According to Michael Boyle, a professor of communication studies at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, nonviolent protest is more effective when it comes to meeting a movement's media coverage goals. When groups "engage in more extreme tactics," Boyle says, the coverage they receive is likely to focus on the tactics themselves. "We learn about what they look like, whether they're engaging in civil disobedience or violence or not, but we get very little sense of why they're doing what they're doing."
He points to the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization as an example. As demonstrators took to rioting and disruption, media coverage emphasized their actions, including photos of looters breaking windows and clashes with police. The focus on tactics came at the expense of an explanation of the reason protesters were in the streets in the first place.
In Hong Kong, protesters are "trying to maintain a nonviolent approach." Boyle says this is key, "because at any point that there's violence, then that becomes the thing" that the media zooms in on. By keeping peaceful, the protesters in Hong Kong are trying to "keep the conversation about what they're doing."
But there's a downside to taking these tactics too far, and we're seeing it in Hong Kong. Right now, the international media coverage of the demonstrations is "positive in the sense of PR and feelings," says Scott Talan, assistant professor of public communication at American University. But "what you have to then wonder is if there's so much focus on the niceness of the Hong Kong protests that their overall message or their main point is not being communicated and not being understood."
Taken to an extreme, nonviolence can have the same effect on media coverage as physical confrontation. Just like it might have been if the protests were characterized by clashes, Hong Kong media coverage has been focused on demonstrators' tactics. Instead of showing burning tires and rock-throwing, however, stories like this one from the BBC described "things that could only happen in a Hong Kong protest": students who sat in the street to complete their homework, demonstrators who posted apologies for inconveniencing commuters on makeshift barricades, and complete compliance with a sign that asked protesters to keep off a neatly trimmed grassy plaza. In this and other stories, the movements' goals are relegated to a footnote or aren't mentioned at all.
An 'Umbrella Movement' sign is seen outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on October 1, 2014. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
"Great, there's people carrying umbrellas," Boyle says, referring the movement's nickname, the Umbrella Revolution. "But does that become the focus as opposed to 'There's actually a big issue at stake here'?"
Talan thinks an escalation could prompt more in-depth international coverage than is being produced now. The media would "go beyond coverage of their peaceful" actions, Talan said, to "major-league analysis" of the China-Hong Kong relationship, a look at Hong Kong's history of British rule, and at Hong Kong's role as a global financial leader.