Dr. Summer Harlow Shares Research at APeX Speaker Series

Valenti professor delves into portrayals of protests on social media during packed campus lecture

Photograph of Dr. Summer Harlow giving her talk on the protest paradigm at M.D. Anderson Library.

Dr. Summer Harlow, assistant professor in journalism, was selected as one of four speakers for the 2019-2020 Assistant Professor Excellence Speaker Series (APeX). The Faculty Senate Community and Government Relations Committee (CGRC) organizes this annual program to highlight and promote emerging scholars, as well as connect them with the University of Houston community. 

Harlow’s presentation, which took place Jan. 29 in the M.D. Anderson Library, was the third in the 2019-20 series. She was the only CLASS assistant professor chosen for the speaker series and boasted a full house for her presentation—only standing room was available.

“This year we had around 50 submissions, and we chose four,” said Fleurette Fernando, chair of the Faculty Senate CGRC. “We had so many great submissions so it was difficult to narrow down.”

Harlow’s presentation, titled From #BlackLivesMatter to #Ayotzinapa: Rethinking Domestic and Foreign Protest News Coverage on Social Media, focused on the causes and consequences of the protest paradigm—which explains how media coverage of social movements and protesters is delegitimizing. 

“The media ends up being a social control function, where journalists are actually maintaining the status quo by the way they are covering marginalized groups,” said Harlow during her lecture. “Social movements live and die by their number of supporters. If you cannot get people to support a movement you will not get social change.”

Harlow’s study examines how social media users’ sharing of protest news amplifies narratives that marginalize some protests and legitimize others. Using a mixed-methods approach—i.e., analyzing Tweets and conducting in-depth, semi-structured interviews—she also sought to understand, in part, how journalists think about what they do. 

Finally, Harlow’s research found that, while the protest paradigm still exists, there are more contingencies to combat it now. The general public tends to share stories that are more supportive and legitimizing for protests. Additionally, more people are getting their news from social media rather than from the news outlets directly. 

Still, she noted, the role of media in shaping how protests are categorized is still important.

“How the media cover protests has very large social implications that are important to consider,” said Harlow during her talk.