Gitlin: Media coverage of Occupy Wall Street is predictably lazy, but likely to improve

Ask Todd Gitlin what stands out about the media’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street, and he’ll tell you: “Its predictability. The laziness. The knee-jerk preconceptions.”

The media, he said in a phone interview, have fallen back on some of the same rhetorical devices and tactics they used during the anti-war protests of the 1960s. They’ve focused on the outcasts, framed the movement as a crime story and deferred to authorities while doubting the legitimacy of the protesters.

Focusing on protesters who look like outcasts

Many journalists reporting on Occupy Wall Street think “the way to report a social movement is to go take pictures of freakish looking people or ask three different people what they want and get three different answers and conclude that this thing is ‘incoherent,’ ” said Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism and sociology professor who has been following the media’s coverage of protests since the 1960s. “I think journalists fall into traps, which are partly the result of their routines and partly the result of bad habits.”

One protester photographed by Gitlin questioned the media’s tendency to interview people dressed a particular way.

One of these traps involves interviewing people who fit the “dirty hippies” stereotype and ignoring those who look more mainstream. Gitlin, who wrote a book about news coverage of the anti-war protests, noticed that people with beards were eye candy for lazy journalists decades ago. “Today beards aren’t odd,” he said, “so the media focus on grungy looking people or people with dreadlocks or people beating drums.”

Those who are part of the movement have noticed the media’s tendency to do this. While among the protesters last week, Gitlin was drawn to a sign that read: “Am I dressed too nice so the media doesn’t interview me?”

Some journalists have also acknowledged the issue. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, who referred to the protesters as “a motley assortment of slackers, students, environmentalists, socialists, feminists, and hippies,” said “it is easy to lampoon such folks, just as it easy to poke fun at the retirees, gun lovers, and pro-lifers that man the Tea Party information booths.”

While covering what’s been called the “liberal cable’s Tea Party movement,” some political commentators have characterized the protesters differently. Keith Olbermann, who was the first cable news host to cover the protests last month, said the protesters he met weren’t “astroturfers or funded minions,” but rather “polite, well-spoken, informed and diverse.”

Covering protests as law & order stories

It’s easy to make blanket statements about social movements, either because we don’t know enough about the movement or because we don’t want to appear biased. Gitlin pointed to the most recent “Meet the Press” show as an example. On the show, Gregory said it was “a week in politics defined by anger and resentment over the state of the economy and income inequality.”

Gitlin took photos of smiling protesters last week to show that not all of them are as “aggressive” as the media sometimes make them out to be.

“That’s a very shabby description of the spirit of this thing. Of course, it’s fueled by anger and resentment but it’s also very good-humored,” Gitlin said, noting that the Occupiers aren’t hateful but rather resolute.

Gregory then ran a clip of Rep. Eric Cantor saying he’s “increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and other cities across the country.” That’s “an outrageous statement” that should be questioned, said Gitlin, who is liberal. “There were no mobs. A news person should call out these falsehoods,” he said. “I think this subservience to the frameworks that the authorities uphold is actually the normal bias of journalists.”

Traditionally, journalists have treated protests as crime stories and framed them as a disruption to the norm. And they don’t tend to pay a lot of attention to protests until violence or arrests occur.

“The norm is peace and quiet. The disruption is boisterous, conflictual, violent,” Gitlin said. “Part of the predictability is when the police played their role, the movement got more interesting to many media organizations that weren’t paying attention. The first bump was the pepper spray incident and the second was the Brooklyn Bridge incident.”

Something similar happened with the initial Tea Party coverage. “All the attention on the Tea Party was on the tactics of the disruption — when they were making noise at town meetings. That coverage wasn’t very illuminating,” Gitlin said. “It took a long time before journalists were able to wrap their minds around who the activists were and what people wanted.”

There’s a tendency to treat social movements as isolated events rather than connecting the dots and looking at the larger picture. “Movements are more than just stunts and one shots,” Gitlin said. “Lots of people, given their own approaches and desire, move in different directions. The story is the totality; it’s not just what one group is doing.”

Deepening coverage of social movements

It’s difficult covering the Occupy Wall Street protests, in part because there’s not a leading organizer who can talk authoritatively about the movement.

“There is no center, there is no headquarters to go to, so you have to dig,” Gitlin said. “You have to use your common sense, and your common sense should tell you that movements are ragged — they’re patched together, and they’re improvised, and if you want to size up where they’re going, you’ve got to talk to a range of people and decide what’s relevant.”

To get a better sense of the movement’s momentum, Gitlin suggested asking: What would you like to see this movement doing in a month, six months, a year, five years? And what would you like to see this country look like in the future, and how do you plan to continue taking action?

