Conform or Reform? Social Movements and the Mass Media

This article was previously published online in February 2007 as a peer-reviewed article by Fifth-Estate-Online – International Journal of Radical Mass Media Criticism. This journal has now stopped operating. 

Abstract: The mass media is an important outlet for social movements, where the quality and nature of media coverage strongly influences how they are perceived in the public eye. This paper examines the complex interface existing between the mass media and social movements, and considers what collective actions social movements may need to undertake, if they are to improve their media coverage in the future. The paper discusses the relationship between social movements (as outsiders) and the mass media in both a historical and contemporary context and argues that media reform is required to enable dissident voices to be democratically heard.

Keywords: Social Movements, Protest, Demonstration, Participatory Democracy, Global Justice, Reform.

Barker Fifth Estate Online


The mass media is a vital resource for most political actors, and it may be even more important for social movements, whose transitional and adversarial nature weakens their ability to secure public legitimacy (Kielbowicz & Scherer, 1986; Gamson, 1995: 85). Their outsider status, along with their usual resource-poor nature, means that traditional avenues of publicity are not easily accessible and forces them to rely on alternative methods to obtain media access. Traditionally, this involves some form of public spectacle – like a protest – to attract media attention. These activities have become accepted as mechanisms by which social problems are communicated in the public sphere, alongside public opinion polls and elections (Herbst 1993) and they act as vital means by which citizens can signal their discontent.

One of the first detailed examinations of a social movement protest in the media (both press and television) focused on a mass demonstration held against the Vietnam war in Britain (Halloran et al., 1970). The demonstration involved approximately 60,000 protesters, most of who marched peacefully through the streets of London (with an insignificant number of protestors involved in violent actions). However, despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the march, the media concentrated most of its coverage on the issue of violence (Halloran et al., 1970: 237). Although Halloran et al., (1970: 301) noted that there were differences between media outlets in their coverage, they were all united by the overall focus on ‘the same limited aspect – the issue of violence.’ The misrepresentation of this massive political rally, and the totality of the negative coverage across all media outlets led the investigators to conclude that such reporting poses extreme problems for democracy, which may only be remedied by ‘some form of institutional rearrangement’ (Halloran et al., 1970: 318). These are serious charges, and the authors acknowledged that further studies needed to be carried out to determine how systemic these problems were. Since then, many researchers have followed up on this investigation, examining how various social movements interact with media systems. Drawing upon this body of work, this paper will analyse the importance of the role of the mass media for social movements. This will include a review of the literature and recommendations on how such groups may best address their relationships with the mass media. To begin with, a brief discussion of some of the external forces beside the media, which effect the development of social movements and their ensuing relations with the mass media, will be presented.

Foundations of Change

The inherent conflict between corporate driven capitalism and democracy has always caused ruling elites to have their work cut out dissipating the ebb and flow of popular dissent. This contradiction is best exemplified by Crozier et al.’s (1975) classic study, The Crisis of Democracy, which controversially diagnosed the need for ‘a greater degree of moderation in democracy.’ The first political theorist to accurately document this ‘management’ dilemma was Antonio Gramsci, who described how elites were able to successfully maintain hegemony over the masses through the use of consensual rather than coercive institutional arrangements. Theobald (2006: 26) notes that the ‘central importance’ of Gramsci’s view to radical mass media criticism is ‘that current bourgeois control of society, while certainly manifest in material modes of production, is culturally embedded and naturalised in the minds of the people via its hegemony over discourse.’

One vital but overlooked organ of hegemony, that Gramsci was unable to include in his work, are philanthropic foundations, whose rising influence on the contours of civil society only became visible some decades after Gramsci’s death (Roelofs, 2003; Faber & McCarthy, 2005). The hegemonic power of foundations, however, is arguably even greater than other hegemonic elements, like the mass media, precisely because their influence has been downplayed (or in many cases simply omitted) by academia. This is especially the case with liberal foundations, which have actively influenced progressive social change by directly co-opting organisations or channelling their activists towards less radical activities (Arnove, 1980; Fisher, 1983; Jenkins, 1998; Roelofs, 2003).

Historically, the work of philanthropic foundations has been most influential in the US, but now similar foundations operate all over the world, and with the resurgence of corporate social responsibility, corporations are also becoming prominent philanthropists. For example, during the 2000 election cycle in the US, ‘the corporate outlay on political philanthropy… was probably a minimum of $1-2 billion’ dwarfing combined PAC and soft money contributions (Sims 2003: 166-167). Some academics have begun to address the urgent task of proposing solutions to counteract the anti-democratic nature of such subtle yet pervasive social engineering (see Faber & McCarthy, 2005), because it is clear that manipulation of civil society (by foundations or governments) through selective support of non-governmental organisations raises questions that reach to the heart of all democracies. Furthermore, a growing body of work suggests that similar ‘democracy promoting’ practices now serve as an integral foreign policy tool to help ‘promote polyarchy’ (Dahl, 1971) over more substantive and participatory forms of democracy (Robinson, 1996: Barker, 2006a). Likewise, other research has begun to examine how selective support of ‘independent’ media organisations in geo-strategically important countries has helped facilitate revolutions (e.g., the coloured revolutions in Eastern Europe) to further the polyarchal interests of trans-national capitalism (Barker, 2006b; Barker, Submitted a). Referring to the Orange Revolution, Herman (2006) observed ‘that the civil society uprising in the Ukraine in 2004-2005, [which was] funded heavily by U.S. government agencies and friendly NGOs, was given much more lavish news treatment than domestic [US] protests, along with editorial support.’ Indeed, elite patronage – either by governments or philanthropic foundations – confers a degree of ‘legitimacy’ upon social activists, which in turn may be accompanied by more favourable media coverage. In the light of these findings, Robinson’s (1996) promoting polyarchy thesis predicts that individuals or groups vigorously challenging the status quo and/or trans-national capitalist elites would be most likely to be marginalised by the mass media.

