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 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.”
“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