A woman speaks during a January 21, 2023 demonstration against the police killing of Manuel "Tortuguita"

A woman speaks during a January 21, 2023 demonstration against the police killing of Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán during a raid on forest defenders in Georgia.

(Photo: Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Report Exposes US Media for Framing Social Justice Protests as 'Terrorism'

"Equating activism with terrorism is undemocratic and serves to silence dissenters," said Deepa Kumar, who analyzed how major U.S. media outlets have covered protesters of "Cop City" in Georgia.

A paper published Tuesday by a media studies scholar explores what she calls "one of the enduring costs of the 'War on Terror,'" mainstream outlets parroting police talking points on terrorism and "legitimating state violence while stifling democratic protest."

Rutgers University professor Deepa Kumar's paper—released by the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs—focuses on how major U.S. media outlets have covered protesters of "Cop City," Atlanta's proposed Public Safety Training Center just outside of city limits in Georgia.

"Even though the 'War on Terror' is supposedly over now that the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan, U.S. federal and state governments continue to use and even expand punitive measures targeting those they label as 'terrorists,'" Kumar said in statement. "The U.S. mainstream media sometimes supports this expansion, and in doing so imperils U.S. democracy. All of this is part of the legacy of the post-9/11 wars."

As Kumar's paper notes, "previous research has shown that the mainstream media's framing of terrorism influences public opinion and shapes support or opposition to policies such as Georgia's 2017 terrorism law," which expanded the definition of terrorism to include certain property crimes committed with the intent to use intimidation or coercion to change policy.

The expert analyzed how a local newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and six national outlets—USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the New York Post, and the Los Angeles Times—reported on the "domestic terrorism" arrests of 42 anti-Cop City activists from December 2022 to March 2023.

The paper details her findings:

At first, the national news media did not cover the terrorism arrests in Atlanta. The local The Atlanta Journal-Constitution effectively served as the Atlanta Police Foundations' propaganda outlet. In January, 2022 several national media outlets picked up the story when violence and property destruction occurred, following the "if it bleeds, it leads" framework. However, some newspapers adopted a more critical stance. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the LA Times humanized the protestors, depicting them as concerned activists opposing police militarization and environmental destruction. The New York Post and TheWall Street Journal, however, portrayed protestors as violent Antifa activists and justified their arrest on the grounds of terrorism. USA Today adopted a sensational tone, in effect also justifying the arrests.

As the protest movement gained national and international support, national media paid more attention. All seven outlets covered the story in March 2023. Also significant is that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shifted to a more balanced tone and included the voices of Atlanta residents opposing Cop City. Rather than labeling protesters solely as "outsider agitators" and "far-left" activists who exist on the fringes of society, the newspaper quoted local activists, civil rights groups, and clergy. This happened at the highpoint of government arrests, when 23 more people were indicted on terrorism charges.

However, the analysis also reveals that apart from a handful of notable articles in The Washington Post and the LA Times that tacitly criticize the wider application of terrorism charges evidenced in Georgia, the majority of the seven media outlets have deferred unquestioningly to government authorities in the use of this label.

"Government and police officials have portrayed the protestors as violent terrorists," Kumar stressed. "For instance, in January 2023, when Georgia State Patrol Troopers shot and fatally injured activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, they claimed that Terán had initiated gunfire. Shockingly, Tortuguita was shot a staggering 57 times."

The DeKalb County medical examiner's autopsy report "indicated an absence of gunshot residue on Tortuguita's hands," the professor pointed out. There was also an independent autopsy. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation later claimed gunshot residue was found on the activist's hands. Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney George R. Christian concluded last month that the use of deadly force "was objectively reasonable under the circumstances of this case," so police will face no charges for killing Tortuguita.

Kumar wrote that "in theory, the media are entrusted with the responsibility of posing critical questions and disseminating accurate information to the public so that troubling practices like the use of state violence and extrajudicial killings are not normalized. In reality, U.S. media institutions have often continued to defer to government sources, reproducing and thus reinforcing the expansion of terrorism discourses to criminalize protestors—with sometimes deadly consequences."

Costs of War Project co-director Stephanie Savell responded to the paper by nudging journalists to do better. She said, "The media can make or break how activism is portrayed in an increasingly militarized era of policing that imperils our democratic rights."

The research comes after 57 of the 61 Cop City protesters charged in September under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law appeared in court on Monday, as hundreds of their supporters rallied outside the building in Atlanta.

"Among the defendants: more than three dozen people who were previously facing domestic terrorism charges in connection to the protests; three leaders of a bail fund previously accused of money laundering; and three activists previously charged with felony intimidation after authorities said they distributed flyers calling a state trooper a 'murderer' for his involvement in Paez Terán's death," according toThe Associated Press.

Noting the RICO charges, Kumar's paper quotes a pair of ACLU experts, who wrote in September that the indictment "paints the provision of mutual aid, the advocacy of collectivism, and even the publishing of zines as hallmarks of a criminal enterprise. In doing so, it flies in the face of First Amendment protections for speech, assembly, and association."

This post has been updated with additional autopsy reports.

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