful:

“they claim to stand up on behalf of the ‘little guy’ (the 99 percent), while raising a fist of protest against the big, rich, greedy and powerful 1 percent.”

Once again, using Collocation tables and concordance lines to examine cotext, we see that the cotext around the 1% includes words such as, “big”, “rich”, and “powerful”. These words give clear meaning to the 1% and who they are. Just like before, the text assigns the 99% as the role of the underdog while expressing the power of the 1%.

IV. Conclusion

Through our research using multiple discourse analysis strategies, it has become clear that the so-called “unbiased” title given to the NYT is undeniably incorrect. It wouldn’t be outrageous to say that all newspapers and other news sources are biased; it’s practically impossible to have it any other way. In fact, we are all political actors who feel one way or another regarding a certain subject and the existence of those feelings alone creates a bias. The multiple excerpts that defended police officers and justified their violent actions are a clear example of how The NYT, like all other news sources, feels a certain way rather than keeping neutral. This is also evident in the many excerpts that tie the word “power” to groups like the 1%, corporations and government forces. With power as our topical focus, we have seen the huge role it plays in politics. The big take-away message here is that there really is no way to report in a non-partisan way. Everyone has a political agenda, regardless of whether they admit it or not. While this is the case, I would like to commend The NYT for attempting to be an un-biased source; although they are attempting the impossible, it’s nice to know they try. For this reason alone, The NYT is, by default, a biased source.


V. References

Adolphs, Svenja. “Exploring Frequencies in Texts: Basic Techniques.” Chapter 3 inIntroducing Electronic Text Analysis. London ; New York : Routledge, 2006. 37-50.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Meaning relations between sentences and clauses (pp. 87-104). In Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research.London: Routledge.

Gill, Rosalind. “Discourse Analysis.” Chapter 10 in Qualitative Researching with Text, Image, and Sound. Eds. Martin Bauer & George Gaskell. London : SAGE, 2000. 172-190.

Wodak, R, and Meyer, M. (2009). Critical discourse analysis: History, agenda, theory and methodology (pp. 1-33). In Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: Sage.


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