Exploring Internet Influence on the Coverage of Social Protest

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Transcript of Exploring Internet Influence on the Coverage of Social Protest

  • 7/29/2019 Exploring Internet Influence on the Coverage of Social Protest



    This study examined the coverage of two social protests set three decadesapart. Findings show ed that journalists covering anti-WTO protests in1999 relied on official and autho ritative sources more than journalistscovering anti-Vietnam war protests in 1967, despite today's Internet-enabled access to alternative sources and thematic analyses. No changewas see n in use of protester sources or them atic versus episodic framesin story valence. Providing a backdrop to today's emerging study ofonline information seeking by journalists, this study suggests that con-ventional strategies in news sourcing and framing may en dure despitethe resourcefulness facilitated today by the Internet.

    Social movement organizations consider both social protest andnews coverage of social protest to be major political resources. Thispaper expores where the two intersect, by examining whether journal-ists follow a pattern in protest coverage. This study inquires also intowhether sourcing strategies and framing of social protest has begunfo change as journalists gain access fo contacts and debates/argu-m ents/research over the Internet.A good location to stud y such informafion seeking by the press iswithin the info-acfivism created in cyberspace during the protestsagainst the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Seatfle inNov ember an d D ecember of 1999. The WTO meetings between govern-ments and trade organizations from across the world were shut downafter human rights groups, students, environmental groups, religiousleaders, labor rights activists, and other groups with diverse agendasthronged the streets of Seattle demanding fairer, less exploitative tradedecision making. This mobilization of masses of people with non-vio-lent as well as anarchist protes t repertoires w as one of fhe first exam plesof trans-border networking and activism facilitated by the Internet;activists used Web sites, e-mail, listserves, e-groups, and Indymedia tomobilize.

    Even though the Internet provides movements such as this one atool for political organiza tion of those who are "accessible" (i.e., know l-

  • 7/29/2019 Exploring Internet Influence on the Coverage of Social Protest


    edgeable, interested, sym pathetic Web surfers or those w ho devise theirpersonalized political information n etwo rks over digital media), ma in-stream media are still the ones expected to provoke popular debate andpublic opinion. How the mass media respond to these debates them-selves and how they access via the Internet the contexts and argumentsbehind the movement become questions fundamental to a democracystill dependent on mainstream med ia for generation of public opinion.

    Refiecting the hierarchy in government and society,' scholars SoUTCesargue , journalists defer to a hierarchy in sourcingofficial sources over and Socialunofficial ones, sources in government and industry over those outside.^ ProtestWhen covering social protests, even general reporters rarely interviewordinary protesters, and organizations that are resource-poor have prob-lems gaining coverage.^ Gans noted that disorder news is affected bywhose order is being upset and focuses on the restoration of order."*The strategies used by social protesters may involve differentbehaviorseven disruptive behaviorto garner attention from themedia, but p rotesters have little control over the aspects and actions tha tthe media choose to highlight or underplay' In a 1994 book on themedia and the Vietnam anti-war movement. Small writes "Oppositionalmass movements have a difficult time obtaining fair, much less favor-able, coverage from establishment media, even in the freest of democra-cies. For a variety of economic, polifical and institutional reasons, jour-nalists and their employers tend to denigrate those out of the main-stream... ." '

    Small's content analysis of new spape rs, m agazines, and televisioncoverage showed that journalists concentrated on violent and radicalalbeit colorful behavior on the fringes of the activity. They und ercoun t-ed the crowds and ignored political arguments the protesters' lead ershippresented. Moreover, the "fairness doctrine" had journalists going out oftheir way to carry the views of counter-demo nstrators and the establish-ment whenever they covered the views of protesters.'Research during the past few decades has shown that the media

    treat non-mainstream points of view as unduly deviant and therebyrestrict the diversity of polifical discourse.' In the context of coverage ofsocial movements and social protest, then, "framing" becomes as imp or-tant to consider as sourcing.