Struggling for Praise
The hostile media playing field

For any social movement to draw beneficial attention to its activities in the mass media, the first barrier it must overcome is the structural constraints of the medium itself. According to Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) Propaganda Model, there are five filters through which all news must pass, that actively shape the media’s content. These are (1) the size, ownership and profit orientation of the media, (2) advertising, (3) sourcing, (4) flak (criticism) and (5) anti-communist ideology, which can be interpreted as keeping the discourse within the boundaries of elite interests. (For a critical review of the Propaganda Model see Klaehn 2002; and for a review of its significance to domestic and foreign policy making processes see Barker 2005). The fact that the Propaganda Model itself is marginalised from most media scholarship is consistent with the model’s predictions (Herring & Robinson, 2003). Yet there are still a small number of critical scholars who have been able to illustrate the applicability of the Propaganda Model to countries other than the US (where the model was first developed), e.g., in Australia (Linder 1994, 1998; Cryle & Hillier, 2005), Canada (Babe, 2005; Eglin, 2005; Klaehn, 2005; Winter & Klaehn, 2005), and the UK (Cromwell 2001, Chapter 3; Carvalho, 2005; Doherty, 2005; McKiggan, 2005; Edwards & Cromwell, 2006).

In this way, news values filter what appears in the media – and more importantly what doesn’t – not in any prescribed way, but more as a result of a sort of tacit professional consensus which usually acts to ‘reinforce conventional opinions and established authority’ (Seaton, 1997: 277). Meyer (2002: 30-31) suggests that news must also pass through another filter, which he calls ‘the rules of stage-managing’, which selects news based on its style of presentation and ability to attract an audience’s attention.

Most protestors are not the focus of regular news beats and so tend to rely on protest events to broadcast their news, however, most of these are ignored in the mainstream media (McCarthy et al., 1996a: 494). In addition, social movements have to contend with representative democracy, which leads governments to emphasise that dissent should take place in ballot boxes and not on the streets: a point of view endorsed by the mass media (McChesney, 1999). In spite of this, the mass media’s influence is not monolithic and some social movements and interest groups are able to maintain moderately useful media relations, publicising their activities in a predominantly positive light – something that will be discussed later in more detail. The overall inadequacy, or inequality, of coverage of protestors and social movements compared to other better placed insider groups has caused some authors to lament that the only way for social movements to obtain positive coverage is through the adoption of public relations techniques (Shoemaker, 1989: 215). This has led to the development of various media handbooks, which explore how social movements may better exploit the mass media (Monbiot, 2002). At this stage, it is worth considering that it is not only social movements that complain about adversarial media coverage. Both governments and corporations also convey the same general attitude (to the public at least), regarding their negative treatment by the mythical left wing media (Edwards & Cromwell, 2006). However, the big difference between insider groups and most social movements is that the former can mobilise huge political and financial resources to publicise their positive activities, and still spend fifty per cent or more of their public relations resources on preventing media attention to their more secretive ‘closed door’ activities (Davis, 2002: 179).

Arguably the largest, most credentialed and well-resourced social organisation prior to the 1980s was the labour movement, but research has shown that despite these advantages, the British labour movement has been systematically treated with hostility by the media (Philo & Glasgow University Media Group, 1982). In 1990, US media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) published a report entitled ‘Lost in the margins: labor and the media’ which concluded that ‘the lives of 100 million working people are being routinely ignored, marginalised or inaccurately portrayed in the media’ (FAIR 1990). Current research from the US also shows how the labour movement is still systematically misrepresented in the media, despite its financial strength, application of professional public relations techniques and fundamentally democratic ideals (Martin, 2004 and

Ignoring campaigners

Other social movements in less influential political positions than the labour movement suffer even more under the strain to publicise their activities, especially when their activities confront the status quo. The US civil rights movement (1954 to 1968) took years of organising and massive public support (and increased militancy) before the media started regularly covering and supporting the protests in the 1960s (Solomon, 1995; Flournoy, 2003). Few people know the names of the thousands of heroic leaders and ordinary citizens who gave their lives struggling for freedom. Instead, the media focused their positive coverage on the star like qualities of the movement’s more moderate leaders, like Martin Luther King, while demonising and marginalising the more radical elements of the movement (Gitlin, 1980: 212, 284; Rhodes, 1999). Two characteristics that strongly influence a social movement’s media treatment are the degree to which they are perceived to be ‘extreme’ (that is, challenging the status quo) and ‘militant’ (in their tactics); whereby, the more extreme and militant a group, the more critical the media coverage (McLeod & Hertog, 1999). Thus, although Martin Luther King benefited from his relative moderation in both these regards for most of his life (McAdam, 1996), this changed just prior to his assassination (Paletz & Entman, 1981: 129-130). It is then that he began to link the civil rights movement to basic human rights and economic rights, which subsequently led him to oppose the Vietnam War in 1967 and start building the Poor People’s Campaign in the last few months of his life. These events were widely dismissed by the media at the time, and even today few Americans are familiar with them, due to an effective media blackout in media reviews of his life (Solomon, 1995). This highlights how central the media’s representations of social movements are for generating and sustaining public support. In addition, the elevation of movement leaders to the media’s centre stage, to the exclusion of ordinary movement participants, may have the effect of discouraging ‘normal’ citizens from identifying with the movement, which can prevent their active involvement. Tunstall (1996: 200) points out how most labour stories during the Thatcher years in the UK focused on the movements leaders, dismissing the grassroots base of ordinary workers. This served to dramatically weaken the labour movement’s bargaining position in the media when the Thatcher government decided to phase out much of their communication with the trade union leaders after 1979.

