Paper presented at 2002 ISA Annual Convention, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 24th – 27th 2002
Draft – please do not cite without permission
Lecturer in International Communications
Institute of Communications Studies
University of Leeds
tel 00 44 (0)113 233 5828
The growth of the mass media has seen increased debate about the degree to which these technologies can influence our perceptions of distant events and the people involved in them. Much of the ‘new’ political protest - such as the WTO riots and GM crop destruction - operates outside of traditional institutional structures and communications technologies have played a key role in aiding the development of the social movements at the basis of a new and seemingly nebulous form of politics. In the west at least, however, television images of political demonstrations have tended to frame participants in negative terms. The paper argues that, although a number of high profile events have helped to generate coverage of activists’ concerns, the portrayal of protest continues to frame collective action of this kind as undesirable. The paper examines the ways the mass media portrays political activism and the strategies used by activists to counter these representations. The role of new media technologies - the Internet, email and mobile ‘phones - in bypassing the dominant discourse of television news in particular is explored. The paper is based upon analysis of social movement theories, communications research and interviews with political activists across a range of issues.
‘Virtually everybody will agree on the importance of the media of communication in shaping the democratic character of society, but fewer, unfortunately, emphasize the importance of democratising the media’ (Dahlgren 2001b: 64)
Picture Seattle, Davos, Genoa or even Barcelona. What do you see? Unless you have close personal associations with these cities, it’s likely that the images conjured up were of riots, street battles and violent mayhem. For most of us, our recent experience of these cities has been through mediated representations of demonstrations outside the summits of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the European Union. It is unlikely that any television reporting we have seen has given much insight into the logic – as perceived by the demonstrators – behind these protests. Mainstream press coverage may have offered some additional detail, though there will have been little obvious empathy towards the protesters displayed. Some of the reasons behind this type of reporting are addressed in this paper. More importantly, though, the paper looks at the responses of activists to the perceived omissions of the mainstream media, particularly through the establishment of alternative information networks.
The ‘fairness’ or ‘accuracy’ of mass media reports on political activism are not the concern of this paper, nor are the versions of these events outlined in the independent media. Of more interest here is what might be missing from media reports of political protests and the implications this may have for the promotion, or otherwise, of political participation. If a strong public sphere is considered to be a crucial element of civil society (see: Sassi 2001), does it matter that the mass media is often considered to serve only narrow political interests? Or, as Sassi puts it ‘for a variety of reasons, the public sphere reveals a strong tendency towards fragmentation or, worse, towards mutually exclusive forms of segregation’ (ibid: 100). Underpinning this paper are questions about the implications of such segregation, particularly in the field of information provision.
This paper is part of a wider research project on the history of Squall, a UK-based independent newspaper, now delivered largely online. That research contributes to the ongoing debates about the role of the Internet in political activism, by exploring the role of independent media in politics today and detailing the perceived benefits and drawbacks of moving from hard copy to electronic delivery. This paper takes one element of that research – the framing of political activism by mainstream media – as its focus.
The paper draws on some of the literature on media framing of politics. Gitlin’s early work on this issue remains significant and one simple sentence of his encapsulates the core area of mainstream / alternative media contention:
‘media frames, largely unspoken and unacknowledged, organize the world both for journalists, who report it and, in some important degree, for us who rely on their reports’ (1980: 7).
Relating its thinking to the framing of political events, the questions in this paper centre around one main issue – access to representative media. These issues are covered under three headings: Media matters looks at the standard forms of reporting political protest and how different scholars have interpreted these; Alternatives looks at the ways independent media organizations and collectives seek to challenge the status quo; Internet actions considers the role of new technologies in promoting political perspectives which do not conform to mainstream values.
‘misrepresents the reality of the international movement for social justice, which advocates not the “free trade” of powerful governments … but "fair trade" that opens borders to goods and people. … Today’s social justice activists …sometimes prefer to call themselves “alternative globalization” activists, or those who are against the increasing corporatization of society and culture’ (see: http://process.indymedia.org/faq.php3)
There has been much debate about the notion of media bias – what it is, where it originates, how it is made manifest and so on (see: Boyd-Barrett 1998; Street 2001).
