Scholars have studied how mainstream media reports the activities of protesters and how news coverage influences the way the activists are depicted in those news stories (Harlow, Salaverría, Kilgo & García-Perdomo, 2017; Ismail, Torosyan & Tully, 2019; Kilgo & Harlow, 2019; Kyriakidou & Olivas Osuna, 2017). The dominant pattern which scholars agree that typically appear in news coverage of activism is what they call the “protest paradigm” (Harlow et al, 2017; Ismail et al, 2019; Kilgo & Harlow, 2019; Kyriakidou & Olivas Osuna, 2017). According to Kyriakidou and Olivas Osuna (2017), the protest paradigm is the long-established term that describes the ways in which social movements and demonstrations are presented in the mainstream media and how the coverage is molded into a “specific template” (p. 457). The protest paradigm unfolds in several ways, which McLeod (2007) identifies these characteristics as “story frames, reliance on official sources and official definitions, the invocation of public opinion, delegitimization, and demonization” (pp. 186-187).
Scholars have long studied the news coverage of protests that occur in specific countries, such as in the United States and Spain. The existing research on those activist movements has mainly focused on the protests movements that involve largely sized group rallies that typically took place in the towns or cities within those countries (Kilgo & Harlow, 2019; Kyriakidou & Olivas Osuna, 2017). These scholars have found that “protest-related stories” (Harlow, et al, 2017) covered by online sources such as social media networks, slightly diverged from the well-known pattern called the protest paradigm, compared to the traditional forms of news coverage (Harlow et al., 2017; Ismail et al, 2019). In addition, the scholars agree that not all mainstream media tends to gravitate its focus on the negative and violent aspects of the protesters that characterizes the protest paradigm but instead, legitimizes the protesters (Harlow et al., 2017; Ismail et al., 2019).
Unfortunately, while scholars have researched the news coverage on larger protest movements through online sources, scholars have neglected online news coverage of popular culture activism. Popular culture has many definitions (Storey, 2018, p. 5) but within this context of activism, popular culture can be defined as “culture that is widely favoured or well liked by many people” (Storey, 2018, p. 5). Popular culture and activism put together refers to the individuals who have a voice in the community and how others have taken an interest in their perspectives. Scholars have yet to study protests that are performed by an individual that influences the community who raises questions and concerns about political manners and issues. Do mainstream companies and online journalists downplay the role of famously known individuals and follow the dominant template of the protest paradigm when covering the event? This study examines how journalists reports the event of the destruction of Banksy’s art piece during an auction in 2018. I analyzed four news stories and categorized the text into two main characteristics of the protest paradigm: delegitimization of the activism and reliance on official sources (McLeod, 2007). According to McLeod (2007), delegitimization of the activism refers to how “the media often fail to adequately explain the meaning and context of protest actions, leading the audience to perceive them as futile, pointless, and even irrational” (p. 187). Reliance on official sources refers to how “public officials are the predominant source of information for news stories, [and] stories tend to be told from the perspective of the powerful, downplaying perspectives that challenge that power” (p. 187).
I conducted a discourse analysis (Taylor, 2001) of four news stories of the stunt act planned by the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. The event took place during an art auction held in Sotheby’s in London, England on October 5, 2018. Banksy auctioned off an art piece that was designed to self-destruct itself through a shredder built within the artwork’s frame as soon as the auction buyer was finalized. I analyzed the news stories of two mainstream companies from NBC News and The Washington Post and two online journalist websites from Salon and Vox.
According to Taylor (2001), discourse analysis is used to identify patterns of the language used in the text published about a single event or events. The patterns are categorized and then further categorized into overarching patterns (p. 39). I examined the news stories on whether the journalists conform to or diverge from the protest paradigm and investigated Banksy’s proposed actions of anti-capitalism covered in the news stories. The text of the news stories was identified by characteristics of the protest paradigm and categorized as (i) delegitimization of the activism and (ii) the reliance on official sources (McLeod, 2007).
Through the discourse analysis of news coverage of the destruction on Banksy’s artwork, revealed interesting patterns. The protest paradigm somewhat appeared in the news stories but most of the content covered in the news stories were shedding a positive light of Banksy’s prank directed to the art community. The most prominent patterns found were diverging from the protest paradigm: (1) the legitimization of destroying art, (2) street artists were given a voice and (3) official sources spoke positively.
Diverging from the Protest Paradigm
The Legitimization of Destroying Art. The most interesting pattern found through the discourse analysis was that the news stories provided context about the destruction of Banksy’s artwork. The journalists reported that “… Banksy has pulled off another stunt that seized the attention of the art world’ (Wang, 2018, para. 1). It therefore announces that this is not the first time Banksy has done a stunt to gain attention towards his artwork and has once again opened the eyes of the art community. The artist has “… famously used elaborate stunts, like the one he pulled on Friday, to drive this point home’ (Romano, 2018, para. 17). The news stories have given context that shredding the painting is another way that Banksy is displaying anti-capitalist views to the art community. Furthermore, Banksy’s actions are legitimized since it is an act of “extending a tradition of pranks as an art form that began in the 1960s” (Romano, 2018, para. 25), which contextualizes Banksy’s action of destroying his artwork. The coverage of Banksy’s stunt of shredding the auctioned off art piece was provided background information about “Banksy’s history of subversive, highly politicized artwork, which is often accompanied by pointed stunts — many of them conceived to undermine power structures and call attention to the superficiality of the world we live in’ (Romano, 2018, para. 7). Banksy’s previous art pieces has showcased the artist’s anti-capitalist views.