One major difference between earlier popular social movements and the current global justice movement is that the latter tend not to rely on distinct leaders or top-down hierarchal structures to drive their activities. So, in some respects, the media’s apparent ‘confusion about the protestors’ political goals is understandable’ (Klein 2002: 3). Unfortunately, this equitable trait of the global justice movement has supplied the media with even more ammunition to undermine the protestors’ ideals by portraying them as ‘lost’ and ‘leaderless’. However, it should be recognised that the global justice movements’ strong emphasis on grassroots participation and consensus decision-making – which admittedly is sometimes messy (or democratic) is their very strength in countering the domineering corporate power structures evident in society today.

Us and them

Chan and Lee (1984) first described the ‘protest paradigm’ to illustrate how the mass media tended to focus on limited features of social protests to portray protestors as the ‘other’. Characteristics of this reporting paradigm, which separates protestors (them) from non-protesting audiences (us, or some of us), include a reliance on official sources to frame the event, a focus on police confrontation, and an analysis of the protestors’ activities (and appearances) rather than their objectives. This somewhat internalised selection process serves to filter which protests are reported, and which are ignored.

The media’s exploitation of broad unsubstantiated statements concerning the public’s negative opinion of protestors is used to naturalise the status quo, a practice often supported by the utilisation of unfavourable eyewitness comments (McLeod & Hertog, 1992). Media depictions of hostile bystander reactions act as a powerful form of social control, and serve to undermine the protestors’ opinions, as passers-by who are sympathetic to the protestors are often considered to be part of the protest, so tend not to be interviewed (Hertog & McLeod, 1995). Research has also shown how the media often fail to report the protestors’ official opponents, and instead tend to replace them with the police, thus reducing the chance of any meaningful dialogue or debate between the protestors and the targets of their protests (McLeod & Hertog, 1992; Hertog & McLeod, 1995; Boyle et al., 2004). Another factor that sometimes acts against demonstrators is the media’s focus on their social demographics, especially when protests involve high numbers of young adults and students. Under these circumstances, the media may simply dismiss their views as unrepresentative of society, and not worth listening too. In addition, when protest participants are not visibly representative of societal norms, it makes it even easier for the media to label them derogatively as ‘outsiders’ or ‘freaks’ (Gitlin 1980; McLeod & Hertog 1992; Coen 2000).

That the media makes systematic use of derogatory stereotypes and negative frames to marginalise outsider groups was born out in Bowie’s (1999) examination of the depiction of indigenous American’s in three US magazines, Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report from 1968 to 1979. Furthermore, Baylor (1996) undertook a similar assessment of NBC’s evening news over the same time period and showed how ‘the issue of militancy overshadow[ed] any presentation of the real grievances and issues behind Indian protest’ with ’98% of the news segments us[ing] either the stereotype or militant frames’ (245-246). The US media has made some progress since the nineteenth century – when in 1871 the popular press actually encouraged and justified the massacre of a hundred Indians, mostly women and children (Blankenburg, 1968) – but unfortunately the exact level of progress is still debateable.

Contrary to the needs of democracy – especially any forms of participatory democracy – citizens who hold politicians and/or corporations directly accountable by protesting in the streets are often labelled by the mass media as ‘deviant outsiders’ whose activities are directed towards disrupting the status quo for the compliant majority. Hertog and McLeod’s (1995) media coverage of anarchist groups in Minneapolis-St. Paul from 1986 to 1988 demonstrated that by systematically defining protestors as abnormal, the media are able to unfairly prejudice their audience against the issues and ideas raised by protestors. They also showed that, depending on the version of protest coverage audiences watched, people showed big differences in opinion on the way they viewed both the issues raised and the protestors themselves. Other research has also shown how media coverage of protests can act to increase public hostility towards the protestors’ cause (McLeod, 1995; McLeod & Detenber, 1999; Shoemaker, 1982). This has important implications for social movements because, if a single report can determine how sympathetic the public is to their goals, consistently antagonistic media treatment is likely to have very negative repercussions regarding public support of protests themselves.

Public empathy towards the activities of social movements changes continuously (Hertog & McLeod, 1995), but the degree to which society accepts protests may give an indication of the strength of their societies democratic values. This is because protests provide a discernible sign that ‘that the marketplace of ideas is free and diverse’, providing more possibilities for innovative social change (McLeod, 2000: 31). Therefore, in societies where even peaceful activists are depicted as deviants – a tactic exploited by President Nixon in 1970, whose election campaign focused on combating ‘the ‘anarchy’ of the anti-war protest’ (Hallin, 1986: 194) – it is not surprising that the general public often has reservations about the necessity of protest. These worries are compounded by the withdrawal of some of the larger social movements from more ‘radical’ forms of protest in favour of more ‘legitimate’ partnerships with corporations and governments: which, in the end, may work to change the boundaries for what the public considers acceptable dissent, strengthening the dividing line between us and them.

