Media and Social Movements Research Paper

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Contemporary social movements engage in a complicated and uneasy dance with the mass media. Historically, movements have typically had their own media, controlled by movement participants and directed at the people they hoped to rally to their cause. Where mass media were once peripheral to understanding movements, in the last half-century, with the rise of television, they have become central. It is no longer possible to understand the actions of contemporary movements without understanding the nature of the movement–mass media transaction.

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Social movements are fields of collective actors maintaining a sustained challenge to institutional practices, policies, and power arrangements and or to cultural codes by mobilizing people for collective action, at least some of which is contentious. Many of the above terms require some brief elaboration. Collective actors (generally called social movement organizations) are typically formal with designated officers but may also include more informal advocacy networks, often grouped around some publication or think-tank. The field of actors has some means of sustaining the challenge over time; a one-time march or rally does not make a social movement. Challenges may have a strong cultural component as well as representing efforts to change institutions and policies. In democracies, there are institutionalized and prescribed ways of citizens exercising influence on policy using the legal system, electoral system, and the peaceful petitioning of public officials (‘lobbying’). Unless at least one actor in the relevant field is engaged in other, more contentious forms of collective action—be it rallies, demonstrations, publicity campaigns aimed at embarrassing opponents, boycotts, strikes, violence, or various other types of unruly behavior—it does not qualify as a social movement.

1. Role of the Mass Media

Social movement organizations typically make use of direct media in the form of newsletters to members and, increasingly, e-mail. In addition, there are often alternative media read by many of their constituents that report sympathetically on their activities. However, they cannot afford to ignore general audience mass media for several reasons. First, the mass media provide a master forum in the sense that the players in every other forum also use the mass media, either as participants or as part of the gallery. Among the various forums of public discourse, the mass media provide the most generally available and shared set of cultural tools. Social movement organizations must assume that their own constituents are part of the mass media gallery and the messages their would-be supporters hear cannot be ignored, no matter how extensive the movement’s own alternative media may be.

Second, mass media forums are the major site of contest politically in part because all of the potential or actual sponsors of meaning—be they authorities, members, or challengers—assume pervasive influence (whether justified or not). The mass media often become the critical gallery for discourse carried on in other forums, with success measured by whether a speech in a legislative body or other venue is featured prominently in elite newspapers or in television news coverage.

Finally, the mass media forum is not simply a site of contest and indicator of broader cultural changes in the civil society. The meanings constructed at this site influence changes in language use and political consciousness in the workplace and other settings in which people go about the public part of their daily lives. When a cultural code is being challenged successfully, changes in the media forum both signal and spread the change. To have one’s preferred understanding of a policy issue increase significantly in mass media forums is both an important outcome in itself and carries a strong promise of a ripple effect.

It is useful to think of mass media output in terms of the relative prominence of competing frames. A frame is a central organizing idea for making sense of relevant events, suggesting what is at issue. ‘Media frames,’ Gitlin (1980, p. 7) writes, ‘largely unspoken and unacknowledged, organize the world both for journalists who report it and, in some important degree, for us who rely on their reports.’ Movement organizations compete with others as sponsors of frames, attempting to promote the career of their favorite through a variety of tangible activities— speech-making, pamphlet writing, demonstrations, advertising, interviews with journalists, and the like.

2. Media Opportunity Structure

Social movement organizations must compete with other sponsors of frames—public officials, political parties, corporations, vested interest groups, and journalists themselves. Mass media norms and practices can sometimes facilitate movement success in this contest but on balance tend to present a series of obstacles that put them at a relative disadvantage. This media opportunity structure is one subpart of the larger political opportunity structure in which movements must operate in attempting to shape an effective symbolic strategy.

2.1 Movement Opportunities

Social movements often make good copy for the media. They provide drama, conflict, and action, colorful copy, and photo opportunities. Because visual material puts a higher premium on spectacle, television is more likely than print media to emphasize it. Spectacle means drama and confrontation, emotional events involving people who have fire in the belly, who are extravagant and unpredictable. This puts a high premium on novelty, on costume, and on confrontation.

