Police Representation in CNN News Media: Privileged and Powerful Actors

Police Representation in CNN News Media: Privileged and Powerful Actors

Group 6: Alyson Wang, Linda Carey, Linda Quach, Sanya Dhermy, Samantha Wong


There are many different news outlets in society, and many have different agendas depending on the certain interests groups that fund them. Some of these interest groups have a liberal or conservative view, which often end up dictating the content produced and the articles written by these sources. In addition, editors and writers of these news outlets are also supposed to produce unbiased articles, but our group feels that this is impossible. We believe that the individuals – writers, producers, and editors –who make up the forces behind these news outlets hold beliefs and ideas that involuntarily transcend through the articles they produce and in doing so create and re-creates certain norms within our culture, and these in turn shape our beliefs and the way we view our culture. With this said, the topical focus for our group is concerned with how CNN news media portrayed police involvement within the Occupy Movement. The end question we want to explore by looking at police portrayal is this – how does CNN view the police and its role within the Occupy Movement?

We chose to look specifically at word choice and phrases used in the articles to develop a general consensus of whether the representation of police involvement was skewed more negatively or positively to the public in this particular mainstream news. It is important to examine the portrayals of police because other than the protestors, they are active participants and are constantly referred to in articles written about in the Wall Street Movement.  We believe that the police are depicted as a group that holds power but also depicted as using that power in a negative way, and through our research we recognized that journalists further reconfirmed those power roles that police have within our society. Based on these findings, we can also conclude that police representation is controlled by the storytellers – the journalists – and the more powerful actors in the movement – police authorities. In the proceeding sections of this paper, we will discuss how we came to the claims mentioned above and provide evidence that exemplify the influential role of journalists for depicting how police authorities are viewed by their audience because of these representations.


For the purpose of this paper, a corpus linguistics and qualitative coding approach was employed to uncover significant patterns on our topic of interest. Under the Corpus Linguistics approach, we utilized the KWIC program to draw on word frequencies (generates a list of all words in the text and how frequently they occur), collocation tables, and concordance lines. These methods and strategies are objective and quantitative and help us by stripping the corpus down to raw data. The word frequency is a generated list of all the words in the text and how frequently each unique word occurs in the corpus.  Collocation tables show “the simplest, most obvious relationship,” as they describe what words occur in the spatial proximity of a given word from the corpus to 4 words in either direction, which helps us see what meanings and associations may be being made if repeated in a similar manner continuously. (Sinclair, 14) Concordance lines are useful, according to Adolph in the book Introducing Electronic Text Analysis, to visualize the data so that one search item is seen as a node and its use can be easily portrayed in the concordance lay out. Some patterns that these techniques produce are: power relations between the police and demonstrators, CNN seems to be siding with the Occupy Movement as part of the 99%, hence the police can be seen as an out-group while the protesters are seen more as an in-group, with the police given more power as they are seen as oppressors. For Qualitative Coding, we chose to use specific key codes of importance to the research to analyze them using the Dedoose program. These codes were: representers of police (statements and opinions by sergeants, chiefs, police officers that are used as a source in the article), police brutality (when violence is being used by police), attacks on police (when violence is being used on police), arrest (incidents of police arresting protestors), and positive police portrayals (incidents where police are being portrayed in a positive manner). Some of the lexical units that we chose to analyze as a group were: pepper spray, police, aggression, and violence. It is important to not only break the text down into raw numerical data in terms of frequency of word use, but to juxtapose the general syntactic and semantic patterns into the greater social context. Qualitative analysis is important to be able to “elucidate the ways in which meaning and action are created by individuals producing the language.” (Hodges, 1)  So, it is a way to see how the language and ideas fit into the greater social context of humanity. Another method of discourse analysis we used is analysis of representations of social actors. We focused specifically on named/classified and inclusion/exclusion. We found this interesting because “impersonal representation of social actors can dehumanize social actors, take away from them as people, represent them for instance, instrumentally or structurally as elements of organizational structures and processes. The opposite extreme to impersonalization is naming – representing individuals by name” (Fairclough 150).