With the spread of technologies and the increasing integration of media industries, discussions about whether media content is biased to reflect the interests of one group of actors or another have become fairly complex. It is not sufficient to say that the ‘governments’ or ‘corporations’ control the media. It is possible to argue, however, that a tendency to portray particular kinds of information in particular kinds of ways can exclude information which may reasonably be expected to have a place in the public sphere. For Entman, ‘bias defines a tendency to frame different actors, events and issues in the same way, to select and highlight the same sort of selective realities, thus crafting a similar tale across a range of potential news stories’ (1996: 78, emphasis in original). Accepting that audiences are ‘not passively absorbent sponges but active ‘negotiators’ of meaning in media ‘texts’’ (Carruthers 2001: 8), we need thus to consider how partial representations of political protests influence audience interpretations of such events.
Like most other activities undertaken by non-state actors, political protests receive only limited coverage in the mass media. Where political activism does appear, there is often a tendency to report protest in a negative light. Demonstrators are ‘anarchists’ and ‘a ‘challenge to the established order’. Many activists, of course, are the former and most are engaged in political processes precisely to achieve the latter. How these ‘facts’ are represented in news reports is for many, though, a cause for concern. In particular, the tendency to situate political protesters as ‘other’ to the democratic order, rather than as part of it, polarises political debate. This is problematic because, as Mutz and Martin point out ‘both in political theory and empirical work, there is near unanimous agreement that exposure to diverse political views is good for democracy and should be encouraged’ (2001: 97).
There are three clearly identifiable areas where mass media coverage of activism could be considered to be problematic. Firstly, the polarisation of political opinions is characteristic of the construction of news as narrative. The ‘good guy’ versus ‘bad guy’ mode of representation fulfils the needs of news-makers to provide both drama and balance. Thus the narrative construction of news requires the presentation of conflict and activists are often the dramatic ‘other’ to the stability and order of governments and international organizations. Tilly suggests that the media ‘are quick to give priority to violent or bizarre aspects of a protest – often focusing on the few members of a peaceful demonstration who are bent on disrupting it’ (1994: 128). So ten thousand peaceful marchers are not news, one rock-throwing student might be (see: ibid.)
Secondly, for many social movement activists, the norm of ‘objectivity’ in news reporting reflects a form of framing which, whilst not necessarily always directed against activists, rarely operates in their favour. The notion of ‘objectivity’ in news reporting requires that ‘the process of observing and reporting should … not be contaminated by subjectivity, nor should it interfere with the reality being reported upon’ (McQuail 2000: 172). Given this norm, all reporting should present a balanced version of events. Life’s not like that, of course, and a political protester, as ‘other’, will not be framed in the same way as a government minister. As Tarrow put it, ‘the media are far from neutral bystanders. … While the media in capitalist democracies may not work directly for the ruling class, they certainly do not work for social movements’ (1994: 127).
Beyond this, Boyd-Barrett has suggested that the notion of objectivity is at the heart of the commodification of news. News, as a saleable good, must offend the fewest possible people and must, therefore, be objectified to a point of uncontentiousness for the most (see: Boyd-Barrett & Rantenan (eds) 1998). For Carruthers, ‘news can never be ‘value-free’, from ‘nobody’s point of view’, in the way its ‘manufacturers’ like to claim’ (2001: 17). This is not to suggest that the values that underpin news reporting are wrong, but to reiterate the tendency in reporting to close off certain tendentious subjects. News needs values of one form or another; it wouldn’t be news without them. The need to view news with a critical eye is, however, evident.