Framing protestors into obscurity

Analysis of the global justice movements’ 2001 May Day protests in London showed how most UK press coverage framed the protests in terms of (1) law and order, and the problem of policing the protest, fifty nine per cent; (2) economics, and the financial ‘cost’ of protests to the wider public, nine per cent; or (3) irrationality and spectacle, seven per cent (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2003). The remaining coverage (eighteen per cent) identified with the protestors’ concerns, but ‘with a few notable exceptions, discourses of recognition appeared either in the editorial page columns, leaders, or letters to the editor’ (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2003: 143). The little positive news that was generated was clearly isolated from the serious hard news sections of the papers, letting the readers know what the media really thought of the protests.

In the same vein, Martin (2004) identified five dominant news frames for how the mass media view labour news in the US: they are (1) ‘the consumer is king’ – which encourages an individual based (not collective) form of consumer democracy; (2) ‘the process of production is none of the public’s business’ – whereby citizen consumers should only busy their minds with making product choices; (3) ‘the economy is driven by great business leaders and entrepreneurs’ – whose efforts can be emulated by anyone with the requisite passion, regardless of background; (4) ‘the workplace is a meritocracy’ – self advancement is always possible, and the employer bears no responsibility for an individual’s problems (of course unions are excluded from this frame); and (5) ‘collective economic action is bad’ (Martin, 2004: 8-11). Understanding how such frames are continually utilised to negatively categorise social movement issues is crucial to comprehending why subsequent actions taken by activist groups – like protests – are also portrayed in an overwhelmingly bad light. There are frames that are not slanted against protestors, but mainstream media rarely uses them. Instead, the most regularly used frames are those that serve to marginalise protestors, these include the violent crime or property crime story, the carnival frame, the freak show, the Romper Room (or immaturity) frame, the riot frame, the storm watch (warning of potential actions), and lastly the moral decay story (McLeod & Hertog, 1999: 312-313).

What about the citizens who aren’t protesting?

On May 1st 1973, London witnessed one of the largest trade union protests seen for years, when nearly two million people joined together to oppose the Conservative Party’s Industrial Relations Act. In a similar manner to the coverage of the 2001 May Day protest (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2003) the media downplayed the protest, representing what was ‘a sizable manifestation of political class conflict rare in British history’ as ‘a predicable act of May Day madness’ (Young & Crutchley 1978: 31). Typical of the media framing employed surrounding this event, the Daily Telegraph’s headline read ‘Millions ignore T.U.C. day of protest’ (cited in Young & Crutchley 1978: 30). This narrative was eerily echoed some thirty years later by Newsnight (the BBCs flagship news programme) when political correspondent, David Grossman, ‘reporting’ on the biggest anti-war march ever seen in Britain (held in London on February 15th 2003) said: ‘The people have spoken, or have they? What about the millions who didn’t march? Was going to the DIY store or watching the football on Saturday a demonstration of support for the government?’ (Medialens, 2004).

Similarly, in Washington DC (US) on April 25th 2004, what might have been the capital’s biggest protest ever took place, when an estimated 500,000 to 1,150,000 people took to the streets to march for womens’ reproductive rights. However, as in the previous examples, this only seemed to encourage the media to ‘downplay the size and significance of the event’ and ‘largely ignore the issues that marchers attempted to bring back into the public discourse’ (Hollar, 2004). Likewise, after the September 11th attacks, a study of the New York Times showed that it had consistently ‘downplayed and distorted peace rallies and demonstrations against a military response’ (FAIR, 2001). The media messages emitting from the reporting of these protests to the public is unambiguous: don’t waste your time with those deviant protestors they’re not important! On the other hand, the options for the social movements involved in such demonstrations are not so obvious. Thus, it is of utmost importance that the mass media (and educational systems) should strengthen democratic principles and actively draw social movements into the wider public sphere, not isolate them at its margins.

Violence in the media and social movements

Violence tends to materialise in either personal or group conflicts, and has long been highlighted as a desirable news value in the mass media. Under normal circumstances, policymaking processes do not lend themselves to this particular media frame, as for the most part they are carried out through consensual decision making. But when individuals do choose to come into conflict verbally (or physically), this form of ‘policymaking violence’ tends to rate highly in the media. The crucial difference between the media’s focus on institutional and protestor violence is that for institutional actors the decision to illustrate their conflict through violence, is for the most part a personal choice, while the same is not usually true for peaceful protestors. This is because citizens who feel excluded from political processes often participate in mass activities like protests, and so their representation in the media may be tarred by just a few unrepresentative individuals who choose violent methods of expression over peaceful ones. Thus, Winter and Klaehn (2005: 184) describe how press coverage served to discipline protestors at the Organisation of American State meeting in 2000 (Windsor, Canada) by depicting ‘a “crisis of democracy” in the violent, misguided and indoctrinated embodiment of the protestors, who must be eradicated, so that normalcy: peace, order and “good government” may return.’ Likewise, Bennett et al’s. (2004: 452) study of protests targeting the World Economic Forum (between 2001 and 2003 in the New York Times) concluded that ‘the news actively constructed the grassroots globalisation critics as marginal, largely nameless scruffians who threatened civil order with violence, even though actually little disorder actually occurred.’