These questions can add more meaning to the messages and numbers being thrown around. As Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times’ John Barry pointed out, “The media tend to apply a legitimacy test to protests like this: How many people are out there, how strong is their leadership, how clear is their message. … The message is whatever anyone with a sign defines it to be.”

To deepen their coverage, Gitlin suggested that journalists add more context to stories by explaining the meaning and implications of statements such as, “We are the 99 percent” and “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” It’s also worth adding historical context to help people understand how Occupy Wall Street relates to political movements from years ago.

“You’ve got to know something about history, about what social movements are before you go and say, for example, that these people don’t know what they want. It’s obvious what they want is a reversal of plutocracy,” said Gitlin, who has been using Twitter to see how the protests are playing out nationwide. “Of course there are other people who want to abolish the Fed and abolish capitalism. But that’s a tiny proportion of people in this movement.”

Journalists can do a disservice to the public when they make generalizations about movements. But they can also play an important role in shaping movements. Gitlin pointed out that one of the turning points of the anti-war protests occurred when leading journalists and editors became more outspoken in opposing the war, and helped shift public opinion.

As journalists deepened their understanding of the protests, their coverage became more insightful and informative. Gitlin said he thinks Occupy Wall Street coverage has improved in the past week and expects it will continue to get better.

As movements evolve, so does journalists’ coverage of them.

“News coverage last week wasn’t what it was the week before, and the movement isn’t what it was,” Gitlin said. “There’s an intricate balance between movements and media, and each learns from the other.”

Related: Replay a chat with Todd Gitlin and Jack Shafer: How to report more meaningful stories about Occupy Wall Street protests

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  • Anonymous

    I never cease to be amazed by people who claim that protesters, bloggers, or simply people with opinions they don’t like, are paid stooges sent by Evil Ones (e.g. Soros, Koch Brothers, corporations).  Sure there’ve been a few cases, but in general you don’t have to pay people to scream ridiculous extremist stuff.  There are too many out there who will happily do it for free.

  • Anonymous

    Gitlin seems to want it both ways:
    1. the media should not create the message (that the OWS ‘platform’ is incoherent at best)
    2. the media should create the message (by asking questions favorable to the demonstrators)

    How about OWSers actually come up for themselves with coherent answers to questions like “what would you like to see this country look like in the future, and how do you plan to continue taking action?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Maria-Jose/1062070125 Maria Jose

    Quotidian, were you there today?? I am reading your comments and I am questioning the validity of them. I was there today and the demographics were an overwhelming senior citizens majority. I didn’t see any whiny spoiled kids like you are claiming. I spoke with employed lawyers, financial consultants who are disgusted with the financial institutions they work for. Retired veterans, Teachers, Social workers, and yes your “hippie”  crowd you vehemently oppose. Just remember, this country was founded on radical ideas of “change.” of the status qou…..Its time to evolve in that process and find consensus on a better financial structure that we are currently living with. One that doesn’t reward criminal activity. Lets have an actual democracy that is inclusive and not a “republic” that is only interested in listening to those with $$$$$$..next time come to a General Assembly and talk to some people there instead of making sweeping generalizations and misinforming the public with your ignorance….Thank you

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ICJOWFSXJBBOHIZH24N3N7RYOE Nigel

    I’m sorry, I’m not trying to engage in a flame war here. But this seems pretty contradictory: “How do I know that what they want is a reversal of plutocracy?  I read the signs.  I listen to the chants … Research requires more than asking a few men-and-women-in-the-park their opinions.”
    So your research methods in this case are exactly the same ones used by other reporters on this story? I realize most of the pushback on this thread is from angry right-wingers; please don’t take this criticism in one breath with theirs. But Poynter in general, and this story specifically, are supposed to help reporters improve their coverage. How, exactly? Reading about previous protests and social movements? Very well, consider it done. But there’s still no direct, didactic observation here aside from “try to do better.” I still ask, better how? I admit, I haven’t read or watched the worst of this. Perhaps there are stories and news segments so lazy and trivial that they merited this story. But please remember, these are happening nationwide. To cast aspersions on the coverage of this whole movement in every city — and pardon me if that isn’t your intent — seems to me to be lazy and generalizing itself.
    And speaking of mind-reading, how do you draw your “benign observer” conclusions? I’m more than ready to admit the media are falling down on this story. It just seems as if you yourself are as guilty of the kind of drive-by journalism that you’re criticizing.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZII6B22UYD6PMYIKKI6B2T3I2Y Brian

    As for a casting call over Craigslist, this is news to me. Evidence?
    Right here:

    http://newyork.craigslist.org/brk/gov/2618821815.html

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZII6B22UYD6PMYIKKI6B2T3I2Y Brian

    “As for a casting call over Craigslist, this is news to me. Evidence?”