The discourse genre our group focused on is mainstream news media, more specifically CNN news media. We looked into CNN news because of its global influence. “Domestically, CNN reaches more individuals on television, the web and mobile devices than any other TV news organization in the United States; internationally, CNN is the most widely distributed news channel reaching more than 259 million households abroad; and, the CNN Digital Network is consistently the No.1 current events and news destination on the web” (CNN). CNN news is well known for having the “CNN effect” because its coverage of major events will cause that event to be a primary concern for its audience (McPhail, 2007, p. 156). Given that CNN was very mainstream and powerful, our group felt that we would find more stories on major instances of police involvement within the Occupy Movement that other news media are less likely to discuss.

We collected our corpus by looking at the following search parameters: the Occupy Movement, 99% movement and Occupy Wall Street within CNN news media. We used the search engine, LexisNexis, to develop our corpus using these three terms: ‘99% Movement’, ‘Occupy Movement’, ‘Occupy Wall Street’. We did not want to narrow the search parameters to be specifically geared towards our topical focus because we wanted to uncover general themes and patterns from all of the CNN texts that talk about the movement in some way. The date range that we included in our corpus dated back to September 2011, when the 99% movement began. Our final corpus included a total of 183 documents consisting of a total of 238,050 words.


1)  Police used as a source

–  Police sources were a privileged voice in that they represent themselves.

From our analysis, we can see that CNN news media reproduced power relations in their coverage of the Occupy Movement through their choice of sources. When speaking about any instance of police involvement, journalists allowed police authorities to speak for themselves or on behalf of their colleagues. For example, stories mentioning instances of arrest included the following named or categorized participants followed by quoted text.
CNN journalists provided police authorities the opportunity to represent themselves or their colleagues when speaking about their involvement with the movement, whether the involvement was an instance of arrest or any other altercation. Instead of paraphrasing how the police was involved, the police authority was quoted in the text, as seen in the following excerpts:

“Demonstrators agreed to ‘voluntary arrest’ as a form of protest, said Sheriff Margaret Mims, and did not resist. ‘They staged a good, old-fashioned sit-in,’ she said (“Occupy…”)

“The demonstrators were arrested…according to New York Police Department spokesman Detective Marc Nell. ‘Protesters were asked to leave because of sanitary reason…’ Nell said.” (Verello)

Another application of the analysis on articles using police as sources with an inherent privilege attached is to view it in the context of representations of social actors. “Social actors can be represented by name (e.g. ‘Fred Smith’) or in terms of class or category (e.g. ‘the doctor’). If the latter, they can be referred to individually (‘the doctor’) or as a group (‘the doctors’, ‘doctors’)” (Fairclough 146).  Through coding analysis focusing on “representers of police,” we have many instances where the article would present an update on the violence or arrests and would also say that the police provided the information. There was also many times where names of authorities were also used. An example of this in our corpus is, “But Interum Police Chief Howard Jordan said…” The names of the police office were used as well as their position in the police force. In both instances, we can see that the police officers are actors in the situation that holds power and authority. Whether they are named or classified, they still are represented with power. Since they are used as a source of information most of the time, they are deemed credible. When the article quotes an authority and even includes their position as an authority, like Chief, Commissioner, Sergeant, they are being recognized with more credibility as an appeal to authority persuasive method.

2)  Police as Social Actors
                  – Police are seen as exerting this power through brutality.

Now, focusing on the pattern of using police as social actors, this representation needs to be analyzed further. When analyzing how police authorities are represented in CNN news media, we can see that they act as the more powerful actor based on the active language in use to describe the action. This is explicitly shown in the following excerpts:

“Police hauled away protesters in various cities on Sunday as Occupy Wall Street…”

(“Protestors Arrested…”)

“Police fired pepper spray and used pepper-ball guns against demonstrators…”

(“Occupy Demonstrators…”)

From these observations, we can conclude that police authorities are represented as powerful social actors in comparison to other participants, such as the protestors/demonstrators. Although the active language in use may describe more negative police actions, the language used only works to further confirm the powerful role that police figures have within our society.

