The media's questionable coverage of the Occupy movement
Oct 21, 2011

The media's questionable coverage of the Occupy movement

It can't be said that the mainstream media isn't covering the Occupy Wall Street et al protests. Indeed, a major difference between these protests and so many others that came before it is that the media has given it quite extensive coverage. However, there remain problems with this coverage that reflect larger systemic issues in the media that will be investigated here and compared with the coverage of the Arab Spring and the Tea Party.

Occupy Wall Street NYC Protests
The prevailing media wisdom on the Occupy movement seems to  to think it is important to come up with a simple, authoritative description that captures precisely what it is that the Occupy movement is about. At the same time, it fails to do so and rather laments this failure as a problem with the movement itself.

The problem is the basic structure that the media uses to convey the news. Namely, it seeks out leaders in hierarchical structures and tries to find a simplified, centralized, holistic message of what those leaders are suggesting. This leader-centric viewpoint percolates all aspects of reporting. One quotes what government leaders say, what leading polititians say, what the leadership of big corporations say, even what union leadership says during labour conflicts.

This is not an unreasonable heuristic, and indeed referencing what leaders say is a useful way of determining the objectives of various hierarchical institutions. It provides authority and importance to the news because these are the people who have the most authority and importance. The problem arrises when there is a fundamental difference between a more general group of people and the leaders who allegedly represent them. When this occurs—when union members disagree with a union leader, when people disagree with their polititians, when stock holders and customers disagree with a CEO, when parishioners disagree with a religious leader—the story simply cannot be told only by referencing what the leadership says. Good and effective reporting must tell the entire story and give voice to the broader sentiments.

The Occupy movement takes this one step further because it simply does not have a leader. It is fundamentally grassroots and has not even developed a limited hierarchical structure for organizational purposes the way some movements do. In order to cover it, then, the media will be forced to find some way that doesn't come from quoting the statements of leaders. They will have to do actual reporting and tap the pulse of the movement themselves to be able to explain it in an article that is worth reading.

This isn't exactly difficult. The sentiment of what the Occupy protests mean and represent is fairly well represented by an enormous body of social media, micro bloggers, and other members of the so called fifth estate. It doesn't take much to be able to explain the broad themes, it just requires stepping outside of the conventional leader-centric reporting mold in order to be able to do it. That said, the Occupy movement, precisely because it is NOT centralized and NOT homogenized, simply isn't best described by some nice one sentence descriptor. It is a range of views, sentiments and perspectives and that is entirely okay.

Arab Uprising:

On the global scale, by far the largest and most influential populist movement was the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that continue to this day to push a level of change in such a large geographic region not seen since perhaps the collapse of the Soviet Union. When it came to the western media coverage of it, which was extensive, the same basic problems described above creeped in. The media searched for, and found, a single homogenized message which could encapsulate the uprisings: the desire to overthrow their dictators. This is certainly a large part of it, but it was not the only message. Some of the most common grievances surrounded issues of unemployment and high fuel and food prices and wanted solutions to these problems. The protesters had enormous diversity across religious, ethnic, age, and political spectrums and advocated on a whole host of different issues. Yet most of the rest of this was rarely addressed and one had to watch Al Jazerra or to find out about it.

Tea Party:

The case of the Tea Party is very interesting. Firstly, it should be acknowledged that the coverage has been deeply asymmetric between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. If the standard is to be that protests ought to have a consistent message with specific policy demands in order to be valid, the Tea Party from both its infancy until today clearly doesn't satisfy that standard. However, this standard was hardly applied to them even though it is being applied to the Occupy movement. For example, the Tea Party is often described as "anti-government". If this description is widely accepted, how is being against, say, the establishment power of the top 1% not to the same standard? I don't particularly think either phrase (or really any phrases of such length) is all that valuable, but if that is to be accepted as a standard it shouldn't least be applied fairly.

Secondly, the same issue of a leader-centric approach can be found here too. For a very long time the dominant narrative of the Tea Party has been the question of who leads it. For a while that was sort of de facto Sarah Palin -probably the most covered "polititian" outside of Obama in 2009. More recently there has been the transition towards Michele Bachmann. Whatever bit of good there might be in the Tea Party movement, it comes from that grassroots and populist sentiments which, to our discredit, have been underrepresented in comparison to the silly things the alleged leaders of this movement says. I think there is a lot of overlap between the appeal of the Tea Party to individuals and to other movements, even the Occupy one. I think we ought not to mock or to ignore the Tea Party and the appeal it has.

Social Media:

If nothing else, this demonstrates the value of social media and citizen journalism which collectively has been both excellent and empowering in its simultaneous coverage and membership in the Occupy movement.

Update: I am glad it is not just me who thinks it is ridiculous the claims of pundits not to know what this movement is about.

Previously on the Occupy movement: Wall Street Protests, Obama, and changing the national conversation

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The media views occupy protesters like they are zoo animals, opposed to being a part of the 99%.

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