    You asked for it:

    http://newyork.craigslist.org/brk/gov/2618821815.html

  • F. Douglas

    How often does Poynter provide advice to the Occupy people on how they can improve their media coverage?

    I don’t recall Poynter folks ever offering advice to the tea party on how it could improve its media coverage.

    It would be nice to get alternative points of view to Gitlin’s on this coverage. There are many who think the media — contrary to what Gitlin thinks — have gone out of their way to provide positive coverage to the Occupy movement, at least when compared to tea party coverage. That was the essence of this story:

    http://dailycaller.com/2011/10/11/tea-party-groups-criticize-media-coverage-of-occupy-wall-street/

  • http://markljackson.net Mark L. Jackson

    Here is a better question to ask: Who paid you to be at the protest today?

    The media is all giddy over what they see as their “tea party.” Bad news OWS is a faux protest ginned up by Soros and friends, lovingly covered by the media, and given cover by Poynter and the useless J-Schools “criticism.”

    “Bread and Circuses,” anyone?

  • http://markljackson.net Mark L. Jackson

    *ROTFLMAO* OWS has NOTHING in common with any of those “uprisings.” Get a clue.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Hi all,

    We’re going to have a live chat today at 12:30 p.m. ET to talk about how journalists can improve their coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Our two panelists will be Todd Gitlin and Reuters’ Jack Shafer. I encourage you to tune in and share your thoughts and questions. Here’s more information about the chat: http://journ.us/nFZM87

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/alfred.ingram Alfred Ingram

    Have you noticed, that what Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, and the Tunisian uprising have in common? Ordinary people who feel deeply disrespected, thoroughly ignored and abandoned by a system that runs their lives and plays with their livelihoods for the benefit of a few.

  • Todd Gitlin

    Nate Silver, a statistically savvy blogger now working for the New York Times, posted the other day on Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street coverage (http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/07/police-clashes-spur-coverage-of-wall-street-protests/).  The Tea Party had more coverage than OWS.  Whether the coverage was favorable or not is a question for research, and I’ve not seen any.  As for a casting call over Craigslist, this is news to me.  Evidence?

    You don’t like the demonstrations.  OK.  But you’re not entitled to your own facts.

  • Todd Gitlin

    How do I know that what they want is a reversal of plutocracy?  I read the signs.  I listen to the chants.  What do you think “We are the 99 percent” means?  The oddballs are always *interesting*.  I talked to some myself.  I mentioned some in my NYT piece.  But that’s low-hanging fruit.

    Research requires more than asking a few men-and-women-in-the-park their opinions.  It requires having a historical sense–knowing something about precedents; observing such facts (relayed to me by an unemployed journalist friend of mine) as that (a) there are no counter-demonstrations and (b) the visitors to the park, some of whom presumably work “on Wall Street,” are involved in amicable conversations with the encampment.  The fact that the encampment is viewed, for the most part, benignly by passersby says something about the prospects of this movement–not everything, but something.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of connecting the dots, how about an accurate international context. Zuccotti Park will never be Tahiri Square, but it does look an awful lot like Madrid’s Puerta del Sol on March 15.

    This is happening all over the world, people speaking up because they are not taken into account by politicians. In most places the protesters are not looking for a revolution, but rather policy–financial/education reform–that will have a direct impact on their lives. 

    The most fascinating aspect perhaps is why it took so long for regular people, and especially the youth, to speak up here, considering that the U.S. is a social influencer at the international stage, and that people have been hard hit at least since late 2008. (I’m not including the Tea Party because it was bankrolled/spearheaded by special interests.)

  • Todd Gitlin

    Quotidian, Would you pass on your secret to reading my mind?  My wife would like to know it.

    You seem to know a lot of things, like the demographics of the park people (“spoiled whiny kids”).  Since we’re in the business of improving journalism here, could you say how you know these things?

    As a matter of fact, I *do* support Occupy.  And–not “but–I want to see journalists explore it knowledgeably, resourcefully, with historical understanding.  I want to see similarly serious coverage of the Tea Party, by the way.  I’m not interested in cheap-shots on any side.  I thought it was excellent that the NY Times decided, around ’04, that they weren’t properly reporting the American Right.  They assigned a reporter to do that for some time, David Kirkpatrick by name.  He did an excellent job.  I have no idea what his politics are, nor do I care.  The important thing was to take the movement seriously.  He did that.  The same ought to be done for Occupy Wall Street, its offshoots and supporters.

    Yes, I was asking journalists to ask serious, not gotcha, questions of demonstrators.  Horrors!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ICJOWFSXJBBOHIZH24N3N7RYOE Nigel

    This worked OK until here:

    “It’s obvious what they want is a reversal of plutocracy,” said Gitlin. “Of course there are other people who want to abolish the
    Fed and abolish capitalism. But that’s a tiny proportion of people in
    this movement.”

