Authenticity vs. Reasonableness: Where Sobieraj Went Wrong

In the article, “Reporting Conventions: Journalists, Activists, and the Thorny Struggle for Political Visibility,” Sarah Sobieraj offers an explanation as to why the political activism that surrounds presidential campaigns receives very little news coverage. She explains the different set of rules that govern what journalists consider newsworthy in political actors’ behavior and what they consider newsworthy in political activists’ behavior. For political insiders, she says good events must be reporter-friendly, sources must be legitimate and the politics can be visionary. For activists, though, the rules change. She explains how political reporters seek authenticity in their events and sources and their politics must be reasonable, with clear issues and plausible solutions. Throughout the piece, Sobieraj continues to return to the points of authenticity and reasonableness, claiming these two qualities are the only way for activists to finally gain news coverage. But, what Sobieraj fails to see, is how her explanation of authenticity and reasonableness are actually competing claims.

Sobieraj explains how journalists seek authenticity from activists, specifically in the form of emotion and spontaneity (505). In the realm of events, activists should not appear to be soliciting the press, as this will make their movement less appealing to journalists. Instead, the activism needs to seem like political zeal, not a calculated press stunt, and it needs to be “original, innovative and unexpected” (513). As far as sources go, journalists will only be interested in activists who seem amateur, closely linked with the issue raised, slightly emotional and only involved on an individual level, not speaking in a publicly minded way. In her interviews, Sobieraj discusses authenticity with several journalists who seem to pride themselves on quickly deciphering between actual, social movements and media solicitations.

As far as reasonableness goes, Sobieraj says that social movements can only address one concrete issue and need to avoid overarching concerns. She says issues shouldn’t be radical and that the social movements must be able to present a plausible solution.

What Sobieraj misses is the clear contradictions in her points. For instance, she claims in order for social movements to remain authentic, they must seem spontaneous and their messages need to seem unscripted. However, she also says the media won’t take them seriously if their messages aren’t clear and they don’t have reasonable ways of solving the problem. So does that mean movements must work to carefully craft their messages in a way that it seems like they didn’t carefully craft their messages? Activists must have clear ideas, but not so clear that it seems like a public relations professional created the idea and talking points for them. Events must be filled with action and political zeal, but not so active that it seems like it’s just to solicit the media’s attention. Sobieraj draws a fine line between authenticity and reasonableness that creates an almost impossible standard for social movements to meet.

Consider the case of perhaps the most successful presidential election convention protest in receiving media coverage, the anti-Vietnam war protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention. While Sobieraj’s study accounted for more present day social movements, it still seems beneficial to test her standards against this particular movement.

Everyone expected violence and uprisings long before the start of the convention, and Chicago had taken precautions by using bulletproof doors at the convention site and steel fences topped with barbed wire. They also had police officers, security guards and members of the Secret Service on guard. However, violence still ensued. “Even as delegates began entering this encampment, an army of protesters from across the country flowed into the city, camping in parks and filling churches, coffee shops, homes and storefront offices. They were a hybrid group—radicals, hippies, yippies, moderates—representing myriad issues and a wide range of philosophies, but they were united behind an encompassing cause: ending the long war in Vietnam and challenging Democratic Party leaders and their delegates to break with the past, create change—yes, that was the term then on every protester’s lips—and remake the battered U.S. political system” (Johnson). Several thousand anti-war protestors met 12,000 police officers and 15,000 state and federal officers at the “Battle of Michigan Avenue,” which was broadcast on television and picked up by media outlets throughout the country. The riots sparked large-scale change in American society, and inspired Americans to come out in opposition of the Vietnam War (Protests at Democratic National Convention in Chicago).

According to Sobieraj, this would be the epitome of media coverage and overall social change so many movements seek when coordinating events. However, does this movement live up to Sobieraj’s standards? It certainly contains the amount of violence and zeal that sparks media interest, and the violence was so severe that it couldn’t have been just for attention-grabbing purposes. But were the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention reasonable? Was the idea of “breaking with the past and remaking the U.S. political system” concrete? Were the protestors’ individual messages consistent? It wouldn’t seem so. Yet, the riots were still a media coverage and social change success.

While Sobieraj does a significant job in studying the differences in media coverage between political actors and activists, her formulaic idea of what is guaranteed to attract journalists to social movements doesn’t seem to add up. Instead of presenting a way in which authenticity and reasonableness can work together, Sobieraj describes the two as competing claims, making her standard for social movements impossible to meet.

“Protests at Democratic National Convention in Chicago.” History. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/protests-at-democratic-national-convention-in-chicago&gt;.

Johnson, Haynes. “1968 Democratic Convention.” Smithsonian. 1 Aug. 2008. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/1968-democratic-convention-931079/?no-ist&gt;.

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


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