The Rashomon Effect in Three Headlines/Stories

We are familiar with framing effects, and aware that different news media use headlines and content to frame stories differently.  Christian Davenport recently explored the issue in some depth in his 2010 book.  Over the weekend a very nice illustration of this problem unfolded with respect to the Standing Rock (Sioux) Tribe’s #NoDAPL protests against the North Dakota Access Pipe Line being built by Energy Transfer Partners with the support of the US Army Corps of Engineers North Dakota.

Writing for the Associated Press, James MacPherson (@MacPhersonJA) used the “balanced and objective” passive voice construction so prized by the Western news outlets that grew dominant during the mid 20th Century.  Here is an image of his story published by ABC News.


“No actors here–this stuff just happens!” this “objective” construction tells us.  The stories generally provide a Who did What, Where account, but the headline rarely does. MacPherson’s story sticks to the script.  Here is paragraph two:

Morton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said four private security guards and two guard dogs were injured after several hundred protesters confronted construction crews Saturday afternoon at the Dakota Access pipeline construction site just outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

Paragraph three offers “the other side” of the story:

Tribe spokesman Steve Sitting Bear said protesters reported that six people had been bitten by security dogs, including a young child. At least 30 people were pepper-sprayed, he said. Preskey said law enforcement authorities had no reports of protesters being injured.

The story gives the government the last word, closing this way:

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in a statement that “individuals crossed onto private property and accosted private security officers with wooden posts and flag poles.”

“Any suggestion that today’s event was a peaceful protest, is false,” his statement said.

It is a standard “objective” (passive voice) account providing “He said, she said” accounts the privilege the government’s perspective over that of the dissidents, but give some billing to “each sides” version of its victim/perpetrator narrative.

The following image indicates how widely MacPherson’s AP narrative spread in the US, as measured by the Google search algorithm.


Google search conducted ~22:35 PDT on 4 Sept 2016 from Phoenix, AZ.

National Public Radio (USA) used the passive voice headline: “Dakota Access Pipeline Protests In North Dakota Turn Violent,”  but discuss, and provide a link to, Democracy Now’s video coverage, which is a much more active construction that identifies actors, interests, and behavior.

Consider, alternatively, Truthout’s coverage.


This is the dissident version of the victim/perpetrator narrative, though rather than concentrate on the outrageous acts of the perpetrators (government), it employs the hero narrative explaining how the challengers, led by American Horse, made sacrifice while remained true to their ideals, as well as those of civil rights, freedom and human dignity.

The website Heavy, on the other hand, turned to social media to produce a dissident version of the victim/perpetrator narrative that describes the “hateful,” “inhumane” behavior of private security officials who attacked the peaceful protestors described by truthout.


Social media filled with dramatic photos and accounts of dogs being used against protesters on September 3, including reports of injuries and pepper spray being allegedly directed at protesters.

This tweet by Lakota Child is especially powerful, but the full story is worth a few moments of your time.


I have not located accounts produced by the firms or (local, state, federal) government defending the status quo, but if you find them, they will undoubtedly provide active construction victim/perpetrator narratives, perhaps including the hero journeys of private security canines / officers, police, and other executive branch officials; the extent to which they acted in accord with, and motivated by, widely shared principles and values; and the “irrational,” “evil” behavior of the dissidents.

I wonder whether you bristle at my use of quotation marks above.  They are quite intentional.  I do use them in an misguided effort to offer an objective truth: none exists. My ontology is postmodern and my epistemic views constructivist: there is no “truth” to detect.  The quotation marks draw attention to the common structure of the narratives “each side” tells.

If I might be permitted some disciplinary biography, when Davenport first began his “Rashomon” project in the late 90s he was planning to “triangulate” a useful measure of the “true record of events” from news media, government, and dissident accounts of the Bay Area chapters of the Black Panther Party’s interactions with the US, state and local governments and the public at large.  I told him I thought the project ill conceived, but explained my position poorly.  Over the decade of research done for the book Davenport developed his “Rashomon” position.  If you have not read it, give at least the first few chapters a good look.

In closing, all we have is the stories we tell one another (the ones we recall, the ones we are creating, and the ones we hope to create).  Those of us who study dissent and repression as social scientists (as opposed to critical theorists, etc.) need to do a better job making that story telling standard machinery in our theories.


1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

One response to “The Rashomon Effect in Three Headlines/Stories

  1. This is an excellent media criticism as well as great sociology of social movements.


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