When Eric Garner was killed after a New York police officer placed him in a chokehold in July 2014, the story received little attention from Britons, according to archive polling by Populus.
Six years later, the death of George Floyd in similar circumstances and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests became the most noticed news story in the UK. More than four in ten people (44 per cent) paid more attention to it than any other story – making it only the second to surpass coronavirus since the end of January.
Protests and social movements do not usually achieve this level of attention. For comparison, the Me Too movement was mentioned as the most noticed story by 25 per cent of people at its peak in November 2017, while the Extinction Rebellion protests were named by only 7 per cent in April last year.
Campaigns such as these do not get noticed in equal measure by different demographics: this is an event seized by young people. Those aged 18 to 24 were roughly twice as likely as those aged 65 or over to choose George Floyd and BLM as their most noticed story. For those aged 35 and over, the top story was COVID-19.
Towards the end of June, the virus wrestled back attention. With the announcement that restrictions would ease and parts of the economy reopen, the coronavirus claimed the top spot for the 20th time this year, with 72 per cent of people saying they noticed it more than other stories.
Such figures remind us how hard it is for news to cut through in this extraordinary environment. All other stories in June, including Marcus Rashford’s success in forcing the government U-turn over free school meals, were front of mind for fewer than one in ten.
Of course, none of this means that people agree with the objectives or tactics of the protesters, but it does signify that the campaign has gone mainstream, particularly among the young. To overshadow coronavirus, as the BLM protests did briefly, takes some doing.
Populus interviews a representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults every week, and asks which new story they have noticed the most. The question is open-ended and participants can name any story.
Will Clothier is a Senior Consultant at Populus
Will is a Senior Consultant at Populus, where he advises corporate and public sector clients on their reputation strategies with key audiences. He leads projects analysing the views of the public, key demographic groups, and senior stakeholders. He works with charities, political organisations, and household names across a range of sectors.