Media Coverage of Occupy Wall Street and Wikileaks
Nov 23, 2011

Media Coverage of Occupy Wall Street and Wikileaks

There are two major ways that the Occupy movement can be covered in the media. One can either tell stories about the movement itself, or one can tell stories about the ideas and concepts raised by the movement. In the former category we have things like talking about police clashes, moves by mayors to evict protesters, what their next planned march is, what the courts are saying, etc. As in, the existence of the Occupy movement creates a body of stories about that movement that can be, and typically are, told without much if any attention given to what the issues being raised actually are.

Occupy Wall Street
It can't be said that the Occupy movement hasn't received a lot of coverage, in fact it is disproportionately more covered than other protests with higher participation. Anyone even vaguely receiving daily news will have had of it, it is consistently making first and second page stories in local newspapers, it makes it into subway news tickers, and generally has been extensively covered. However, that coverage has been largely been in the first category, prefering to talk about evictions of the protesters than the ideas raised by them. In the early stages, as I wrote about here, there was quite a bit of coverage arround the question of "what is this all about?" which is a question in the second category asking about the fore ideas of the movement. While I believe that was very poorly answered and poorly framed, now that the protest has gone on for some time and this question has been de facto answered, it has reversed to largely being coverage about the events surrounding the Occupy movement.

Part of the reason for this is simply that the Occupy movement, as a decentralized, leaderless, heterogeneous and amorphous movement, really challenges conventional media portrayals. Namely, the media typically uses the statements of very hierarchical and established figures to present the news and Occupy doesn't have such figures so it is difficult for them to cover if they remain in that reporting mould.

However, as soon as we get to something like the debate over eviction of the protesters then we are right back into the comfortable reporting territory. The media can get statements from mayors and other public officials, they can report on the rulings of courts, they can speak to lawyers representing both sides in courts, they can talk to the police, and they can portray a conflict between two defined parties over a defined issue: should the protesters be allowed to stay in such and such a park or square or should the city remove them? The coverage of the Occupy movement can now be put into a neat little box that fits with conventional techniques of reporting. Of course, now even the illusion of caring what the issues raised actually are is put entirely to the side.

Julian Assange of Wikileaks
Wikileaks coverage:
A very similar phenomenon occured with regards to Wikileaks. There are two possible sets of news stories to write about Wikileaks. One can use the enormous new body of information about the world that has been attained and report on the new revelations. Or one can talk about the Wikileaks itself had report on the story that is Wikileaks. In the latter category comes reporting of all the legal troubles of Wikileaks, the troubles surrounding the rape allegations of Julian Assange, the question of whether Wikileaks should or should not have released the information in a different way or at all, what the US and other leaders were saying about Wikileaks, etc. Much like the coverage of Occupy, there was enormous coverage on the Wikileaks story, and much less coverage of the revelations it made.

Again, part of this can be explained by the fact that this latter form of coverage is just more amenable to conventional media reporting. They can establish clear sides in a conflict - the US government vs Wikileaks, say - and use the convenient hierarchical structures to see what the top government officials say about Wikileaks, to see what the lawyers say, to see what the courts determine, to see what is happening at the organization Wikileaks, etc. It fits their narrative.

Conversely, if one wants to report about the revelations it isn't that it is necessarily hard to do this, it is just not the conventional way the mainstream media does reporting. This is information everybody now has and the media doesn't get privaleged access to. Opposed to being told by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what the news of the day is base on whatever she chooses to say in a press conference, they have to search this enormous body of information themselves for the stories they want to run. They have to find the context and the experts and the relevant information and framing of the story themselves. Since Clinton or anyone else in the government isn't going to comment on any specific revelation (unless it helps their cause), the conventional hierarchical structures will be of no use.

Challenging conventional power sources:
Wikileaks went perhaps even further than the Occupy movement because it wasn't just that it was challenging for conventional media to portray, but it directly challenged conventional media. As in, it really did what the mainstream media is supposed to do - inform the citizenry of what is actually going on and hold vested interests to account - in a way that was vastly superior to what had been done by the media in years. Indeed, getting various sources to yield information about the transgressions of government is precisely what the media ought to be doing. Instead, the media today is both dependent on government and other centers of power and, correspondingly, extensively protects them from any real scrutiny and merely parrots their message. So when Wikileaks revealed so much information that is damning about the very sources the media depends on, the reaction was one that shut down the revelations of Wikileaks and instead focused on the story of Wikileaks itself.

The same is true to some extent with the Occupy movement. Granted, the Occupy movement isn't directly challenging the media by doing their own job better than them. However, they are similarly challenging the corporatized and hierarchical system that the media is both part of and dependent upon. Just as was the case with Wikileaks, I think there is some degree to which the media feels threatened by the Occupy movement and reacts as it has as a result of this.

New Media: 
One lesson we can thus take from the coverage of both the Occupy movement and Wikileaks is that conventional hierarchical media presentations simply do not do them justifice. However, it is worth noting that a large amount of new media and social media on the Internet have actually done a very good job at reporting these two stories. Since much of the new media on the Internet is intrinsically decentralized, bottom up, and democratic, it is inheriently better positioned to understand and present stories which are themselves of this nature. As in, there is a natural correspondence between the structure of different types of media and their corresponding efficacy at presenting stories with a similar structure.

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