Police is indeed a very powerful word in our corpus. We used our word list to “compare different corpora, such as those that represent spoken versus written discourse, or American versus British English for example” (Adolphs, 40). In our analysis, we compared our corpus to the British National Corpus. Using a log-likelihood calculator, we compared how likely a word shows up in our corpus compared to the British National Corpus that contains 100 million words. The log-likelihood calculator showed that the word “police” shows up in our corpus 45% more than in the British National Corpus, having a heavy role in our topic and corpus. Furthermore, to support this finding, in our word frequency table, the word “police” shows up in our corpus 768 times, the word “authorities” shows up 123 times, and “officers” show up 123 times as well. In our collocation table, the word “arrested” shows up 78 times within 5 spans of the word “police”.There were many instances where “police” was represented in a position of power, exerting their power and force over protestors of the movement. For example, the word “police” was used in certain sentences with words such as “arrest”, “arrested”, “misconduct”, and “brutality” and there were even some bi-grams/tri-grams such as “used pepper spray” and “deeply saddened”.

3) Portrayal of police power
                  – When police are not social actors, they are portrayed in a negative light

Something of interest that follows from the analysis of power is the portrayal of police power in a negative light, generally highlighting the fact that they had weapons being wrongly used against the protesters.  For example, an October 2011 CNN  article included the following scene:

“Authorities made a series of arrests at Occupy Wall Street protests in California and Georgia on Tuesday and Wednesday, with clashes in one city that involved tear gas being used on demonstrators” (“Tear Gas…”).

In addition, many other articles with similar stories filled our corpus:

“After the camp was dispersed, the protesters reconvened for demonstrations later in the day, the affiliates said, prompting the new clashes.” Video from the Oakland clashes showed a chaotic scene, with protesters running from clouds of tear gas.” (“Tear Gas…”).

This portrayal was enhanced and driven by the use of one-sided stories. This bias is known as exclusion/ inclusion. No explanation was given for the police’s actions in many of the articles, showing the protesters as victims of police brutality that had no publicly recorded justification. Such an unbalanced view of the movement shows CNN as not so neutral as it aims to be and is therefore seen as identifying more with the 99 %.  The above-mentioned article, Wall Street protests enter 11th day also exemplifies this issue.  Throughout the article, the police’s use of force and ‘brutality’ are listed and portrayed, however, there is no comment about why this force seemed necessary; only the crowds reactions to the act are displayed, rather than their actions that may have caused this.  With only testimonies from fellow demonstrators, the emotionally swaying opinions in this article that are used as supporting sources for the claims are inherently biased towards the side of the Occupy Movement demonstrators. The way in which articles are written also inherently hold some emotional lures to bring the audience’s sympathies to the movement protestors.  The article, Protesters arrested nationwide as Occupy Wall Street rallies hit monthlong mark, states that approximately 150 people were left without shelter after police took away their tents that they had camped out under near city hall. This statement followed by an appeal to emotion of a basic necessity of human beings with demonstration organizer April Lukes-Streich’s words, “It’s cold. We don’t have any protection from the elements.”  Emotionally, the audience would want to question the powers that were merciless enough to snatch a shelter away, however it takes extra thought to ask what the other side of the confrontation was and what their motivations and justifications were, instead of settling for ignorance and uncertainty.

In the midst of the negative representations of the Police, the actions that are portrayed as positive are only through the statements and opinions of police representers as actors. Every instance we found of positive police portrayal comes from the words of a police representer.  The fact that CNN puts these statements in their articles indicate that they are attempting to maintain a balanced view of police, but when looking at who is talking about the police, it is clear that the general public are not the ones who feel that police action is positive.

We noticed that, generally, journalists liked to position protesters as victims in the Occupy movement, and the police as the antagonists. There were many instances in these articles where police arrested protestors and sprayed tear gas while protests just stood by hopelessly playing the role of victim. For example a CNN article wrote:

“Police carried handcuffed demonstrators from the park—some of them struggling, others limp. According to the New York Police Department, the charges included disorderly conduct, trespassing, assault and resisting arrest. Online, however, Occupy Wall Street and its supporters accused police of abusing peaceful demonstrators” (“Dozens arrested…”).

The idea that protestors were the victims of power abuse by the police force was also supported by protestors who felt this way too:

“All we’re trying to do is have a peaceful protest and they (the police) are attacking us,” protester Sean Drigger told CNN affiliate KUSA” (Candiotti).

