The Voice: East vs. West Newspaper Representation of Protesters

The Voice: East vs. West Newspaper Representation of Protesters

Group 5


As the topical focus of our group, we focused on the issue of inequality and injustice in terms of how the protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the police involved were being portrayed in society. Thus, our research group thought it would be both interesting and compelling to pursue this topical focus in a way that challenged the thinking of mainstream cosmology by conducting a systematic review of the very media the movement opposes. By looking at the issue from two major publications, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, which are respectively located on either side of the U.S. coast (East and West), we were able to further assess the discourse happening (i.e. How they are talking about the issue, the police, the protesters, and the violence being inflicted). Later, we intend to collectively compare our respective data to uncover whether the locations affected the discourse (or journalistic accounts) or if there were other factors involved. Based upon our analysis of both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, we will make the argument that the mainstream journalists of The Los Angeles Times engaged in a process of legitimization of the police, thereby empowering them whereas, in The New York Times, the protesters were given power in the discourse through interviews and portrayals. To further solidify our claims, we will be analyzing several patterns within our sampled texts and subsequently draw upon discourse analysis methods, namely the CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis) and CL (Corpus Linguistics) traditions, and later discuss our results and the implications they have on the larger issue of power inequality and Occupy-related discourse.


Discourse analysis methods can serve to explain the relationship that discourse has with our social environment. This type of analysis rejects the notion that language is neutral. Rather, discourse analysts stress the significance of how texts can shape society (Gill, 2000). This idea is reinforced by Critical Discourse Analysis, which uses the relation of society and language to understand the concepts of power and inequality (Fairclough, Mulderrig, & Wodak, 2011).  For our analysis, we employed several methods that had a close association with the discipline of discourse analysis traditions, being CDA and CL. In the case of CDA (which employs social theories in analyzing discourse to understand the different micro-physics of power), we made extensive use of Theo Van Leeuwen’s strategies for legitimation, which is a part of a larger Social Actors Approach to understanding how individual actors within the text, are constantly engaging in a process to reproduce social structure (Wodak, 2009). We also utilized Gill’s speech-act theory because it is focused on conversation within the text and was thus important in our analysis of how protesters are represented through the accounts that they told (Gill, 2000). This essentially eased us into the CL approach to discourse analysis. This analysis focuses on larger bodies of texts, or corpora, using tools like concordance lines, collocation tables, and key word frequency (Adolphs, 2006). The aforementioned tools aided our group in being able to narrow our scope based on the words most closely associated with the protest paradigm and their meaning in the texts through the KWIC program.

Furthermore, the previously mentioned methods were applied to our groups discourse genre, being two very prominent, mainstream newspaper sources, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. These particular sources were considered to be an important set of public texts for our group to look at not only because of their positions as top outlets for mainstream media, but based upon the papers’ geographic locations (East and West). These locations play a great role in our analysis of the protest paradigm because both L.A. and N.Y. are widely considered to be “hotspots” for the Occupy movement and there has been a history of altercations with the police in those areas. Furthermore, in order to ensure that our group had a representative sample of both (ensure validity), our group split up into two, with one analyzing The New York Times and the other, The Los Angeles Times. Additionally, both groups looked at a series of lexical items and bundles in relation to the protest paradigm. We collected articles through a series of LexisNexis searches with the search parameters, “Occupy Wall Street” OR “Occupy movement” OR “99% Movement” AND “Violence”.  The “AND” term at the end was interchanged with the terms “Police Brutality”, “Police”, “Protest”, “Pepper Spray”, “Arrest”, “Tear Gas” and “Vandalism”.  This gave us a corpus that contained 1,845 articles from The New York Times at just fewer than 1.5 million words and 252 articles with a total of 199,562 words from The Los Angeles Times. Our group collectively felt that the eight main search words above would give us a wide array of instances in which injustices were happening within the Occupy Movement, from the perspectives of both the police and protesters.


Pattern 1: The Los Angeles Times: Journalists Justify Police Action Through Sources

One way that the journalists of the LA Times engaged in a process of justifying the actions of the police force (i.e. the use of pepper spray, the need to “sweep” out encampments, or conduct camp raids), can be seen in who they chose as official sources. Whenever cases that required a need for a particular course of action arose, mainstream journalists would draw upon official sources, namely police and city officials, health inspectors, and administrators, to attach positive attributes to the police and negative attributes to protesters; so as to provide justification for actions and/or future actions.

