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Media-Savvy Protesters Float Their Cause in Mainstream

Professor says today's media are more willing to explore reasons behind the demonstrations.
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There's a scene in Battle In Seattle, a docudrama about the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, in which a TV reporter, increasingly angered by the city's violent response to the demonstrations, decides to join the rally instead of heading to the airport to cover President Bill Clinton's arrival in town. So when the local TV news show goes to a live shot of what it thinks is the president's appearance, what appears onscreen instead is the reporter and dozens of other protesters, their mouths taped shut in mute dissent.

The incident never really happened. But if a new study of how the mainstream media deals with mass protests is any indication, this fiction has a solid, if metaphorical, basis in reality.

According to "Reporting Demonstrations: The Changing Media Politics of Dissent," a paper published in the November issue of Media, Culture and Society, the increasing technological and media sophistication of mass protests, combined with the relatively recent willingness of the mainstream media to report on the issues behind protests rather than the protests themselves, has altered how these movements are portrayed.

"Newspapers are now often championing, not simply reporting, a wide range of issues and seeking to mobilize public opposition and protests demanding change," said Simon Cottle, author of the study and deputy head of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University in Wales.

It wasn't always this way. In the Vietnam War era, when the mainstream media — broadcast TV and newspapers — was the only real source of news, it tended to report protests through traditional ideological frameworks. Referring to a 1980 study of mass media and its relationship with the Students for a Democratic Society, for example, Cottle notes how media coverage "increasingly trivialized, polarized, marginalized and disparaged the protesters and their aims, and emphasized the violence of demonstrations."

But things have changed from that era, and Cottle, citing other research on the subject, notes several reasons why: the impact of globalization, which has affected nation-based interest groups in a variety of ways and, therefore, has worked "against the imposition of one dominant economic point of view"; the end of the Cold War, which deprived "conservative opponents of a dependable, ideologically based platform for launching their attacks on dissident groups"; and the advent of the Internet, which offered "under-resourced interest groups tools that provide extraordinary leverage for mobilization and organization."

In a sense, this made the Seattle protests a watershed moment in movement politics because, said Battle In Seattle Executive Producer Scott Reid, "it was billed as the first Internet protest. They were able to communicate to people about an issue more effectively than picking up the phone or by word of mouth."

More than that, the Internet has allowed groups and movements to internationalize issues that might have remained purely local phenomena. Cottle notes how technology such as cameras, handicams and mobile phones can capture scenes of repression or protest and then be uploaded to blogs and Web sites, thereby "internationalizing their media dissemination and pluralizing the range of voices and views involved and/or challenging protest aims and claims."

As an example of this change, Cottle points to two separate mass protests in Burma.

In 1988, a popular uprising against that country's military government was brutally suppressed and thousands killed, but because it occurred before the Internet era, it was barely a blip on the world news scene. Yet last year, when Burmese monks defied the same regime, images of protest recorded on high-tech equipment were disseminated in every possible medium, making the "saffron revolution" a major global news story.

In the new media dispensation, Cottle said, "the public at demonstrations no longer count the most; rather, it is the mass audience watching and reading the media coverage at home."

And, of course, the dissenting groups and organizations know this, and they have for some time. The American civil rights movement courted violence while restraining its own followers, creating dramatic confrontations, as in "bloody Selma," which changed public opinion on the issue.

In this respect, Cottle mentions how contemporary organizations now plan "dissent events" specifically aimed at attracting media coverage. The Seattle protests, with their varied spectacles — from puppetry to costumes, sloganeering to stunts — are an example.

"It's all about presentation and how that message is being presented," Reid said. "The media has become very visual, so the more animated the process (the better); rather that than just showing 1,000 people walking down the street."

In the case of Seattle, this tactic seemed to work. Cottle noted how civil disobedience, mass arrests and dramatic means of gaining attention could have undermined the credibility of the protests. Instead, an initial interest in property damage, pepper spray and apprehensions eventually turned into coverage of the underlying reasons for the protests. (Still, the coverage by mainstream media was panned by observers like the advocacy group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, which argued the media didn't "get" what the protests were about.)

That, of course, is what every movement is aiming for: a dramatic event that will lead the media to explore the reasons behind it. But Cottle warns that movement organizers have to be careful regarding the spectacles they are planning. Sometimes, it can be a case of "be careful what you wish for."

"Demonstrations that purposefully depend on creating situations of conflict and potential violence play a dangerous game," he said. "They are potentially setting themselves up to be labeled deviant and delegitimized by scenes of ensuing violence — which in Western liberal democracies is seen as outside the sphere of consensus politics."

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