Social Movements and the Protest Paradigm: An Analysis of Media Framing in French and German Newspaper Reporting on the Yellow Vests Protests and the Pro-Democracy Uprising in Hong Kong


The so-called protest paradigm explains how the mass media tend to focus on negative features of social protests and how negative media frames are used to marginalize social movements. We analyze if the protest paradigm is present in the French and German newspaper reporting on the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement in France that started in November 2018 and the pro-democracy uprising in Hong Kong sparking with the protests against the extradition law in summer 2019. Both movements have drawn international attention due to some of the most violent street clashes the countries have witnessed in decades. The yellow vests demonstrate their anger at economic and social inequality and political immorality. Unlike other movements spreading recently in Europe, the yellow vests can be considered a truly grassroots movement. Their rejection of leadership and its decentralized organization reflects the mistrust in the capability of the government, parties, unions and other organizations to solve economic and social grievances. In contrast, the Hong Kong protests are driven by the pro-democratic and anti-Beijing political camps that support democratization and demand the right to self-determination. Both movements call for more consideration of their fundamental needs against the background of policies which are elite oriented and fail to address a great part of societies´ well-being. The supporters feel the established powers failed them in different manners, at the same time they share the sentiment of being omitted in their fundamental rights and needs.

Comparing German and French media coverage of social protests seems pertinent under various aspects. Germany does not share France´s deep tradition of revolutionary uprisings and both countries differ in their journalistic culture and journalistic role perceptions (Hanitzsch, Steindl & Lauerer, 2016; Mercier, Frost & Hanitzsch, 2017). This leads to our assumption of a differing media coverage of social movements in the two media contexts. Additionally, we assume that the protest paradigm is more apparent in the reporting on social movements in liberal democratic contexts, as they question the functioning of the existing social order and the powerholders, than in the reporting on movements in non-democratic contexts, because they support demands for a liberal democratic social order.

By means of Entman´s (1993) concept we evaluate how the German and French press frame the social unrests. In a quantitative content analysis, we examine the use of negative framing to “weaken the influence of social protests in public opinion” (Xu, 2013, p. 2412). Guided by the assumptions of Herman and Chomsky´s Propaganda Model (2002) and Bennett´s Indexing Theory (2016) we find that the protest paradigm is context dependent. Our results indicate that a marginalization does not dominate the reporting and has different levels of impact. While we did find a certain level of marginalizing frames, notably in the German coverage, yet overall positive frames are more prominent in both countries’ newspapers. Instead of a stringent marginalization of the civil movements we also find frames with negative moral judgements of the governments which opens up our analysis with additional frames for the breaches of the established powerholders.