Thousands gathered this week outside of the Supreme Court as justices listened to oral arguments about same-sex marriage.
As protesters waved flags and chanted, almost all of the media’s attention was focused on what was happening inside of the chamber. Photos of the protesters were featured on the homepage for CNN and The New York Times, but the actual stories were focused on the cases, not the activists.
Why was there not more coverage of the protests in D.C.? Or throughout the country where activists gathered in both support and protest of the issue?
Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University sought to answer this question. Her article, Reporting Conventions: Journalists, Activists, and the Thorny Struggle for Political Visibility, examines the disconnect between activists and journalists that has led to an almost total media block-out for advocacy groups. Sobieraj sites a lack of genuineness as a major reason journalists ignore activists’ measures.
While I agree with most of what Sobieraj found, I think there is more to the disconnect. I don’t think that genuineness plays much of a role in the selection of newsworthiness. I think most of the media’s aloofness to activists comes from their lack of newsworthiness and social impact.
Yes, as Sobieraj explains, these groups often have unpredictable and controversial demonstrations, but they’re typically nothing new. People have seen protests and marches for decades. They know what happens. People wave flags and chant and sometimes they get rowdy and arrested. People have seen it before.
However, political events have the same level of predictability and staleness, but receive national media attention. I don’t think genuiness is the issue. If it was, reporters wouldn’t cover nearly any aspect of political news.
As Joan Didion explained in Insider Baseball much of modern political media coverage is pretty contrived and mechanical. The same events happen in the same way every year. Republican and Democratic conventions follow methodic and tightly scripted schedules. Press coverage is largely manipulated. But there’s still press coverage. Why?
I think it can be answered with Tim Cook’s explanation of news values. As newspapers evolved in the United States, so did a nationwide set of standards to gauge newsworthiness. Events that make it into the paper must be evaluated as important (which Sobieraj explains activists activities are not) according to journalists’ standards. The must have impact. Most marches and protests don’t meet these standards in my opinion. Politicians and political events do.
Politicians are in their own right, a breed of celebrity. People know them. They know their faces who they are and why they are important. More importantly, politicians hold a place in society that can affect other people. Their decisions often affect the lives of others, and people pay attention. What they do garners media attention based on who they are. They have an implicit newsworthiness that activists lack. Yes, politicians still struggle to gain media attention quite frequently and hire press secretaries to generate publicity. But when they buy into large scale political actions and events, they get attention because the public values those events as important. For they are seen as important. If they weren’t, thousands wouldn’t pack inside a arenas and stadiums for nominating conventions.
Both groups are playing the same game. They rehearse to appease and utilize the media, but the politicians get the press because of social structure. They have the news value.
I think the genuineness that journalists spoke of in Sobieraj’s article might translate to a lack of genuine newsworthiness. Or genuine lack of public interest more than anything. At the end of the day, a newspaper is a business. They have to sell papers, and to do so, they have to consider what they think people will be more drawn to: the face of an unknown activists, or the face of a known politician.