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I thought Sarah Sobieraj’s article on national conventions and social movements was extremely interesting and relevant to myself as I pursue political reporting. Her study is limited — she chose a 4-day time period where most journalists are running from event to event with their heads off, trying to file stories about prominent political candidates as well as many other powerful political figures. She also failed to explain in-depth the difference in coverage between local, state and national outlets during these conventions. Generally, I felt as though she didn’t give much credit to the competing events during the conventions. As someone who has tried to cover major events like that, it is nearly impossible for journalists to give perfect coverage to everything.  However, Sobieraj’s article is a really good lesson for outlets covering social media movements in general.

Sobieraj’s argument

Sobieraj does say that activists can get some media coverage during the conventions — but only if they’re unruly. When activists become too organized, too “media minded, it results in journalists skeptically viewing them as in-authentic. Activists were clearly very frustrated by this double-standard for the way they prepare for protests and the way politicians perform very canned speeches. For example, activists do host events such as teach-ins, which very calm and discussion-based, but those don’t make the news. But if there’s looting, violence or clashes between police? Media will be there.

“Activists are taken quite seriously in stories that draw on a crime story model, presenting the activity as a threat to order (e.g., traffic disruption), or as heated conflicts (e.g., between police and protesters, or between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators).”

When I first read Sobieraj’s article, I took issue with this because I come from the perspective of a DTH reporter. The DTH covers most protests on campus that feature more than about 20 people as a general rule — that’s a lot of protests in the news. And from reading the News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, I know that they also cover events with 50 or more protesters throughout the year (as the latter did during the Democratic National Convention). Therefore, I figured Sobieraj was wrong, and she just didn’t understand media and picked a bad time to review their media coverage.  But using this perspective of a DTH reporter, I can’t deny that a protest group is much more likely to make the front page if they are violent or clash with law enforcement. For example, the Occupy protests in Chapel Hill two years ago made front page news often because the Chapel Hill Police raided their headquarters. Their typical, everyday, peaceful events might be buried in the paper.

Protest coverage beyond conventions

Other journal articles support Sobieraj’s argument. Jules Boykoff, a professor from Pacific University, studied the massive anti-corporation and globalization protests in 1999 and 2000 at the World Trade Organization and IMF. She found that national print and TV outlets used five frames: the Violence Frame, the Disruption Frame, the Freak Frame, the Ignorance Frame, and the Amalgam of Grievances Frame. These frames hold with Sobieraj’s theory as well, especially that media don’t cover activists if they’re demands don’t prescribe a clear solution or if they’re far-fetched. “Mass media often portray dissidents who engage in contentious politics as ridiculous, bizarre, dangerous, or otherwise out-of-step with Middle USAmerica,” Boykoff found, and this is detrimental to public debate. Other journal articles support this. One study, which analyzed 10 years of New York Times’ social movement coverage, found the use of “disruptive strategies” was the secret ingredient to getting coverage.

Biased news values

Like Sobieraj, Boykoff also argues that this coverage stems from basic news values. When I read that, it again made me uncomfortable. What could be wrong with the news values I’ve been reciting since my freshman year — timeliness, proximity, conflict, impact, bizarreness, and prominence?  “Because journalists perceive a need for a “news peg” upon which they can hang their stories, dramatic situations and accounts are deemed suitable while others are not,” Boykoff says.

Both Boykoff and Sobieraj are challenging the foundation of news articles.  So how can media use Sobieraj and other scholars’ take on media and social movements to ensure they are fair to social movements? It seems like an impossible question to a J-school senior who has been conditioned to memorize and use those basic values.

But there are things outlets can do.  Bizarreness or oddity, one of the news values preached by journalism schools, is one that journalists should remember is subjective and often unfair. Outlets and journalists should keep track of how they cover groups and if any implicit biases are present. For example, the “Raging Grannies” can be used in news stories as a punchline. A former DTH editor once told me, flat-out, not to interview them because they are so outlandish and all over the place. I’ve never found a news story that really delves into this group, its history and motivations beyond using eye-catching costumes and pithy sayings. There are tons of groups that outlets could write nuanced articles about — from women’s rights groups to groups that propose a $15 minimum wage. The same attitude could be taken for the news value of conflict or prominence, which are subjective and lead to the “narratives” about activists that Sobieraj takes issue with.

If news organizations really think of themselves as objective messengers of all the news that’s fit to print (or put online) they must reconsider the way they cover social movements.

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