It is not likely that protestor violence will endear its participants (and their associated social movements) to the public, especially when this becomes (as it nearly always does) the focal point for media coverage. In fact, it seems most likely that media attention obtained through violence will lead to social isolation. However, disturbingly (for democracy), some suggest that the practice of ‘engaging in what is seen as spectacular, irrational, coercive, violent, and antisocial behaviour is the most reliable way to introduce [into the media] new rationalities that may have transformative consequences’ (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2003: 144; also see Owen and Palmer 2003). The use of violence is clearly a contestable, and in many people’s view, an undesirable solution to resolving the problem of the nexus between social movements’ and the media, but it proves how desperately outsider groups fight to get their message heard. Indeed, in some regards, the media encourages such behaviour, because if there are few differences between two protest groups, it is the more conflictual or violent event that obtains the most media coverage (McLeod & Hertog, 1999; Oliver and Myers, 1999). Fortunately, though, most people still believe in the power of non-violent protests (as evidenced by the majority of peaceful activists present at most mass protests) even if, as is often the case, their peaceful pleas remain unheard in the mass media (for a summary of the argument against violence see Edwards 2001).

Another problem of the media’s fixation on protestor violence is that it often means that the media overlook the role of police violence. For example, environmental protestors had occupied US Congressional Republican Representative Frank Riggs office in California October 1997 and were confronted by police who used pepper spray to restrain them. Throughout this confrontation – which was filmed – one of the protestors managed to calmly articulate her group’s reasons for protesting; however, that segment was edited out from the television news report (Opel, 2003: 58). As well as demonstrating how activists can be silenced in the media (or have their agendas distorted), this type of reporting serves to normalise police violence against protestors, which is dangerous for all involved in peaceful protest (see FAIR, 2003).

Playing the Media Game
Highly visible activists: winners of the ‘media game’

Despite the extremely negative picture painted in the previous section, there are still some winners in the ‘media game’. So while losers, like the largest protest ever held in Washington, DC (see previous description of the women’s march in 2004) received just a single story on page three in USA Today the day after the march, and a ‘handful of march-related stories over a few days’ in the New York Times and The Washington Post, ‘others ignored the event almost completely’ (Hollar, 2004). A 1997 march organised by the Promise Keepers ‘an evangelical men’s organization with an anti-feminist and anti-gay theology’ end up as winners of the media game. Again, the Promise Keepers march took place in Washington DC and although it was approximately half the size of the women’s march (estimated attendance of 480,000-750,000 demonstrators) it received far more media coverage. USA Today ran four stories before the event and four afterwards, while the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) ran ‘more than three times the coverage the networks devoted to the women’s march’ (Hollar, 2004). Furthermore, the only study examining media coverage of the Promise Keepers in US newspapers – from 1991 (their founding year) through to April 1996 – concluded that their coverage was ‘overwhelmingly positive’ (Claussen, 1998), making the Promise Keepers true winners of the media game.

Another ‘winner’ was a brand new social movement (formed in Belgium in the wake of the controversy surrounding the arrest of murderer Marc Dutroux in 1996), which mobilised Belgium’s largest ever demonstration – the White March. A study examining the media coverage surrounding this protest determined that the primary reason for its overwhelming success was because the media ‘undertook large-scale and unconcealed motivational framing efforts’ to mobilise the public in support of the protest (Walgrave and Manssens, 2005: 132). This is a perfect example of a social movement that is an impressive winner of the media game, and a crucial question to ask is why was this the case? Walgrave and Manssens (2005: 135-136) outlined a number of specific contextual factors that might have encouraged the media to support the protest. Sadly, many of these factors were met when Howard Sattler, the host of a popular Australian talkback radio program, stirred up racist sentiments amongst his listeners, promoting a ‘Rally for Justice’ which drew thirty thousand angry protestors on to the streets (Mickler, 1998: 64). The protests were even able to pressure the government to introduce racist laws that contravened international human rights legislation (Stockwell, 1992: 279).

Winners are losers?

Even when progressive activist groups ‘win’ in the media game, obtaining positive media coverage supportive of their objectives; they may still be losing in other respects, as the following discussion of the (US) anti-sweatshop movement illustrates. After a long history of labour abuse in sweatshops worldwide, it was only in the mid 1990s that the issue started receiving serious attention in the US mass media (coinciding with a couple of high profile sweatshop investigations). Contrary to ‘normal’ social movement coverage, analysis of this coverage showed that sweatshop activists actually ‘achieved a position of definitional prominence’ over corporate interests, a position typically reserved for powerful institutional actors (Greenberg & Knight, 2004: 169). This was a remarkable achievement, however, this success was undermined by the media’s dominant focus on micro-level issues, such as individual sweatshops, and their aversion to the discussion of the systemic structural inequalities supporting the use of sweatshops (Greenberg & Knight, 2004: 170). Media coverage also located the root of the problem in western consumer shopping activities, not at the doorstep of the businesses profiting from the use of sweatshops, which served to cloud the issue of responsibility. Therefore, although the anti-sweatshop movement may have successfully campaigned for limited labour reforms (i.e., by Nike) – some of which have now become institutionalised – paradoxically, this success may render their long-term goal of eradicating sweatshops inoperable. Businesses successfully avoided regulation by promoting self-regulation, and even though the use of sweatshops is still common practice, media coverage of sweatshops has been far less visible since 2000, reducing the anti-sweatshop movement’s ability to maintain public support and awareness for their campaigns. Furthermore, current estimates suggest that there are still about 250,000 sweatshop workers employed in the US alone (Ross, 2004).