    Iyengar and Kinder explored the direct impact of episodic and the-matic news formats, or frames, on viewers' attributions of responsibilityfor political issues and the indirect effects of these frames on public opin-ion in general. The aufhors found that journalists routinely fail fo provide

    The Framesof SocialProtest

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    SocialMovements,the Internet,and thePress

    issues, through selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration." Theeffects of such coverage of social protest and political issues, then, leadsto readers and viewers perceiving issues as "problems"'^ and to offeringstatus quo support to the establishm ent."What does the theoretical framework point to in the context ofmedia coverage of social movem ents and social protest? In other w ords,how do the media frame protest? According to scholars, novelty, pole-mic, confrontation, and con troversy are the frames tha t win media atten-tion for social movem ents.' '' Studies have sho wn that new s coverage ofsocial protest marginalizes challenging groups and depicts selection biasor de scription bias.'^

    Establishing a presence over the Internet, it is believed, will be oneof the key factors that contribute to a social movement or contentiousgrou p rising to prominence.'* The Internet has been used w ith equalvigor by the right and left, and Internet skill is now considered integralto political communication among progressive intellectuals, students,and activists.'''Mainstream media, meanwhile, are seen as becoming less ap-proachable because of em erging ideologies and exigencies.' As an alter-native, the Internet is celebrated for contributing to political normaliza-tion, democrattc pluralism," the development of a democratic mediapolitics by the establishment of alternative media,^" and "the cyber-dif-

    fusion of contention."^'Does the power of the Internet as a political and communicationtool, then, circumvent the relevance of the mainstream mass media?Research and practice suggest not, pointing out that mainstream mediain fact, gain particular importance in the "network information politics"of transnational advocacy n etw orks .^ Netw ork activists cultivate credi-bility w ith the press and package their information in a timely and dra-matic way to draw press attention."Even groups that circumvent a focus on garnering mainstreammedia attention do sometimes provide hypertext links and informationas press releases on their Web sites. ** The Zapatis ta movement inMexico used the Internet for everything from voting in plebiscites byparticipants from forty-seven countries, to drawing in the mainstreammedia to create awareness and ou trage w orldw ide.^For a journalist seeking information on today's social protestsprotest groups' Web sites present complex debates, research papers,rationales, and contact details, all of which may be expected to make themov ement, its contexts, and its participants more accessible to journal-ists than ever before.Stud ies on journa lists ' Inte rnet use in the U nited States^** havechronicled the rapid increase in Internet use by journalists and the grad -

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    lous relationship between bloggers and journalists and journalist-blog-A next step in research into Internet use might involve how suchuse plays out in the final product of the journalistthe media storyand the decisions that surround it.The two practices of sourcing/attribution and framing, in particu-lar, are sigruficant to this study for two reasons. First, as the literaturereview above shows, these two practices involve location of power ina given story. Sourcing/attribution determines who gets a "voice," andwho se interpretation of events gets reported in mainstream me dia. Fram-ing, especially thematic framing, gives "context." In one recent study, tel-evision journalists covering breast cancer appeared to have increasedtheir use of thematic frames and their discussion of research develop-ments across time, bu t did n ot change other practices, such as the dom i-nant citation of medical doctors as sources.^^Most important, reporters today, as compared to reporters thir-ty years ago, can access material online and possibly provide a thema-tic, contextualized story on their own terms. So, did access to the Inter-net in 1999 enable reporters to expand their sourcing and/or providegreater thematic framing in their coverage as compared to reporters in1967? As evident from the literature, research into the relationshipbetween movements and the media, and the role of the Internet in thisrelationship, stands at a juncture that is both exciting and undecided.

    An earlier study on the WTO protests points to the need to develop anew theory of media, political elites and social movement relations.^'Drawing on the literature and theory presented above, and using thecase of social protest coverage as a lens to study this relationship,