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On first glance, there seems to be no lack of media coverage of protests. They’re exciting, dramatic and provide great photo opportunities. But how comprehensive is the media coverage? Does it truly get at the heart of the issue at stake?

Academics say no. Sarah Sobieraj wrote in a 2010 essay that activism is underrepresented in media, and when it is represented, it is not detailed enough to get the protesters’ points across. She argued that the media doesn’t understand activists enough to cover their protests — they don’t consider it newsworthy. And when activists try to conform to journalists’ standards, they are seen as inauthentic, and journalists won’t want to cover them. It’s a vicious cycle that has caused a dearth of substantial media coverage on activism and the issues behind the picketers and signs.

As State & National Editor for the Daily Tar Heel, I’m responsible for covering a lot of protests, and I might even unwittingly be guilty of some of the criticisms Sobieraj levied at journalists. We do try very hard to explain why protesters are protesting. Lately, we have been covering the discontent among North Carolina teachers about some of the state’s education policies. The dramatic teacher walk-out turned into a teacher walk-in, and I noticed that it got substantially less media coverage. We still covered it, but I remember when I was editing the story, I paused at the line where it said “teachers would walk alongside students into their schools.”

“That’s it?” I asked the writer. “We can’t say they marched, or anything like that?” It wasn’t a dramatic protest, or really a protest at all — at least in the sense we commonly think of the word. But I was so conditioned to the idea that to be news, there has to be something unusual or attention grabbing. (we didn’t change the word, for what it’s worth!) 

Pamela Oliver and Gregory Maney write that the media is not “neutral recorders of events,” it makes active choices every day about what gets covered and what doesn’t. And this leads to news coverage implicitly favoring one side over the other. When protests aren’t covered, it implies that the media does not value them or consider their activism relevant or important. 

I think this clip from the HBO show “The Newsroom” illustrates how protesters and the media view each other. The main character, Will McAvoy, is roped into doing an interview with a member of Occupy Wall Street (a topic he previously declined to cover) and proceeds to grill her about the meaning behind the protests. 

“Like most of the media, I don’t think you’re taking this seriously,” the Occupy member says. 

“Is there any chance that’s because you’re not?” Will fires back.

That bitter exchange between the two different sides mirrors the tension in Sobieraj’s essay. Will views Occupy as inauthentic and not taking the issues seriously — judging from his sarcastic comments, it’s clear that he thinks Occupy members are just being radical for the sake of protest. But the Occupy representative is clearly trying to cater to the media — she dressed up and appeared on the show, armed with a list of talking points. But Will shot down those talking points.

Will the cycle ever end? I can see both sides, but something has to change. If not for the media’s sake or the protesters’ sake, then for the public’s sake — because they’re the ones getting shorted the fair, balanced and relevant coverage.

 

 Citations 

Sarah Sobieraj. (2010). “Reporting Conventions: Journalists, Activists, and the Thorny Struggle for Political Visibility.” Social Problems 57(4): 505-528.

Pamela E. Oliver and Gregory M. Maney. (2000). “Political Processes and Local Newspaper Coverage of Protest Events: From Selection Bias to Triadic Interactions.” American Journal of Sociology 106(2): 463-505.

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