Some social movements obtain their desired media coverage by adopting tactics that focus on mobilising short-term public support. One commonly used tactic – that may work against longer-term mobilisation of social movement supporters – is emotional management. Such tactics, rely upon manipulating audiences by pushing emotional hot buttons, stimulating reactive responses from targets, but not necessarily well thought out responses that might lead on to long term commitments. The use of emotive images in the media to generate support for the victims of the famine in Niger 2005 is a good example of this type of campaigning. The politics of symbols and their manipulation may be successful in the short term, but social movements engaged in such practices need to consider whether they are weakening the ability of other progressive social movements to recruit people committed to long term social change. Lasting commitments to social movements are built on the basis of trusting relationships, which are most effectively developed through one on one communications, not through the media (Gamson 1995: 106). Social movements need to encourage their participants to be critical of manipulative practices because it is the results of activities that discourage activism in the first place.

Competing for coverage

Taking a historical approach to understanding differences in movement-media relations, Rucht (2004) suggests that new social movements in the 1970s and 1980s gradually moved away from more confrontational approaches to the mass media, and increasingly utilised ‘adaptation strategies’ (44-52). This in turn, has led social movements to a greater reliance on the mainstream media, with less emphasis on maintaining their inwardly focused alternative media. The rise of trans-national social movements in the 1990s saw this trend extend, and increasingly, social movements have adopted professionalised public relations techniques to market their causes.

Davis (2002) recognised that various UK campaigning groups have been able to acquire positive media profiles by relying on professional public relations techniques, rather than the creation of dramatic mediagenic images. This seems to have enabled increasing numbers of outsider interest groups greater opportunities to obtain positive media coverage (Davis, 2002: 176). However, in order to gain a ticket to this exclusive media club, there is an unwritten price that must be paid because as Gamson (1995: 99) pointed out ‘the media may offer occasional models of collective action that make a difference, but they are highly selective ones.’ Reformist movements are far more likely to survive the ravages of media distortion than more revolutionary ones, whose public relations messages can be overwhelmed by disparaging media frames. Gitlin (1980: 284) describes how more reformist campaigns, like those led by Ralph Nader in the 1960s (which fought for consumer rights), were rewarded with acceptance by the mainstream media and promoted to the status of ‘regular news makers.’ This is particularly important, as one study comparing press and television coverage of protests in Washington DC (between 1982 and 1991), showed that overall coverage had decreased while the number of protests had increased massively (McCarthy et al., 1998). Furthermore, the ongoing corporatisation of social movements encourages the larger non-governmental organisations to view their success through an economic lens, which leads them to focus predominantly on maintaining and expanding membership/funding (Roelofs, 2003). The rational result of this economic orientation, is that they often ‘deliberately design their actions and broader campaigns to attract media attention and positive coverage’ (Rucht, 2004: 49). Therefore, social movements may water down their demands – to appear less challenging to the status quo – leaving them more vulnerable to cooption by political and economic elites (Paletz & Entman, 1981: 130). In such cases, social movement may even start to consider the development of positive relationships with the media as more important than mobilising activists or influencing policy decisions.

Playing by corporate rules

The general mainstreaming of media tactics has also been accompanied by the general dilution of radical media critiques (to ‘safer’ moderate criticisms) which only superficially confront the status quo: arguably strengthening media organisations hegemonic position in society. The future may appear to look rosy for some social movements, but if they just sit by and watch the more radical (media compromised) groups fall by the wayside, how long will it take before they themselves rank among the most ‘radical’ groups. Maybe then, such groups will have to re-evaluate their media-centric tactics in the light of their newfound ‘radical’ status.

Unions are a good example of a group that through access to significant financial resources, have been able to adapt their tactics to become more media friendly. This can be seen by their tactical focus on ‘the needs of ‘the public’ and/or attack[s on] ‘greedy’ and ‘incompetent’ corporate and government elites’ (Davis, 2002: 177). However, in utilising such strategies unions are now ‘less likely to argue about jobs and money’ and have ‘dilut[ed] some of their long-term political objectives’ (ibid.). Their media-centric approach, serves to fragment and isolate their successful actions from one another, encouraging media coverage in an episodic, instead of thematic manner (Bennett, 1988: 24). Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s the National Organization for Women, adopted a position of media pragmatism, and although they succeeded in becoming a key feminist source for the media in the US, their ‘leader[s] were very sensitive to questions and debate on sexuality…opt[ing] out of an important part of the domain of personal politics that ha[d] been the hallmark of the feminist movement’ (Barker-Plummer, 1995: 315). As Tuchman (1978: 152) concluded: ‘Ironically, yet logically, the successful institutionalization of the women’s movement limited its ability to carry forth radical issues.’ Social movements may improve their media visibility, but paradoxically by making tactical concessions to obtain media coverage, they may render their longer-term objectives invisible to their audience.

