There’s an element of modern protest rallies that’s almost as ubiquitous as the chanting crowds and hand-painted signs – complaints about the way the media cover the protesters.
The latest example, of course, is the “Occupy” rallies that have spread across the country. In its early days, when Occupy Wall Street first took hold in Manhattan, protesters and their supporters criticized what they saw as media ambivalence.
Now that the movement has become a big news story, some supporters have accused the press of missing the point of the protests, while opponents have grumbled that the news stories are too numerous and too laudatory.
Such complaints come as little surprise, and not just because we saw the same kind of criticism surrounding coverage of the Tea Party movement, the Wisconsin collective bargaining protests, and even comedian Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.”
The complaints also are predictable because there’s no consensus among news organizations about what makes a particular protest newsworthy. Indeed, journalists often are cynical about covering demonstrations at all, especially in big cities or college towns where they occur all the time.
“You can’t send reporters out every time somebody announces they’re mad as hell about something,” said former Baltimore Sun deputy managing editor Sandra Banisky, who now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. “But if indeed there’s something that captures the public eye, then we have the obligation to go there.”
Analyses by the New York Times’ Nate Silver and Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo confirm the first protests in mid-September attracted only moderate media attention. While major news organizations ran a smattering of stories, few received prominent placement and some took a dismissive tone toward the protesters.
“There really was nothing in the early days in the traditional media,” said Susan Gardner, the executive editor of the liberal website DailyKos. Her site and others in the progressive blogosphere have provided almost hour-by-hour coverage since the rally’s first day, when the headline of a DailyKos diary urged readers to “Cheer Them On!”
“Whenever there are citizens who are willing to give up their spare time to go gather somewhere and make their grievances known, I think it’s worth coverage,” Gardner said in a phone interview.
Silver’s analysis showed that mainstream coverage of Occupy Wall Street increased substantially Oct. 1 — the fifteenth day of the protests — when demonstrators clashed with police on the Brooklyn Bridge. The confrontation served as a watershed event that attracted more protesters and led many news organizations to take notice. By Silver’s account, coverage rocketed more than 300 percent in the following days.
“We started to cover it around the same time everybody started to have the same realization,” said Deborah Clark, the executive producer of Marketplace, American Public Media’s radio program about business. “I wish we’d actually done it a couple days earlier.”
Marketplace aired its first story on the movement Sept. 26, then began almost daily coverage Oct. 3. At about the same time, local news organizations around the country started to cover Occupy rallies in their own cities, such as Boston, Columbus, and Memphis.
“None of us out here had even heard about it until about a week ago,” said Dean Elwood, the News Director at San Diego’s CBS television affiliate, KFMB.
But after “Occupy San Diego” protesters began a sit-in, the station aired more than a half-dozen stories.
“We sent a reporter and photographer and they said, ‘Look, there’s hundreds of people camping out in a place downtown,’” Elwood said in a phone interview. “It’s hard for that not to be newsworthy.”
Toward a standard of “newsworthiness”
News organizations often look at the number of protesters before deciding if a demonstration is worth covering. Typically, such policies are informal, but some organizations maintain a specific set of guidelines. At the Kansas City Star, for instance, protests with 25 participants merit brief news stories, while those with a hundred or more justify longer stories or photos.
“It gives you a metric and something to go on,” said the Star’s Reader Representative, Derek Donovan. He noted that the paper printed a pair of stories on “Occupy KC” this week, after a rally attracted about 300 people.
As Silver’s analysis showed, a police confrontation also is likely to get journalists’ attention. I’ve personally worked with editors who didn’t consider protests newsworthy unless somebody was arrested. Reuters columnist Jack Shafer wrote that he maintained a similar standard when he edited the Washington City Paper.
But both of these benchmarks for newsworthiness – the “head count” and the “arrest threshold” – are inadequate. As Occupy Wall Street has proved, a nascent movement can strike a significant chord with the public, especially in this era when backers can support the cause online without physically attending a rally. And there’s no logical reason to declare a movement less important because its members haven’t clashed with police.
A better standard of newsworthiness — albeit a harder one to measure — is whether the message of a particular protest is resonating with the public. While attendance at Occupy Wall Street’s New York encampment was inconsistent during its first couple of weeks, the movement already had started to spawn rallies in other cities and pick up traction on social media. Those trends suggested the protesters’ message had begun to strike a nerve.
“The Occupy movement as we go around the county has established itself as something that’s at least interesting, even if we’re not sure yet if it will be effective,” said Professor Banisky. “It’s important to reflect in your news columns what people in your city are interested in, even if it’s a small number.”
Already old news?
Even as pundits continue to debate whether the present level of media coverage is appropriate, news executives and bloggers are starting to grapple with another issue – developing long-term coverage plans if the Occupy protests continue into the winter, as organizers have promised.
“If this goes on, do you take a picture of them every day?” asked Banisky. “If it’s the same 50 people camped out, do they continue to be a story?”
At KFMB, Elwood has already begun to scale back coverage of the San Diego sit-in.
“We’ve sort of been there, done that,” Elwood said in a phone interview. “It starts becoming white noise. It’s the same story day after day after day.”
But Gardner said Daily Kos will continue daily coverage, much of it provided by volunteer diarists who are participating in the rallies. And Clark — the Marketplace producer — said her program also plans further coverage of the movement. She said future stories are likely to talk less about the sit-ins themselves and more about the protesters’ broader anti-Wall Street message.
“It will be a thread through a number of stories going forward,” Clark said. “That will be a mix of commentary, features, and even a piece of our election coverage.”
“This is another way to look at the economy. This is another way to tell that story,” Clark said.