Instances in which official sourcing is used to attach negative attributes to protesters is shown in the following excerpts:

Pike and other police contend that the spray was the “most appropriate” tool on hand to deal with what they described as an unruly mob encircling the officers…

John Bakhit, an attorney who represents the campus police union, said he “completely disagreed” with the study’s conclusion that Pike had no reason to use the pepper spray. He said the panel did not take seriously enough the threat police faced from “this large mob of people” who refused police orders to disperse”…

In the first excerpt, Pike (the man who used pepper spray upon the protesters) and “other police” are used as official sources in framing the protesters in a negative manner. By categorizing the protesters as an “unruly mob,” this could provide a simple justification for the police to use the “most appropriate” tool on hand, being pepper spray. In the second excerpt (of the same article), John Bakhit who represents the interests of the police union is again used as a primary source to help justify Pike’s use of pepper spray by pinning the protesters as a threat and a defiant group; and further implies that the spray was used as a necessary tool to contain this “large mob.”

Instances in which official sourcing is used to attach positive attributes to police is shown in the following excerpts:

Los Angeles police officials said they have no plans to move the protesters out. “We’re still working as best we can and trying to be cooperative,” said Cmdr. Andrew Smith. He said police have a contingency plan to clear out protesters if they have to, but said if police are forced to evict protesters they would take pains to avoid the tear gas used by police in Oakland…

Protesters received a relatively warm welcome, with the City Council endorsing their action and council President Eric Garcetti inviting them to stay as long as they liked. But as days rolled into weeks and months, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city leaders began showing signs of impatience with rising costs, petty crime and property damage. Ultimately, Villaraigosa saying he feared for the safety of children at the camp, order the protesters to leave. They refused…

In the first excerpt, the Los Angeles police officials and Cmdr. Andrew Smith are employed to portray the police as cooperative, which provides some justifications for the police to act in the future (evict protesters and use tear gas) if the protesters do anything to perturb such a positive balance. In the second excerpt, the council President and the Mayor again portray themselves as cooperative and attributes negativity towards the protesters in associating them with “petty crime, property damage,” and as a threat to safety; and when they show defiance in terms of refusing to leave, this paves way for future actions by the police to apply force.

In essence, such values of the journalist in using specific sources to justify police action(s) can be explained through Van Leeuwen’s strategy for legitimation, or more specifically, rationalization (Fairclough, 2003). By attaching the texts to the legitimacy of institutionalized practices, readers use the knowledge (endowed to them by society) that police and other officials possess the authority/capacity to eliminate public threats and disturbances, in order to cognitively justify police actions. Additionally, it can be assumed that the journalist is aware of the knowledge that readers of the LA Times share, because they are consumers of not independent, but that of mainstream media.

Pattern 2: The New York Times: Police Actions Lack Context and Justification

After cutting down the NY Times corpus down to sixty texts through a process of random sampling, we put these texts into, a web application for textual analysis.  Here we created excerpts and attached codes to those excerpts to define them.  One of the most common codes that we found while doing this was “police aggression.” There was a pattern of talking about a peaceful protest that was followed by the police taking action in very aggressive ways.  Some examples of this aggression are:

“A larger number of protesters later returned and tried to re-establish the camp. The police responded by launching tear gas canisters and firing projectiles..One protester, a former Marine, suffered a fractured skull, veterans groups said.”

“Moments later, the police began firing canisters of tear gas into the crowd. Many people ran, but a few protesters wearing gas masks stayed”

“Riot police in Oakland dispersed hundreds of protesters with tear gas on Tuesday night as crowds tried to re-enter a plaza outside of City Hall that the authorities had cleared of an encampment earlier in the day.”

“The Oakland police force has acknowledged firing bean-bag rounds – also known as flexible baton rounds – and tear gas, but not rubber bullets.”

If we look at the co-text surrounding the actions (launching tear gas..etc), we find that in the first three excerpts, the aggression made was in response to what the protesters were doing; and in the fourth, it is merely an acknowledgment of the tactics used by the police. Before the first two passages, the journalists talk about how the protesters tried to re-enter an area peacefully, in neither case, did the protesters speak of cases of violence or aggression. This shows that the police are abusing their power and being overtly aggressive in situations that don’t call for it. The way that these violent police events are being recontextualized to the people is that they are unwarranted. In other words, the journalists are providing reasons as to why police actions are unjustified, without actually labeling it specifically in that language.  The fact that there has been little to no backlash on police officers from the federal government is adding to the need to take action and call for reform.