McCarthy et al. (1998) studied which factors contributed towards media coverage of demonstrations in Washington DC and concluded that other than the estimated size of the protest, one of the best predictors of coverage is it’s conformity with current media issue attention cycles. Other research has also shown that if protests are not tied to legislative issues, they have a much harder time achieving media coverage, especially if they occurred in a ’31-day period in which many other local public message events were also occurring’ (Oliver & Maney, 2000: 496-97). These findings portend dire consequences for recruitment of future activists through the media, and for sustainable activism in general, as they place severe limitations on a movement’s ability to receive thematic coverage of their protest activities. This is because: ‘If media issue attention cycles come to play a more significant role than do the form, context, substance, or size of citizen protests in determining which demonstrations are selected for media coverage, then protest in modern democracies will have become mediated to a greater extent’ than ever supposed (McCarthy et al., 1998: 497).

Invisible activists: losers of the ‘media game

Research in the US has shown that protests or social movements that challenge the legitimacy of the governments foreign policies, are less likely to be covered by the mass media (Smith et al., 2001; Shaw 2004) or more likely to be heavily ‘denigrated and delegitimised’ (Carragee, 1991). A prominent example of this was the discussions surrounding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Goss (2001) examined the New York Times’ coverage of NAFTA and found that it served as an effective mouthpiece for the government and corporate interests, downplaying the significance of the agreement and limiting the terms of the debate to elite interests. In this way, the labour movement, who totally opposed the terms of the agreement, were almost completely ignored in the media coverage. In direct response to the disastrous consequences of NAFTA, thousands of people came together in Seattle in 1999 to campaign for more equitable global trade rules. Previously, the mass media were able to easily bury the activist case, but in Seattle this was not so simple due to the physical presence of 50,000 concerned citizens. This placed the media in a fix, because if they were to honestly discuss the issues being raised by the protest they would have had to question the validity of the entire economic system (Martin, 2004: 179-180). So instead, the media made full use of the adversarial tactics and frames (outlined previously) to systematically misrepresent and delegitimise the protestors’ opinions (Ackerman, 2000; Herman & Chomsky, 2002: xiii; Goeddertz & Kraidy, 2003; Herman, 2006).

The same principle of marginalisation normally holds true for groups challenging domestic policy making issues where there is elite consensus. The US anti-nuclear energy movement is a good example, and their actions were rendered next-to-invisible by the media. In spite of this, through determined grassroots education and organising, the anti-nuclear energy movement slowly grew, until public opinion polls in 1975 showed that between twenty to thirty per cent of the public opposed nuclear energy (Moyer, 2001). However, even with increasing public support, the mass arrest of 177 demonstrators the following year went unreported in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, while receiving just two paragraphs on page 32 of the New York Times (Gitlin, 1980: 287). This illustrates the enormity of the media barriers facing social movements, as this occurred to a movement that had a sizable proportion of public support. Not surprisingly, the movement against nuclear weapons was treated with even more disdain by the media, so that ‘during the biggest demonstrations, in late April and early May 1978, the New York Times ran a small notice on page 14′ and the ‘Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times ran nothing’ (Gitlin, 1980: 291-292). Similarly, the environmental movement has also found itself regularly marginalised from the media (for a full account, see Barker, Submitted b).

Smaller social movements, targeting local issues, will be more likely to receive positive coverage than larger groups calling for more systemic and challenging reforms: as it tends to be the social movements that are most vigorously pushing the boundaries for dissent in society that are most marginalised from the mainstream media (McLeod & Hertog, 1999). This may be true, but that does not necessarily mean that reformist groups will obtain glowing media coverage. In fact, a recent survey of newspaper coverage of social protest in Wisconsin, US, from 1960 to 1999 concluded that even moderate reform groups tend to receive marginalising media coverage, and only ‘protest groups seeking to support the status quo can expect more favourable treatment’ (Boyle et al., 2004: 57).

All the examples in this section have shown how social movements are routinely marginalised or disappeared by the mainstream media. This may set in motion (or perpetuate) a ‘spiral of silence’, as media audiences sympathetic to social movement ideas, may feel less likely to speak out if they perceive the activists to be part of an small (invisible) minority in society, an idea forcefully communicated by the media (Noelle-Neumann, 1984). This of course has knock-on effects for a social movement’s recruitment and long-term viability. Unfortunately, despite receiving consistently negative coverage some social movements still struggle to obtain further poor coverage: so is bad publicity actually worse than no publicity? This is not an easy question to answer, as poor publicity may still result in the recruitment of new members (see Owen and Palmer, 2003). However, maybe the question need not even be asked, as surely good publicity is better than either poor publicity or none at all. Instead, perhaps social movements should be questioning the mass media’s portrayal of ‘reality’ not just their own promotional activities – with a view to changing and reforming the mass media itself.

Necessary Reforms for Social Justice

Cromwell (2001: 80) argues ‘that campaigners are often unwilling to contemplate the notion that there is an inherent media resistance to their message.’ Furthermore, he suggests that even activists who are familiar with radical mass media critiques, like Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) propaganda model, often hold the ‘false impression that “big companies try to control the news in their favour”‘ which ‘is the “conspiracy” charge that Herman and Chomsky cogently refuted from day one’ (Cromwell 2001: 80). Therefore, listening to activists, and working out how they relate to the media, should be the first step for any activists working towards developing the case for media reform.

Difficult choices: institutional or global support?

