December 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 9

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A Sociologist’s View of the “Occupy” Camps: Movements in a Shifting Media Landscape

Sarah Sobieraj, Tufts University

A look at U.S. news reveals that there were over 30,000 news stories about the Occupy movement during the first two months of the protests.1

Occupy Wall Street Journal

The cover of the Occupy Wall Street Journal
newspaper Photo by Jennifer C. Lena

My recent research on activists and the mainstream news media highlightes a media with far less vigorous interest in activism than the glut of Occupy coverage suggests. I have watched activists make Herculean efforts to obtain coverage of their issues and perspectives during presidential campaigns, with little success. Of the 50 groups I studied, only two received what might be called “meaningful coverage,” and the bar for “meaningful” was extremely low.2

The coverage that did appear was usually very brief, with most groups appearing in fleeting, partial-line references, often without mention of the issues that motivated their actions. These stories offer snapshots of activists in collage-like local color accounts. Some of these stories appear to be earnest attempts to represent the diversity of participants, although most highlight—and often belittle—the most bizarre participants on the scene. In both cases, the journalists regularly interpret (or at least narrate) this diversity as a cacophony of disparate interests, rather than a set of issues with a common thread. When activist groups receive more extended attention it is usually in stories about struggles over obtaining permits or they are framed as a threat to public safety or order. These accounts give more extended attention to the activists, but linger on logistics: the number of activists present, what they were wearing, the level of violence, and whether there were arrests. Often even lengthier pieces omit the issues that prompted the disruption.

An Avalanche of Coverage

For the Occupy movement, with tens of thousands of stories, it seems the broader curriculum of news must offer a different story. Yet, beyond this avalanche of coverage, much of Occupy’s media tale is familiar. Indeed, early coverage was predictably scant, attended to primarily by left-leaning talking heads on cable news. There was so little mainstream coverage, the NPR ombudsman issued a public statement on September 26—a week and a half after the encampments began—explaining why they had not covered the protests. That statement quotes the executive news editor: “The recent protest on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption, or an especially clear objective.” Not newsworthy.

The first several stories about Occupy Wall Street to appear in the New York Times were published on the City Room Blog, rather than in the paper itself. The first conventional article the paper published proffered a predictable frame, introducing the movement to Times readers as, “a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater.” The story points to several eccentric activists, but gives special attention to a topless “blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968.” The story continues wryly: “Tourists stopped to take pictures; cops smiled, and the insidiously favorable tax treatment of private equity and hedge-fund managers was looking as though it would endure.” At other moments the journalist refers to the “intellectual vacuum” at the protests and offers various remarks that suggest the activists are inept, immature, and hypocritical (for using Apple computers).

By the end of the second week the quantity of stories began to increase. Even as the number of Occupy participants and encampments spread exponentially and amateur video surfaced revealing excessive use of force on the part of law enforcement, the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor still received more than three times the coverage.3

If there is one thing the more recent landslide of media attention reveals, it is the resilience of the templates used by journalists reporting on activism. Even with heavy daily coverage—something most movements only dream of—the political substance remains thin. An impressionistic exploration reveals most stories describe skirmishes between activists and police, struggles over permitting and public space, or portraits of spectacle. The “no clear message” story proves particularly durable. Space has been allocated for stories about hand gestures used during meetings, celebrities that stop by the encampments, and for stories about movement strategy (Can they survive without leaders?), yet minimal attention has been devoted to exploring the economic inequality driving the movement.

A New Orientation to the Media

These critiques are familiar to the point of cliché. Yet, Occupy’s relationship with the media has some unique attributes. First, the fact that there is regular coverage is not something to be taken lightly. News organizations across the country have recast the movement as newsworthy, a battle that is not easily won, even when numbers are large and conflict is high.4 The other noteworthy shift is that the Occupy movement is not media-centric in the traditional sense. The groups I studied invested so much energy into attempting to attract journalists that their media preparation and strategy often took over, interfering with political activities, recruitment, interaction with bystanders, and intra-organizational communication. The Occupy movement has not fallen into this trap. The movement is doing (mainstream) media work, but signs suggest that this work is not consumptive. This is visible in the public nature of the general assembly meetings (and the less oppressive impression management such meetings signal), the presence of working groups focused on unmediated communication (e.g., on topics such as “education” and “outreach”), and the importance placed on communication among encampments. What’s more, the movement is creating original news media through newspapers such as the Occupied Wall Street Journal and the Boston Occupier as well as curating original news collections with Storify.

Occupy is also using social media more fully than other recent mobilizations. Rather than treating new social media as unidirectional spaces to post fliers, the movement is capitalizing on the interactive capacities offered by web 2.0. A tremendous amount of organizational work is transpiring on movement wikis, the livestream page allows viewers to see what is happening and to discuss it via the chat tool, and there are twitter streams, YouTube channels, and Facebook pages too numerous to count. From the “We are the 99 percent” tumblr (wearethe99percent.tumblr.com) to the chat-based classroom on the main OWS webpage (occupywallst.org/), the movement is using social media as tools of communication and interaction spaces to broadcast. In other words, the movement may be media-centric, but it has transformed media-centrism, by casting a broader media net with efforts not limited by the fickle affections or well-worn frames of mainstream news organizations. This is not to say that conventional news coverage is unimportant to the movement, on the contrary, it is vital. But the movement has not made the error of making media attention the goal rather than one of many tactics in the service of a goal.

One thing that became clear in my previous work with journalists is that they want activists to be “authentic,” to live up to their expectations of what it means to be an activist. Telegraphing authenticity with markers such as passion, spontaneity, and sincerity is exceedingly difficult for groups who have rehearsed sound bites, coiffed designated spokespeople, and planned press events designed to capture attention. The freedom from mainstream media dependence, which is so apparent in the choices made by the Occupy movement, ultimately creates an irony: the decreased emphasis on attracting mainstream media attention may very well help them to keep it.

Endnotes

  1. I generated this number with NewsLibrary.com, which tracks over 4000 news sources in the US. It includes articles appearing from September 17, 2011 through November 17, 2011 that include the word occupy and protest*.
  2. Sobieraj, Sarah. 2011. Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism. New York: NYU Press.
  3. In the period between 9/23/11 and 9/30/11, the trial appeared in 1236 domestic news stories, while the Occupy protests appeared in 380 stories as per searches on NewsLibrary.
  4. The limited coverage of the global justice movement in 1999 and 2000 is illustrative. In the two months following the Seattle protests, the movement received less than 10% the coverage received by the Occupy movement.

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