Reporting on Portland

Framing matters.

I was working on a longer post about the Portland protests and specifically the way the story has been framed and reported. So, I surfed over to the FNC web site and saw the following story: Portland sees 150-round shooting at apartment building, as crowds continue violent clashes with police. The splash page was the screenshot at the top of this post.

The first two paragraphs of the story was as follows:

More than 150 rounds were fired and one woman was shot in Portland on Friday night while protesters on Saturday – some of whom appeared to impersonate press – threw glass bottles and shined lasers at city police officers sent to quell the nighttime unrest witnessed for more than two months straight.

Saturday marked the third night of federal and state law enforcement cooperation in Portland, as the Department of Homeland Security continues to weigh plans to withdraw from the liberal Oregon city.

(A chef’s kiss for “liberal Oregon city” BTW).

The events in paragraph one are accurate, but there is a major problem with the framing as the piece conflates multiple events in a way that is misleading. Specifically, the most egregious act of violence, the firing of 150 rounds that resulted in a woman being shot in the arm, took place at a different location from the event at the police station.

Indeed, they were over two miles apart from one another:

Also, they took place at different times. The FNC piece notes that the shooting took place at 11:08 pm. The piece does not state when the clash with police occurred but according to Oregonlive, the conflict was declared “an unlawful assembly” at 9:53 pm (and police accounts note that the protest started around 8:50pm).

The FNC piece does note in the fifth paragraph (right after quoting a resident using the phrase “it’s a war zone”):

Though it was not immediately clear whether the shooting was linked to demonstrations seen in Portland nearly every night since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May, another resident, Kemoh Sulimani, connected the violence to the city’s efforts to defund police.

“They had a gang violence task force that are no longer funded, which is unfortunate because as soon as that defunding happened all of this really peaked up,” Sulimani told Fox 12.

The FNC framing is utterly dishonest. It takes a crime story and links it, without evidence, to the broader protests. It covers itself with “it was not immediately clear whether the shooting was linked to demonstrations” while leaving the impression that it was. It bolsters that impression by using quotations from bystanders expressing opinions that are made to sound ominously linked to anti-police protests. But, of course, the first quote was an understandable reaction to shots being fired in a neighborhood, and the second, while dealing with the funding for law enforcement, may or may not have had anything to do with recent calls to defund the police (we do not know when the gang task force was defunded and while the story makes implications, it does not tell us).

The police report (linked by FNC) does not make any linkage of the shooting to protests, nor does the Oregonlive version of the story: More than 150 rounds shot in Northeast Portland, one woman injured, police say.

It terms of proximity to downtown where the main protests have been taking place, note that the shooting was roughly 7 miles from the courthouse:

All of this matters because perceptions about these events are shaped by the way they are reported. FNC viewers are prone to take away the idea that Portland is truly under siege with breathless reports that conflate events and images that stoke fears. Such reporting is then used to justify federal actions such as the dubious use of DHS actors downtown.

And throw in stories like this for good measure: Army National Guard veteran on Portland unrest: ‘I think it’s time’ to ‘do something about it’

An Army National Guard veteran who helped stop a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train in 2015, told “Fox & Friends Weekend” on Sunday that “no one really agrees with what the protesters are doing” in Portland.

“I think it’s time that we actually stand up and say so and try to do something about it,” Alek Skarlatos, a Republican candidate for Congress in Oregon, said.

Skarlatos made the comments after more than 150 rounds were fired and one woman was shot in Portland on Friday night while protesters on Saturday – some of whom appeared to impersonate press – threw glass bottles and shined lasers at city police officers sent to quell the nighttime unrest witnessed for more than two months straight.

So, more accurately, a Republican candidate for Congress has an opinion and is speaking here in that capacity, regardless of his past service or his heroic acts in 2015.

Again, the third paragraph conflates events in a highly misleading way.

And I will note: protestors should not throw glass bottles at the police, but if we are going to deal with these situations appropriately, we need proper reporting and understanding, not sensationalism designed to scare viewers.

And not only does reporting like this distort general public understanding, but we know that the President of the United States forms a substantial amount of his opinions about these matters by watching Fox News Channel.

FILED UNDER: Policing, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. mister bluster says:

    Fox News
    We Distort
    You Run and Hide

  2. Joe says:

    150 rounds and only 1 person was shot? (I am both sorry and relieved.) Were they shooting them into the air? 150 rounds sounds like the end of Bonny & Clyde. I agree it is important that it was not apparently part of the protests, but wow.

  3. Richard Gardner says:

    Similarly, the difference between the national and local news reporting on Seattle and Portland is sometimes quite large. The national news (Fox, CNN, NBC, etc) sometimes cherry pick to support an ideological view. We now have joy that the Feds are gone and protests went away – without mentioning that Portland Police also cleared out the camp in the nearby park (no staging area). I would say both were important factors to this weekend’s decline in activity – but what did you hear?

  4. Slugger says:

    The KOIN tv station twitter feed gives pretty accurate timely on the ground info for the interested.

  5. Gustopher says:

    So, by a colloquial definition, they lied?

    The specific facts might be correct, but they deliberately presented them in a way that strongly suggests a false conclusion, misleading those they claim to inform.

    Any difference between that and lying is a distinction without a difference.

  6. @Gustopher: It is fundamentally dishonest, yes.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    You know, I think the supposedly liberal MSM are, in fact, downplaying the protests and any violence. Which is an amazing development. They have no ideology except that of the market, they just want to peddle papers. And they know their audience and apparently think hippie punching doesn’t sell anymore. That is freaking progress.

  8. flat earth luddite says:

    @gVOR08: Sorry, your dudeness, but I must object. If you were a little closer than 3000 miles away, I’d invite you over for a tour. The area of the protests and police actions vis-à-vis protesters are generally confined to about 4 square blocks around the City Hall, Justice Center, and Federal building, in the heart of downtown Portland. Some marchers and protesters in other areas, but generally speaking, that’s the area people are congregated in. This is the area the mayor was tear-gassed in. This is the area where a protester was shot in the head with a less-than-lethal munition.

    OTOH, those of us who live in greater Stumptown know the area where the shooting occurred is (generally speaking) a “rougher” part of town. Although I’d be the first to admit that the gang-bangers and other (suspected) criminal elements don’t attend firearms safety and familiarization classes, 150 shots is WAY more than normal. Usually it’s more like 5-10, occasionally 20 shots, and yes, they are abysmal shots, as most amateurs are. Spray and pray is apparently alive and well.

    While both MSM and America’s TASS (excuse me, I meant FNN and the like) are guilty of excesses and inaccuracies in their reporting, the more conservative press seems more in lockstep with the idea that this is, in fact, the coming apocalypse. Or worse, those uppity hippies and their brethren.