Finally, and rather more difficult to pin down, is the notion of structural bias in the global news arena. Does news reporting represent only elite opinion and government interests? The nebulous spectre of ‘elite interests’, both political and economic, is at the heart of much anti-capitalist activism and, at the risk of over-simplifying the issues, it is possible to see a correlation between news reporting of activism and the interests of the neo-liberal econo-political order. In the political arena, Gamson argues that ‘rebellious collective action can … buttress the dominant world view by helping political elites in their construction of a stable enemy or threat that justifies their policies and provides a legitimation for political repression’ (2001: 60). Thus, problems, enemies and crises are constantly constructed and reconstructed to create a series of threats and reassurances (ibid.) Regardless of the validity or otherwise of the causes for their actions, the activist often becomes the problem, the enemy and the crisis where there need to buttress the political order exists. The necessarily close relation between governments and news providers – the one a vital information source, the other providing distribution network for policy pronouncements – is also a feature of this characterisation of politics as dichotomy.
The positioning of the activist as ‘other’ is perhaps slightly easier to interpret in relation to the economic arena. As the majority of news providers are profit-making organizations, there is an inherent need to avoid causing offence to their biggest source of income – not the audience but the advertisers. Jim Carey of Squall argues that ‘the bottom line is that every element of mainstream media relies on advertising: you can’t get away from it. ... No magazine or newspaper survives on its cover price alone so if you do anything to upset that industry’s acceptance of your organ as a suitable medium for advertsing, you’ve got big problems’. This claim is backed by Herman and McChesney:
‘Owner and advertiser domination give the commercial media a dual bias threatening the public sphere: they tend to be politically conservative and hostile to criticism of the status quo in which they are the major beneficiaries; and they are concerned to provide a congenial media environment for advertising goods’ (1997: 6)
This takes us neatly back to Boyd-Barrett’s argument that news is a commodity, from which we can conclude that it must be packaged appropriately and that that packaging will almost invariably position anti-capitalist activists as ideologically unsound. As Lee et al argue ‘television networks and the elite press, despite their fierce competition, play different variations on the same ideological themes. They operate within the same institutional relationship to the power structures and share the broadly similar ideological and cultural prisms’ (2001: 352).
The norms of objectivity, the need to identify sources of conflict and the ideological values of the global news-making environment inevitably situate political protesters as a challenge to the dominant order, a perspective even the most mild-mannered of activists would find hard to refute. The concern, however, is that the reasons behind the challenges activists make are under- or mis-reported, so that a stereotypical presentation of political activism is given. Whilst perhaps somewhat galling for activists themselves, this is more significant in respect of its broader implications for participatory politics. If, as Bennett and Entman have argued, ‘access to communication is one of the key measures of power and equality in modern democracies’ (2001: 2), it is important to question whether the information we are receiving gives audiences enough insight to gain a full picture of the wider political landscape. Certainly – in developed countries at least – television, press and Internet reports provide many people with more information than they have ever had before. Whether this increased quantity of information is enough to present a balanced picture is, however, open to question.
Scheufele distils some of the most widely-accepted work on political participation and highlights key features of political awareness and expertise. Drawing from Zeller (1990, 1992), he suggests that political awareness is comprised of five areas: political information, political participation, media exposure, interest in politics and education (2002: 47). Then, referring to the work of Fiske, Lau and Smith, he suggests that there are also five core issues relating to political expertise: political knowledge, political activity, print media use, electronic media use and political self-schema (ibid.) In each case, media provision of information is a crucial feature of political understanding. Although Scheufele goes on to point out the relationships between individuals and their media experiences are extremely complex, it is fair to surmise that the ways political activism is framed in the mass media has an important impact on both how protests are understood by people not directly involved in such actions (which, of course, is the vast majority), and on whether people see these protests as having some relevance to their own lives. Or, more succinctly, if mass media is a key component of political understanding (which in turn is related to political participation) the framing of political issues in the mass media is important in influencing how politics are interpreted and acted upon.
One useful example of media framing of protest is highlighted by coverage of the anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa. Analysing the demonstrations against the WTO conference in Seattle, Smith found that:
‘There was no clear consensus among protest groups about whether the WTO itself should be abolished or reformed. What was clear was that virtually all protesters on the streets sought to democratise and incorporate values other than profit-making into global institutions’ (2001: 3).