Although the destruction of the painting, according to journalists may have increased the value of the art piece, which is the opposite of Banksy’s anti-capitalist views, the journalists believe that “Banksy did something brilliant with his shredder gag” (Charney, 2018, para. 6) and “… [it] is actually a clever way to immediately transform a painting that [is] probably less than $25 to produce and a few hundred to frame, and which sold for $1.4 million, into a work now worth many times that” (Charney, 2018, para. 8). However, “he is in it not for the money but for the laughs.’ (Chaney, 2018, para. 1), which brings back the point that the artist is not interested on how the art piece is now worth more in its shredded state.
Street Artists are Given a Voice. Another interesting pattern found from analyzing the four news stories was that other street artists were given a voice in the news coverage about the event. This is insight of non-official sources sharing their perspectives of the destruction of Banksy’s artwork. Street artist “Shepard Fairey” (Rodney, 2018, para. 3) was interviewed and voiced that ““I think Banksy’s idea here is that an appreciation for the concept is more important than an appreciation of the object.”” (Rodney, 2018, para.3). This drives the point that other street artists do not downplay Banksy’s actions and interpret the stunt in a way that encourages readers to take a step back to re-analyze the actions of Banksy in another perspective. Another street artist “Zardulu” (Romano, 2018, para. 22) was also interviewed and asked about whether she believed Banksy was doing something smart or not. She believes that ‘“Banksy is in a unique position that he can simply release a piece of work and it goes viral”” (Romano, 2018, para. 23) and ““… he obviously wanted us to ask whether the piece is now worth more or less now that it’s been part of a viral moment”’ (Romano, 2018, para. 24). What Zardulu suggests is that Banksy did plan on confusing the art community and wanted others to question his actions. This is evidence from the news stories that non-official sources are also given a voice when reporting a stunt performed by a famously known artist within the art community.
What also stood out was that coverage included Banksy’s Instagram post which showed the shredder being installed into the frame of the art piece (Rodney, 2018 para. 5; Wang 2018 para. 10). This shows that the journalists did not leave out the star of the show and gave a spotlight to the anonymous graffiti artist in terms of sharing the artist’s point of view of the whole event. This then means that Banksy had given thought prior to the destruction of the painting and was quoted ““… in case it was ever put up for auction …”’ (Rodney, 2018, para. 5; Wang, 2018, para. 11) and the caption of the Instagram post was ““The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”” (Rodney, 2018, para. 10; Wang, 2018, para. 13). Banksy and other street artists were given a voice in the news coverage which diverges from the protest paradigm, where official sources are typically reported in the coverage and downplays the actions of the activists.
Official Sources Spoke Positively. What was also found through the discourse analysis of the news stories was a surprising pattern. The official sources reported in the coverage spoke positively about the anonymous artist rather than downplaying Banksy. Higher powerholders such as art critics, art directors, and art gallery owners were prominent in voicing their opinions and perspectives about the destruction of Banksy’s painting and are viewed to be the official sources within this context. The official sources did not downplay Banksy’s actions in hopes of sharing his anti-capitalist views: “… the typically conservative critic Jonathan Jones declared that the stunt “proved [Banksy] is the artist who matters most right now” …” (Rodney, 2018, para. 3) and “John Brandler, director of Brandler Art Galleries, described Banksy as ‘the ultimate publicity artist’” (Rodney, 2018, para. 3). The official sources in this context are applauding Banksy and it means that Banksy is the street artist that the art world has their focus on.
In conclusion, through my research on popular culture activism of the planned destruction of Banksy’s painting, it suggests that news coverage of this event has given background context to provide an insight to the readers about what the event entails and legitimizes Banksy’s actions. The journalists tended to seek out other street artists, as well as art critics and art gallery directors, to see where their perspective stood about the event and what it means to the art community. My research confirms the findings of Harlow et. all (2017) that not all mainstream media gravitates towards the negative aspects of the protests and it does not conform to the protest paradigm. A limitation of this study was the analysis of only mainstream companies and online journalisms of one famous individual. Further research can be conducted on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where the lives of celebrities are being constantly shared among users, as well as research about other individuals who influences the larger community.
- Charney, N. (2018, Oct. 13). Why Banksy’s self-destructing “Girl With Balloon” is worth even more shredded. Salon. Retrieved from https://www.salon.com/2018/10/13/why-banksy-shredded-self-destruct-girl-with-balloon/
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- Rodney, S. (2018, Oct. 18). Banksy’s shredded painting stunt was viral performance art. But who was really trolling who?. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/banksy-s-shredded-painting-stunt-was-viral-performance-art-who-ncna921426
- Romano, A. (2018, Oct 8). Banksy’s shredded Sotheby’s art was a rebuke of empty consumerism from a master. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/10/8/17941350/banksy-trolls-sothebys-shredded-art-balloon-girl
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- Wang, B. (2018, Oct. 6). A Banksy painting sold at auction for $1.4 million – then automatically shredded itself. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2018/10/06/banksy-painting-sold-auction-million-then-automatically-shredded-itself/