Activists play an important role in democracies. They serve as participants in the public sphere, encourage public discourse, and contribute to the “marketplace of ideas.” They embody some of the most important ideals of American democracy- the freedom of speech, assembly, and petition.
The Democratic National Convention in September seemed to provide the perfect stage of activists. With national and local media outlets and a plethora of journalists swarming Charlotte, N.C., it would seem as though it would be a breeze for protestors to get the importance of their causes in the news. However, this was not the case.
In her article “Reporting Conventions: Journalists, Activists, and the Thorny Struggle for Political Visibility”, Sarah Sobieraj addresses the difficulty activists experience when they try to gain media attention. She notes that “stories most frequently depict the activists and the associations as spectacle, rather than as legitimate political actors.” This makes it difficult for activists to achieve their main goal- raise awareness about the importance of their cause.
Sobieraj mentions how there are some cases in which activists are taken seriously in media. Those cases lead to “stories that draw on a crime story model, presenting the activity as a threat to order…or has heated conflicts.” This was the case in a Charlotte Business Journal article. The reporter opens an article about protests at the DNC by giving the number of protester arrests that occurred and describing the logistics used by the police to control the activists. All of the quotes in the story are from police officers, with the exception of a “someone in the crowd” who yelled “Is this how you repay a veteran-with handcuffs?” The use of this quote provides further evidence of the purpose of the reporter- to pose the police and protestors as adversaries in a battle for order. In a Charlotte Observer article, the scene of the protest is characterized as a “standoff” and described the protesters as seeming to “test police boundaries” while the police responded with a “bend-but-don’t-break strategy.” Both of these articles present the scene at the DNC as police versus protester, and the journalists chose to report on the protesters solely from this perspective.
The conflict between police and activists was a common theme in articles written for the Charlotte Observer. A search on the newspaper’s website of “protesters” leads to several articles about protesters at the DNC. The titles of these articles include “6 anti-Duke Energy protesters arrested for blocking intersection”, “Six environmental protesters arrested Thursday in Charlotte”, and “Protests, tension mark convention’s first day.” In these articles, activists are portrayed as lawbreakers and a threat to social order.
Another phenomenon Sobieraj mentions is the propensity for articles to contain extensive details on “who was there, how they looked, what they did, and whether there were arrested” but “why activists were motivated to act goes unmentioned.” This proves true to a certain extent in the aforementioned articles. Another Charlotte Observer article mentions several causes, such as abortion and the controversial arrest of Bradley Manning. However, instead of delving into the substance of the causes, the article either donates a few words to explain what the “Free Bradley” sign means (“Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier suspected of leaking classified information to the website WikiLeaks”) or describes protestors and their cause simply as holding “signs with pictures of aborted fetuses.” There is no substantive information about these causes or interviews with protestors allowing them to speak about what they are protesting.
At an event where protesters seem to have abundant opportunities to voice their opinions and promote their causes, the DNC proved to be quite the opposite. Media coverage framed activists as either lawbreakers, spectacles, or both. When their issues were brought up in media coverage, it was brief and superficial. As Sobieraj points out, the result of this type of coverage is an important group of political actors being pushed out of the public sphere and being severely limited to participate in public discourse.