That protesters do not operate as a homogenous mass was not apparent in news coverage of this or similar events. During the G8 Summit in Genoa in July 2001, for example, CNN used banner headlines such as ‘G8 summit braces for more violence’ (see endnote for full reference) and ‘Protesters, problems and positions at the G8 summit’ (again, see endnote). Interestingly, a CNN reporter responded to viewer complaints about distorted coverage of protests at the summit in an open email exchange. In this, he stated that ‘certainly the protesters come to raise legitimate points’ (see: ibid.) This exchange, however, appeared only online and so didn’t receive mass media coverage in our current understanding of the term. So the negative coverage of the actions of protesters reached a global audience, while the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the issues they sought to raise did not.
If, as many social movement analysts have argued, the sharing of information is an important feature of political participation, negative or stereotypical coverage of activist practices within a narrow interpretative framework may undermine the potential to engage the public in political networks. Such considerations lead Gamson to ask if mass media ‘provide a cultural tool for encouraging political engagement – to support and encourage the sense that by acting together grassroots constituencies can take actions that influence the policies and conditions that affect their daily lives?’ (2001: 59). Many activists would argue that whilst the mass media can provide a springboard for interest in an issue, more detailed information, offered outside of the existing narrow frameworks, is necessary to promote active political engagement.
Lee et al argue that ‘television networks and the elite press, despite their fierce competition, play different variations on the same ideological themes. They operate within the same institutional relationship to the power structures and share broadly similar ideological and cultural prisms’ (2001: 352). For Tarrow, as a consequence of this, ‘movements briefly, provisionally and often dramatically, “make news”; but they cannot make the media publish news the way they want it to be made’ (1994: 129). That said, mass media representations have not stopped people becoming involved in political protests. Indeed, large-scale rallies against global institutions have now become fairly commonplace, with the interest of at least some of the participants presumably generated by mass media coverage of the issues. The inability to find an appropriate space on the mass media landscape of politics has, though, been one of the factors that has led to the flourishing of independent media organizations seeking to represent voices which are not generally heard in the mainstream media. Many of these organizations – such as Squall, Indymedia and AlterNet– have chosen the Internet as their medium of choice for distribution. There are a variety of reasons for this, some of which are considered below.
Debates about whether the Internet really provides a new form of public sphere or if new political practices are emerging through its use have been widely covered by communications and political analysts in recent years. The potential of the Internet to influence patterns of political participation is now accepted by many, though the likelihood of this is sometimes hotly disputed. Without being technologically deterministic, though, it is possible to see that the Internet provides a mechanism through which non-elite political actors can find forms of representation not previously available to them. The rise in independent media is not unrelated to broader structural change, with the rise of civil society, growth in the number of NGOs and so on seen as part of the broader pattern of political change. Indeed, Bennett and Entmen suggest that ‘one of the hallmarks of the emerging culture, boosted no doubt by the profusion of communications channels, is the permeability of boundaries separating the political from the non-political and the private sphere from the public sphere.’ (2001: 2). Independent media has, in some senses, positioned itself at this nexus, where the public and private worlds of mass and interactive media intersect.
Independent media should not, thus, be seen as operating in direct opposition to existing media output or animated purely by a certain rage against the machine of elite dominance. Not all independent media operate to left-wing, anti-establishment agendas. Some do, but one of the virtues – and great potential dangers – of the Internet is the ability for any group with access to the technology to find their voice. In this respect, neo-nazis stand alongside anarchists, advertisers and CNN as information providers. Claims to ‘represent the unrepresented’ will always be met with a certain degree of scepticism, particularly in a global media environment. Who decides who is not being represented? How are decisions on appropriate forms of representation made? For Keck and Sikkink, it is the less powerful in society who are considered to need representation. For them, social networks – within which activist movements can be situated - seek to make the demands of the less powerful known in four ways: presenting issues in new ways (framing); seeking the most favourable arenas to fight their battles in; confounding expectations (disruption) and broadening the network’s scope and density to necessary information (mobilizing social networks) (1998: 218). The Internet offers at least a partial mechanism for fulfilling each of these objectives.