Violent action has most of these media-valued elements. Fire in the belly is fine but fire on the ground photographs better. Burning buildings and tires make better television than peaceful vigils and orderly marches. Visual spectacle is high in entertainment value. When news is a vehicle for procuring an audience to sell to advertisers, then one needs to worry about people tuning out. The media opportunity structure provides an incentive for action strategies that provide strong visual material.

2.2 Movement Constraints

Social movement organizations typically need to overcome four major obstacles in media norms and practices. The focus here is on the American news media but to the extent that the news media in other countries are similar, the same obstacles will be present. First, journalists have a strong tendency to give official frames the benefit of the doubt. In many cases, the assumptions of these officials are taken for granted; but even when they are challenged by social movement organizations, it is these challengers who carry the burden of proof. A weaker form of this argument is that journalists make official frames the starting point for discussing an issue.

Various observers have noted how subtly and unconsciously this process operates. Halberstam (1979, p. 414) describes how former television news anchor Walter Cronkite’s concern with avoiding controversy led to his acceptance of the assumptions underlying official packages. ‘To him, editorializing was going against the government. He had little awareness, nor did his employers want him to, of the editorializing which he did automatically by unconsciously going along with the government’s position.’

A second disadvantage for social movement organizations stems from the daily news routines of journalists. These news routines bring reporters into regular—sometimes even daily—contact with sources representing public agencies, political parties, corporations, and other well-established groups. They rarely include regular contact with groups who are challenging the dominant interpretations of events. Social movement organizations, then, lack the routine access to journalists that are characteristic of their rivals.

Third, other media norms and practices in the United States—particularly the balance norm-–favor certain sponsors of alternative frames. In news accounts, interpretation is generally provided through quotations and balance is provided by quoting spokespersons with competing views. The balance norm is vague and the practices it gives rise to favor certain spokespersons over others. Organized opposition is a necessary condition for activating the norm. Once invoked, there is a strong tendency to reduce controversy to two competing positions—an official one and (if there is one) the alternative sponsored by the most vested member of the polity. In many cases, the critics may share the same unstated common frame as officials, differing only on secondary issues of the most effective means of achieving particular outcomes.

The balance norm, however, is rarely interpreted to include challenger frames, even when no other alternative is available. Tuchman (1978, p. 112) argues that balance in television news in the United States ‘means in practice that Republicans may rebut Democrats and vice-versa’ but that ‘supposedly illegitimate challengers’ are rarely offered the opportunity to criticize government statements. Instead, she suggests, ‘reporters search for an ‘‘establishment critic’’ or for a ‘‘responsible spokesman’’ whom they have themselves created or promoted to a position of prominence.’

Finally, there is a culture clash between the more pragmatic and cynical subculture of American journalists and the more idealistic and righteous subculture typical of movement organizations (see Eliasoph 1998). Movements seem to demand unreasonable and unrealistic things and often have a righteousness that is unappealing to those who are living with the inevitable compromises of daily life. Movements hector people and call them to account. This means that internal movement conflicts and peccadilloes will have a special fascination for journalists, giving them an opportunity to even the score from their standpoint. As Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993, p. 120) put it, ‘The fall of the righteous is a favored media story wherever it can be found, and movements offer a happy hunting ground.’

3. Strategic Dilemmas of Movements

These characteristics of the media opportunity structure create a series of dilemmas for the symbolic strategies of social movement organizations. Movement-media communication is, to quote Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993, p. 119), ‘like a conversation between a monolingual and a bilingual speaker.’ The media speak mainstreamese, and movements are tempted to adopt this language since journalists are prone to misunderstand or never hear the alternate language and its underlying ideas. Movement activists often feel that something has been lost in translation. One can accept the dominant cultural codes and not challenge what is taken for granted but for many movements this would surrender fundamental aspects of their raison d’etre.

There is, then, a fundamental ambivalence and, for some, an estrangement between movements and media. Movement activists tend to view mainstream media not as autonomous and neutral actors but as agents and handmaidens of dominant groups. The media carry the cultural codes being challenged, maintaining and reproducing them. In this sense, they are a target as much as a medium of communication. But they are also the latter since one tries to speak through the media rather than to them. This dual media role is the central problematic from the movement standpoint and gives rise to the following dilemmas.