Social movements have a limited number of outlets for their stories: internally distributed news, which typically reaches few people (especially those outside of the social movements immediate activities), and externally distributed news whose distribution relies on the mainstream media. Rising use of the internet has strengthened many social movements ability to distribute their news more widely via alternative media, but most progress has been made in developing effective internal communications. Unfortunately, most people lie outside of activist communication networks, and the wealth of information produced by social movements passes them by unnoticed. A single daily newspaper already provides a vast amount of information to digest. So considering that most people do not read newspapers cover to cover, it may be reasonable to suggest that few people feel the need to actively search for additional information to supplement their daily news intake.

Social movements who wish to reach out to a mass audience must (at present) primarily rely on the mass media to publicise their cause. However, the relationship between the two is fundamentally asymmetrical, which leaves social movements vulnerable to the media’s beck and call – placing social movements in a catch-22 situation. Should they make the best of their media-given lot, good or bad? Or should they attempt to reform the media, and risk biting (or at least nibbling) the hand that feeds them?

With the advent of trans-national social movements and improved international communications, new doors have opened, which may help make such questions a little easier to answer. In recent years, in minority countries, participation in social movements has risen substantially, but it is in the majority countries where growth in social movements has advanced most rapidly. This is despite the fact that protesting is a genuinely dangerous form of political expression in countries where governments routinely utilise repressive forms of social control to clamp down on dissidents (Podobnik, 2005: 55). In the face of this oppression, millions of people from the majority world are joining together to protest against the multitude of exploitative economic reforms being imposed on them by corporate driven globalisation (Podobnik, 2005: 56). However, ‘[i]ronically… the era of globalisation has coincided with an increasingly parochial focus by the Western media… Meanwhile coverage of the South, where it existed at all, has diminished, allowing a limited and distorted view of the developing world’ (Miller, 2003: 116).

In minority countries, global justice movements are working hard to expose the gross bankruptcy of the current form of globalisation, and are sometimes able to permeate the public’s consciousness through the mass media. However, while they struggle to be heard, there are already signs in majority countries of massive mobilisations of citizens who oppose corporate hegemony (Walton and Seddon, 1994). Yet, these millions of protestors remain hidden away from most Western eyes (Palast, 2000), by the very same media that social movements in the minority countries cooperate with. Western media portray the global justice movement at home as either ‘violent troublemakers’ or ‘middle-class do-gooders’ and marginalise the bulk of protestors in majority countries who are campaigning against the same neo-liberalism by simply not reporting their activities (Podobnik, 2005: 57). To compound this problem, on the rare occasion when the media does delve into majority world issues, audiences were misinformed, due to the low level of explanations and context given, and generally hold majority world citizens in low regard (although it has been shown that such opinions could be radically changed by the quality of information received) (Glasgow University Media Group, 2001).

What then would happen if the media covered these popular uprisings in the majority world in a sympathetic way? Obviously, a lot – however, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future, as the media do not even report positively on the global justice movement in their own countries. Instead, it might be more interesting for activists to consider which of the two they should be allying themselves with: media institutions or the majority of the global citizenry? Choosing the latter does not mean neglecting all media outlets in favour of interpersonal communication. Far from it: by choosing to side wholeheartedly with the public, social movements would need to make substantial investments in alternative media (in minority and majority countries alike) to publicise their activities globally, while also concentrating on the urgent task of publicising the need for media reform. The global justice movement might then be able to stop wasting precious resources in their uphill struggle to coax the mass media to support them, which counts upon the media acting against its own – profit orientated – interests.

Democratising the messenger

If the media continues to encourage apathy through the use of ‘neutral frames’, non-coverage, or over-coverage with limited solutions, social movements need to consider how beneficial it is to seek such disempowering media coverage. Furthermore, there is the possibility that even positive coverage may ultimately work to undermine their (or other movements) long-term objectives (that is to strengthen democratic processes). Most people are aware that numerous catastrophic problems are challenging human existence, but if they learn about these issues in an episodic manner that leaves them feeling helpless, where the only consistent solution offered by the media is changing their personal consumption patterns, can social movements really expect to build a mass movement for global justice in the minority world?

The media systems we currently have are not up to this task, so social movement activists need to begin seriously thinking about how they might change the mass media. To a limited extent some social movements (especially in the US) are already undertaking some actions to create a more democratic media environment, but more needs to be done to build these actions into a truly global project, to counter the global reach of media corporations. However, to date, progressive social movements have generally rejected media democratisation as a political issue. The rationale for this un-decision may be numerous (see Hackett and Carroll, 2004), but ultimately, the desertion of media democratisation has worked against many progressive social movements, who continue to suffer within the confines of the increasingly conservative mass media.


Key to any social movement’s eventual success in reforming the current world order is its ability to garner majority support, which is severely restricted by the mass media. Global justice movements profess to want to mobilise entire communities worldwide to enable truly participative decision-making. However, if this is really the case, they need to consider whether the same media system that serves to naturalise and legitimise elite decision-making, can really encourage its antithesis, collective grassroots decision-making. It seems an anathema to even consider that by working on the terms set by the mass media, social movements are actually legitimising and tightening its hegemonic power over society, even while it simultaneously acts to de-legitimise or ignore the global justice movement.

Therefore, it is time for social movements to take collective action. To start with ‘democratic media reform needs to be recast as an end in itself – a public good – not simply a means by which each movement can get its message out’ (Hackett & Carroll, 2004). In this way, a media reform project can be linked to the wider array of social movements calling for a more equitable and participatory democracy.


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