The Internet can offer new or alternative ways of framing issues and, whilst these pose no direct challenge to dominant representations, they provide information which would not otherwise be readily accessible to a general audience. As Gamson points out ‘activists may read a variety of movement publications and attend meetings and conferences where the issues that concern them are discussed. But they cannot assume that their constituency shares these other forums or is aware of this discourse. Only general-audience media provide a potentially shared public discourse’ (1995: 85). The Internet provides activists with a tool for reaching a general media audience for the first time. Although it is not truly mass media in the traditional sense of monological communication output, it has the potential to reach a mass audience. Jim Carey again: ‘if you … feel strongly about an issue but perhaps don’t have all the information, reading Squall should to tool you up (to act or debate)’. That is, independent media frequently cover the same issues as the mass media but do so in different ways, with different frames of reference. In this respect, the Internet offers an opportunity for what the mass media might consider specialist information to reach a more general audience.
The relatively low cost of establishing Internet sites has been an important factor in the growth of alternative media output. Distribution costs for hard copy publications – crippling for low budget operations – are drastically reduced by a shift to online production. So, while many ‘cut and paste’ publications still exist in activist circles, online publication provides a low cost, high return (in terms of potential readership) mechanism for reaching the widest possible audience. In addition, the Internet provides a ‘professionalised’ standard of output which low budget operations could not previously hope to match. Given advances in software and the lack of specific technical training now necessary to produce high-quality graphics, hyperlinks and so on (‘everyone’s a publisher on the net’, as the old/new adage goes), the websites of volunteer and/or low budget organizations are now often comparable to those of major media organizations. There is a paradox here, of course, in that to get their point across the anti-capitalist networks need to make use of software provided by some of the most aggressive capitalist organizations. For Carey, the need to act strategically and fight on the fronts which will produce the greatest effect is important. This reflects Keck and Sekkink’s claim that activists need to chose favourable arenas to operate in (1998: 218) and, though the activities of Microsoft and similar companies may be anathema to many, the desire to provide information and contribute to the mobilization of political actors supersedes the need to avoid making use of the facilities they can provide.
Few would argue with the claim that the mass media offers little room for non-conformist views. In addition, Mutz and Martin suggest that there are a number of indicators to suggest that our exposure to alternative political viewpoints is curtailed by both mass media constraints on such output and by our own changing living patterns. Thus we increasingly live in environments segregated from people with oppositional views and tend to select ‘politically like-minded discussion partners’ (2001: 98). This means, in essence, that many people are exposed to characteristically homogenised views of the political landscape, both in their reading and viewing habits and in their lifestyles.
Independent media can do little to alter this. It can, however, provide a counterbalance to what is often seen as the hegemony of large media corporations over news agendas. This is not to suggest that mass media coverage of political activism does not occur or that it is uniformly negative. Tarrow suggests that the mass media has become something of an external resource for social movements and does provide a mechanism for generating initial attention in activist agendas (see: 1994: 127). He also notes, though, that social movements have limited capacity to appropriate the media for their own purposes (ibid: 128); it is into this vacuum that the independent media now operating on the Internet have moved. If, as noted earlier, exposure to dissimilar political views is an important element of democratic growth, the Internet could be providing an important corrective to the dominant forms of media framing.
That mass and interactive audiences are now separate should not preclude investigation of the relative merits of Internet coverage of political events and, in particular, the representations of political actors not generally covered in mainstream media. Perhaps the last word on this matter should go to Indymedia through an extract from their FAQ page:
Q Should I believe news I read on Indymedia?
A Should you believe news you read on CNN.com? All reporters have their own biases; governments and massive for-profit corporations that own media entities have their own biases as well, and often impose their views on their reporters (or their reporters self-censor to conform their own biases to those of their employer). You should look at all reports you read on the Indymedia site with a critical eye, just as you should look at all media before you in a discerning manner. (http://process.indymedia.org/faq.php3)
While we may not believe what we read on Indymedia, we can be fairly sure that we wouldn’t receive a similar recommendation from CNN.
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 Jim Carey, content editor of Squall, has been very generous with his time in helping me to develop a picture of the role and function of independent news media, as he sees it. I am very grateful for his help with both this paper and the Squall history project.
 Interview, 07/03/02
 As note 4.