3.1 Publicity as Validation

When demonstrators chant, ‘The whole world is watching,’ it means that they matter, that they are making history. The media spotlight validates the fact that the movement is an important player. Conversely, a demonstration with no media coverage at all is a nonevent, unlikely to have any positive influence either on mobilizing followers or changing the target. No news is bad news.

Given the lack of routine access, getting attention is a necessary step in promoting a preferred frame. But the very tactics that are employed to garner this attention can detract from the preferred frame one is sponsoring. Members of the club enter the media forum through the front door when they choose, are treated with respect, and given the benefit of the doubt. Movement organizations must find some gimmick or act of disorder to force their way in. But entering in this manner, they risk being framed as crazies or fanatics and the preferred frame they are promoting may be obscured in the process. ‘Those who dress up in costume to be admitted to the media’s party will not be allowed to change before being photographed,’ write Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993, p. 122).

3.2 Weak Control Over Followers

Movement organizations face the additional dilemma that, even if they engage in strategic planning, their weak control over the actions of their followers may make it impossible to implement their plan. The media influence internal movement leadership by certifying some people or groups and ignoring others. Some media-designated leaders may have had few followers before their annointment but with their mediagenerated celebrity, they soon find followers. As Gitlin (1980) argues, it is precisely those leaders who are attached to followers only through their media image and are unaccountable to the rank and file who are likely to advocate the extravagant and dramatic actions that generate good media copy. This symbiotic relationship can undercut the carefully planned media strategies of more accountable leaders.

4. Measuring Success

A movement strategy can be judged successful if it solves two problems: gaining media standing and increasing the relati e prominence of its preferred frame in mass media discourse.

4.1 Media Standing

In legal discourse, standing refers to the right of a person or group to challenge in a judicial forum the conduct of another, especially with regard to governmental conduct. The rules for according legal standing have been anything but fixed and clear; rather than a matter of clear definition, legal standing is a battle ground.

By analogy, media standing is also contested terrain. In news accounts, it refers to gaining the status of a regular media source whose interpretations are directly quoted. Note that standing is not the same as being covered or mentioned in the news; a group may be in the news in the sense that it is described or criticized but has no opportunity to provide interpretation and meaning to the events in which it is involved. Standing refers to a group being treated as an agent, not merely as an object being discussed by others.

From the standpoint of most journalists who are attempting to be ‘objective,’ the granting of standing is anything but arbitrary. Sources are selected, in this view, because they speak as or for serious players in any given policy domain: individuals or groups who have enough political power to make a potential difference in what happens. Standing is a measure of achieved cultural power.

Journalists operating in a news forum try to reflect their perceptions of who the key players are, but in practice, they are influenced by various other factors in choosing sources and quotes. In cultural contests, sources are often chosen because they are seen as representing a particular perspective. Rather than being seen as representative in the sense of typical, they are chosen as prototypes who represent a particular cultural tendency in a compelling and dramatic way. In this sense, standing still reflects a journalistic political judgment about which cultural movements make a difference or are serious players.

4.2 Frame Prominence

If one charts mass media coverage of some issue domain over time, frames and their associated idea elements and symbols will ebb and flow in prominence. Success in gaining new advantages in cultural terms is measured by changes in the relative prominence of the movement’s preferred frames compared to antagonistic or rival frames. This measure of success can be extended to other non-news forums as well. Frames can be extracted from cartoons, films, advertising, and entertainment as readily as from news accounts. The prominence of preferred movement frames can be assessed over time in such forums in the same way as in news forums.

Using these two measures, four media outcomes can be defined for movements. Full response means that the movement organization receives both media standing and a significant increase in the prominence of its preferred frame. Collapse means it receives neither standing nor increased prominence for its preferred frame. Co-optation means that the group receives media standing but no significant increase in its preferred frame. Finally, pre-emption means that the challenger’s preferred frame has significantly increased in media prominence in spite of the absence of media standing for its sponsor.


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