Pattern 3: The Los Angeles TimesProtesters position against police within the text

Protesters within the Movement are not represented and if they are present in the new it would be less frequency than the police officers. Within looking at our codes in corpus to compare “protester” and “police” said shows evident with the amount of times the word had shown up on search. The Los Angeles Times corpus that our group collected indicated that police representation compares to protester representation was 3 times more frequently. Upon researching the data, I found a pattern that shows protesters limited voice in The Los Angeles Times as an individual but as a group compare to the representation of a police/officer identity:

Attorneys for the campus police union also expressed muted optimism Friday. “We believe we accomplished our goal today,” said John Bakhit. “All the sections we asked to be held back were held back. We’re happy — but it’s temporary.”

“Shame on you!” protesters shouted, as the officers ran to pre-assigned spots, instantly dividing the park into small, easily controlled segments. “Get back!” police shouted to those who came too close.

“We are peaceful!” protesters yelled.

The operation began at 12:13 a.m., on orders from Deputy Chief Jose Perez, watching from the steps of Los Angeles police headquarters across the street.

Police Chief Charlie Beck, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger and others were certain that traditional approaches wouldn’t work…..

……”We knew we didn’t want to just push them out,” Beck said. “The last thing we wanted was to be chasing them through the streets.”

Highlighting my claim that protesters are not empowered within The Los Angeles Times discourse the texts, has clear pattern arises where protesters are maybe express in the situation but does not have a saying of what had taken place compare to the police:

“There were only two things we weren’t going to allow,” Deputy Police Chief Robert Luna said. “One was camping overnight … and we weren’t going to allow temporary shelters.”

Protesters say that they’ve been stymied partly because their group lacks the sheer size of Occupy Los Angeles.

…where Police Chief Charlie Beck said officials were working out a timeline to evict Occupy protesters from their camp outside City Hall.
In Oakland, Portland, Ore., and other cities where police have targeted Occupy encampments, protesters have been scattered and forced to ponder how to sustain the momentum that began Sept. 17, when scores of people demanding a crackdown on corporate greed staked their claim to Zuccotti Park and sparked a nationwide movement.

Paul Browne, a spokesman for the New York Police Department, said most people began filing out of the park once they received the notices; one person was arrested for disorderly conduct. Browne said the park was not heavily popu-lated early Tuesday.
The protesters said hundreds of police were mobilizing around the park and that the eviction of the de-monstrators was in progress. ….The demonstrators’ website urged people to “get to the park immediately for eviction defense.”….Demonstrators shouted “We love our country” and “You don’t have to do this.”

With each voice spoken from the protester view point, they all identify the police as the cause or the one to be blame for any unfortunate event. With these quotes from The Los Angeles Times shows the disempowered group of protesters through lack of representation of voice and individual identity. Furthermore, with these findings the protesters are not giving the space to explain their side of the story as clearly compare to the police throughout the violence/abuse act during the occupy movement.

Pattern 4: The New York Times: Protesters Are Defined As Actors Within The Text

The Occupy Movement protesters are represented as social actors within The New York Times discourse. The text producers of the national newspaper provide protesters with speaking opportunities and portrayals, giving them agency. Often, these opportunities employ the use of legitimation strategies to achieve this grammatical accomplishment.

The protesters are frequently named preceding the quotation attributed to their speech.  Often, the journalists use protesters’ full names or titles in the discourse, thus giving them agency as social actors. Further, they are classified, or categorized, sometimes as a group and in other instances individually. The act of naming or classifying the actors is crucial to their role as participants in the text (Fairclough, 2003). Additionally, The New York Times journalists also refer to the protesters specifically and generically where they are classified within the text. The individual supplying the quote is often given a specific title, and then refers to the group as a collective as seen in the passage below:

Alex Barnard, a spokesman for Occupy Cal, said protesters planned to put the tents back up.“Tents are the means by which we have chosen to express our First Amendment rights,” said Mr. Barnard, who is working on a Ph.D. in sociology. “We are not going away.”

In this particular example, the protester, Barnard, is referred to as “a spokesman” tied to an organization, Occupy Cal, thus the representation is specific. More generically, he is referred to as a Ph.D. candidate. The occupiers are also referred to in a generic fashion as “protesters” through paraphrasing by the text producer. In other similar excerpts, the journalists employ many of the same methods:

Caitlin Manning, 55, a film professor and member of the movement, said on Sunday afternoon that only a handful of officers were visible at the group’s gathering at the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza.“It looks like they’re going to let us do our thing here today,” she said.