Similar to other theme, by analyzing this text we can see structurally the text reflecting institutionalized power and relationships. We can see the police as having the power both physically and culturally; abusing their power to force the crowd into submission rendering them to seem helpless in the eyes of the reader.
It is because CNN has portrayed protestors as weaker, and also as victims of police brutality we begin to form a fuller picture of how these two actors interact in the Occupy movement sphere. Power relations displayed within these articles should make the public think hard about what is being constructed as normal within a protest, what is right? And also what is wrong.

Following this, we decided to further look into the use of power relations between the police and demonstrators. The police is shown as in power over demonstrators.  In an article dated September 26th, 2011 by Ed Payne, entitled Wall Street protests enter 11th day, Payne states “Demonstrators have accused police of using excessive force, following the release of a video from Saturday that shows an officer pepper spraying several women.” In this article, this act is described as “disturbing’ and ‘horrible’ as officers seemingly were taking the situation into their own hands and pepper spraying even those that were not actively posing threats in order to subdue the situation.  Another article from October 16th, 2011, entitled Month-long protests show no sign of abating as rally enters Times Square, states that police arrested protesters for wearing masks.  Showing the police taking actions such as arresting due to something as simple and mundane as a mask.  This juxtaposition is highlighted by the author in the article and makes it seem like the authorities were just exerting their power.

Michael Foucault supports the idea that power is something that is a repeating idea that exists throughout society as a ‘technology’.  “[D]iscipline is a complex bundle of power…power is thust exercised with intention – but not individual intention.” (Wodak, 9). This leads to believe that this sense of power is part of a greater group mentality and a motivation to preserve one group’s own standing in the social hierarchy. Similarly, the police is enacting this disciplinary scene with excessive force to maintain a status quo of power, demonstrating this power on the protesters in the 99% movement.


To conclude, our group understands that CNN is a very large and influential news company. The articles they write on the Occupy movement are read by many, and influence the way these readers view the movement and the social actors within the movement. Our group believes that the articles produced by CNN are bias because of their political views, and believe that CNN depicts police in a negative light favoring the protestors.

Our findings were that we saw CNN using the police as a source. CNN let police voice their opinions on the events of the Occupy movement pertaining to arrest, brutality, etc… giving them unequal power over the protestors. We also saw that in many instances police were seen exerting power by brute force. These include pepper spraying the crowd, arresting, and beating the protestors. A final theme we saw was that whenever the protestors were positioned as social actors, the police were portrayed in a negative light. They were portrayed as having too much power and abusing their power. All these themes support our thesis because they position the police as having power and abusing that power over the protestors.

This paper has hopefully helped us better understand how police authorities interact with protestors in the Occupy Wall Street movement as seen by CNN. Hopefully, this will challenge us to critically analyze and question news sources that write biased stories based on their personal beliefs and the beliefs of those that fund them. By analyzing these texts and articles; we can see clearly which side CNN stands for in terms of the Occupy movement.


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“Occupy’ Demonstrators Battle Wind and Cold as Storm Moves in.” CNN. 29 Oct. 2011. Web. 03 June 2012. <http://articles.cnn.com/2011-10-29/us/us_occupy-wall-street_1_peaceful-protest-demonstrators-tents?_s=PM:US>.

“Occupy Movement Fights Foreclosures, Protests Program Cuts.” CNN. 08 Nov. 2011. Web. 03 June 2012. <http://articles.cnn.com/2011-11-08/us/us_occupy-protest-roundup_1_protesters-face-protesters-plan-demonstrators?_s=PM:US>.

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“Protesters Arrested Nationwide as Occupy Wall Street Rallies Hit Monthlong Mark.”CNN. 16 Oct. 2011. Web. 03 June 2012. <http://articles.cnn.com/2011-10-16/us/us_occupy-wall-street_1_hoisting-signs-protesters-in-various-cities-nationwide-rallies?_s=PM:US>.

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“Tear Gas Used on Occupy Protesters in Oakland, California.” CNN. 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 03 June 2012. <http://articles.cnn.com/2011-10-26/us/us_occupy-wall-steet_1_protesters-oakland-police-veterans-group?_s=PM:US&gt;.

Verello, Dan. “Occupiers Clash with Police in New York; 6 Arrested.” CNN. 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 03 June 2012. <http://articles.cnn.com/2012-03-21/justice/justice_new-york-occupy-arrests_1_protesters-arrests-charges?_s=PM:JUSTICE&gt;.

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