    Is it? Is it obvious? And how does he know? And how would a reporter know? Because this is how, in reality, coverage works: Editor tells reporter, go out there and cover this. Reporter walks down to the protest. Reporter finds “Information” tent, if he or she is lucky. Reporter hears general message from organizers-who-aren’t-organizers about upending the system, getting the .001 percent to pay more taxes, etc. Reporter walks through crowd, talking to people. Reporter’s natural instincts, to focus on the oddball or interesting, bring him or her to the funniest signs or most oddball characters. The sign/character makes the lede, the organizer makes the nut graf, everyone goes home. Not liking that practice is fine, but then he talks about improving the kinds of questions asked.

    Let’s get past Columbia U journalism profs telling working reporters how to do their jobs — I don’t understand what “better” means in this context:

    “Gitlin said he thinks Occupy Wall Street coverage has improved in the past week and expects it will continue to get better.”

    Such as what? We’re ignoring the fact that outright legitimizing of this movement — giving it the same credence with which we’d treat a city council meeting or even a press conference organized by an established interest group — is tacit support. Asking people in this movement how they will feel about it in five years implies it will exist in five years. I don’t know how Tea Party people felt about their coverage, but whether they ever thought it got “better” is up for debate. If he would simply define what better coverage implies, I’d feel better. And I would not be surprised to find that he would suggest more empathy with the protestors, more understanding of their cause, as the solution. That’s not bias outright, but it is coloring outside the lines.

  • http://twitter.com/Seola1 Mary

    I find the irony in the sentiments expressed here, when the original Tea Party protests suffered much worse.  In fact, many of the ideals of this movement ran parallel to the Tea Party when it was grassroots.  Tea Party coverage was limited to racists, troublemakers, even being lambasted for incidents that didn’t occur and the media ran with the myths.

    Now, when the shoe is on the other foot, politically speaking – then it’s “unfair coverage”.  They did the same thing with the Tea Party interviewing the dumbest of the dumb and have even provided proof that some interviews were done by planted “protestors” as the casting call went out over Craiglist.  The fact is – this is completely disorganized and there *IS* no consensus on what they want.  We have people walking off their cushy union jobs, who can’t even lose their jobs for not showing up to participate here.  That’s a huge slap in the face to the truly willing workers without jobs.  Students, who have the means to go to college – a dream that so many people don’t get to even think of, complaining about their hard lives.  I can’t seem to find more than 10% of ANY comments, interviews and Twitter comments from people who are supposedly inside the protests giving anything more than whining, demanding gimme gimme gimmes, and saying “Bailouts aren’t okay… unless they go to me.” (conveniently forgetting that some bailouts came in the form of tax credits for houses, cars and energy updates) and seeming to have a problem with handouts to companies who actually do employ (regardless, someone is working) against giving them free stuff that has no net production.

    I don’t agree with all the bailouts or how it’s handled, I don’t agree with the tax rebates to reward overspending.  What I glaringly don’t agree with is the hypocrisy of many of those protesting.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Such short notice would make it tough. Maybe you can ask them to give you a heads up sooner. Or, look and see if they’re on Twitter, Facebook, etc. and start following them there for updates.

    ~Mallary

  • http://twitter.com/rmeese Ray Meese

    Of course I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve received three calls requesting coverage of three different Occupy Wall Street events. On all three occasions, they gave us less than 10 minutes notice that it was happening. Given our coverage area extends about an hour to the north of our office, and an hour south, it’s kind of hard to get somewhere at the drop of a hat.

  • http://twitter.com/rmeese Ray Meese

    Of course I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve received three calls requesting coverage of three different Occupy Wall Street events. On all three occasions, they gave us less than 10 minutes notice that it was happening. Given our coverage area extends about an hour to the north of our office, and an hour south, it’s kind of hard to get somewhere at the drop of a hat.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, but Gitlin wants something equally bad–coverage that glosses over the many flakes in these crowds, the fact that their various lists of demands ARE incoherent, that many of them are far to the left of even many Democrats who think the banks have gotten away with too much, that many of them are spoiled whiny kids with plenty of time to camp out, and in general that they have defied police and disprupted life for others not involved far more than the tea partiers, who tended to be reported in the press as menacing mobs associated with anger, hostility and violence, even when there was basically no violence. And I would say the NY Times and certainly the broadcast networks have been quite favorable to them? Let’s face it: Gitlin supports Occupy and wants to see postive coverage.

    “To get a  better sense of the movement’s momentum, Gitlin suggested asking: What would you like to see this movement doing in a month, six months, a year, five years? And what would you like to see this country look like in the future, and how do you plan to continue taking action?”

    He is asking journalists do to that?