David Suker, a 43-year-old teacher from the Bronx, said the officer struck him with a two-handed swing. On Thursday he displayed a long red welt on the side of his abdomen that he said was caused by the blow. “It felt like he was trying to hit a home run,” Mr. Suker said of the officer. Mr. Suker said that he knew that being part of a group that had announced an intention to cross the barricades could result in arrest, but said that he did not expect to be struck by a baton. He called the blow an instance of brutality.

In these excerpts, the speech actors are represented generically. Manning is referred to as a “professor” and “member of the movement” and Suker is referred to as a “teacher.” Some level of specificity could be argued here as well in that the journalists provide the reader with the ages of the participants, thus they are both classified as middle-aged. The level of specificity achieved in the Bernard excerpt is not realized here, but the participants are both named. The protesters in the context of both passages are referred to as “group,” another generic representation.

In summation of these findings, it is clear that protesters are included as social actors within the discourse and referred to personally through the process of naming. In addition to the specific and generic associations, those actors classified as such (i.e. Alex Bernard, Caitlin Manning, David Suker, protesters, and group) are activated in the text. That is, the protesters have the ability to act and a capacity to do (Fairclough, 2003). For example:

…protesters planned to put the tents back up.

“…they’re going to let us do our thing here today.”

…he knew that being part of a group that had announced an intention to cross the barricades…

With these social activations, journalists effectively grant the protesters power to define the Occupy Movement in their own words.


In our research analysis, our group made the initial argument that mainstream journalists of The Los Angeles Times engage in processes of legitimization in which the police are justified or portrayed in a positive manner. In The New York Times, police are portrayed in a negative manner and their actions aren’t justified, thereby giving voice and empowerment to the protesters of the movement.

In the first two patterns of this paper, we found similarities and connections between Pattern #1 and the selective use of sources in texts and in Pattern #2, in which the text lacked sources, contexts, and justifications when speaking about the police. Thus, this showed that the mainstream journalists of both sources were placed in a power position in which they were able to dictate which actors in the texts received preferential voice when speaking. In other words, the journalists of The Los Angeles Times endowed police with power through the careful use of sources, which primarily portrayed police officials in a positive manner and legitimized their actions. In the case of The New York Times, journalists gave power to the Occupy protesters by avoiding the justification of police actions through the lack of context provided in the narrative and in the texts.

In the second two patterns, there were parallels between Pattern #3 and Pattern #4. Specifically, Pattern #4 showed the ways that Occupy protesters were defined as actors within The New York Times discourse by relying on the idea of social representation. Journalists provided protesters with ample speaking opportunities and numerous portrayals throughout the discourse. They further empowered the protesters through the process of naming and classification. However, in The Los Angeles Times protesters are disempowered throughout the articles especially when a violence act was caused. Police may have the up hand when telling the story of the situation, but ultimately it comes down the journalist and the way they want the story to be portrayed. Given that the protesters had their two sentences in at various newsletters they were rarely portrayed as an individual but more as a collective group of the occupy movement compare to the police. Overall, the voices were raised in both parties but not as equally as the story are told in the perspective of the journalist.

In summation, it is clear that the The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times differ in terms of their coverage of the Occupy Movement. These major East and West coast publications are located in the midst of the movement’s most active cities, yet the journalists supply very different portrayals of the action therein. The unequal portrayals of police and protesters is central to our argument. It is evident that these portrayals are different depending on the source of media. Journalists at The New York Times contribute to this inequality by over representing the Occupy protesters, while negatively portraying police actions. Conversely, text producers from The Los Angeles Times justify the police actions by engaging in the process of legitimization.


Adolphs, S. (2006). Exploring words and phrases in use: basic techniques, Chapter 4. Introducing Electronic Text Analysis (pp. 51-63). New York, NY: Routledge.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Representations of social events, Chapter 8. Analysing Discourse (pp.145-150). New York, NY: Routledge.

Fairclough, N., Mulderrig, J., & Wodak, R. (2006). Critical Discourse Analysis, Chapter 17.  In Teun A. Van Dijk (Ed.), Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction (p. 357). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gill, R. (2000). Discourse Analysis, Chapter 10. In Martin W. Bauer & George Gaskell (Eds.), Qualitative Researching With Text, Image, And Sound (pp.173-174). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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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