Conform or Reform?

Abstract: The mass media is an important outlet for social movements, where the quality and nature of media coverage strongly influences how they are perceived in the public eye. This paper examines the complex interface existing between the mass media and social movements, and considers what collective actions social movements may need to undertake, if they are to improve their media coverage in the future. The paper discusses the relationship between social movements (as outsiders) and the mass media in both a historical and contemporary context and argues that media reform is required to enable dissident voices to be democratically heard.

Keywords: Social Movements, Protest, Demonstration, Participatory Democracy, Global Justice, Reform.


The mass media is a vital resource for most political actors, and it may be even more important for social movements, whose transitional and adversarial nature weakens their ability to secure public legitimacy (Kielbowicz & Scherer, 1986; Gamson, 1995: 85). Their outsider status, along with their usual resource-poor nature, means that traditional avenues of publicity are not easily accessible and forces them to rely on alternative methods to obtain media access. Traditionally, this involves some form of public spectacle – like a protest – to attract media attention. These activities have become accepted as mechanisms by which social problems are communicated in the public sphere, alongside public opinion polls and elections (Herbst 1993) and they act as vital means by which citizens can signal their discontent.

One of the first detailed examinations of a social movement protest in the media (both press and television) focused on a mass demonstration held against the Vietnam war in Britain (Halloran et al., 1970). The demonstration involved approximately 60,000 protesters, most of who marched peacefully through the streets of London (with an insignificant number of protestors involved in violent actions). However, despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the march, the media concentrated most of its coverage on the issue of violence (Halloran et al., 1970: 237). Although Halloran et al., (1970: 301) noted that there were differences between media outlets in their coverage, they were all united by the overall focus on ‘the same limited aspect – the issue of violence.’ The misrepresentation of this massive political rally, and the totality of the negative coverage across all media outlets led the investigators to conclude that such reporting poses extreme problems for democracy, which may only be remedied by ‘some form of institutional rearrangement’ (Halloran et al., 1970: 318). These are serious charges, and the authors acknowledged that further studies needed to be carried out to determine how systemic these problems were. Since then, many researchers have followed up on this investigation, examining how various social movements interact with media systems. Drawing upon this body of work, this paper will analyse the importance of the role of the mass media for social movements. This will include a review of the literature and recommendations on how such groups may best address their relationships with the mass media. To begin with, a brief discussion of some of the external forces beside the media, which effect the development of social movements and their ensuing relations with the mass media, will be presented.

Foundations of Change

The inherent conflict between corporate driven capitalism and democracy has always caused ruling elites to have their work cut out dissipating the ebb and flow of popular dissent. This contradiction is best exemplified by Crozier et al.’s (1975) classic study, The Crisis of Democracy, which controversially diagnosed the need for ‘a greater degree of moderation in democracy.’ The first political theorist to accurately document this ‘management’ dilemma was Antonio Gramsci, who described how elites were able to successfully maintain hegemony over the masses through the use of consensual rather than coercive institutional arrangements. Theobald (2006: 26) notes that the ‘central importance’ of Gramsci’s view to radical mass media criticism is ‘that current bourgeois control of society, while certainly manifest in material modes of production, is culturally embedded and naturalised in the minds of the people via its hegemony over discourse.’

One vital but overlooked organ of hegemony, that Gramsci was unable to include in his work, are philanthropic foundations, whose rising influence on the contours of civil society only became visible some decades after Gramsci’s death (Roelofs, 2003; Faber & McCarthy, 2005). The hegemonic power of foundations, however, is arguably even greater than other hegemonic elements, like the mass media, precisely because their influence has been downplayed (or in many cases simply omitted) by academia. This is especially the case with liberal foundations, which have actively influenced progressive social change by directly co-opting organisations or channelling their activists towards less radical activities (Arnove, 1980; Fisher, 1983; Jenkins, 1998; Roelofs, 2003).

Historically, the work of philanthropic foundations has been most influential in the US, but now similar foundations operate all over the world, and with the resurgence of corporate social responsibility, corporations are also becoming prominent philanthropists. For example, during the 2000 election cycle in the US, ‘the corporate outlay on political philanthropy… was probably a minimum of $1-2 billion’ dwarfing combined PAC and soft money contributions (Sims 2003: 166-167). Some academics have begun to address the urgent task of proposing solutions to counteract the anti-democratic nature of such subtle yet pervasive social engineering (see Faber & McCarthy, 2005), because it is clear that manipulation of civil society (by foundations or governments) through selective support of non-governmental organisations raises questions that reach to the heart of all democracies. Furthermore, a growing body of work suggests that similar ‘democracy promoting’ practices now serve as an integral foreign policy tool to help ‘promote polyarchy’ (Dahl, 1971) over more substantive and participatory forms of democracy (Robinson, 1996: Barker, 2006a). Likewise, other research has begun to examine how selective support of ‘independent’ media organisations in geo-strategically important countries has helped facilitate revolutions (e.g., the coloured revolutions in Eastern Europe) to further the polyarchal interests of trans-national capitalism (Barker, 2006b; Barker, Submitted a). Referring to the Orange Revolution, Herman (2006) observed ‘that the civil society uprising in the Ukraine in 2004-2005, [which was] funded heavily by U.S. government agencies and friendly NGOs, was given much more lavish news treatment than domestic [US] protests, along with editorial support.’ Indeed, elite patronage – either by governments or philanthropic foundations – confers a degree of ‘legitimacy’ upon social activists, which in turn may be accompanied by more favourable media coverage. In the light of these findings, Robinson’s (1996) promoting polyarchy thesis predicts that individuals or groups vigorously challenging the status quo and/or trans-national capitalist elites would be most likely to be marginalised by the mass media.

Struggling for Praise
The hostile media playing field

For any social movement to draw beneficial attention to its activities in the mass media, the first barrier it must overcome is the structural constraints of the medium itself. According to Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) Propaganda Model, there are five filters through which all news must pass, that actively shape the media’s content. These are (1) the size, ownership and profit orientation of the media, (2) advertising, (3) sourcing, (4) flak (criticism) and (5) anti-communist ideology, which can be interpreted as keeping the discourse within the boundaries of elite interests. (For a critical review of the Propaganda Model see Klaehn 2002; and for a review of its significance to domestic and foreign policy making processes see Barker 2005). The fact that the Propaganda Model itself is marginalised from most media scholarship is consistent with the model’s predictions (Herring & Robinson, 2003). Yet there are still a small number of critical scholars who have been able to illustrate the applicability of the Propaganda Model to countries other than the US (where the model was first developed), e.g., in Australia (Linder 1994, 1998; Cryle & Hillier, 2005), Canada (Babe, 2005; Eglin, 2005; Klaehn, 2005; Winter & Klaehn, 2005), and the UK (Cromwell 2001, Chapter 3; Carvalho, 2005; Doherty, 2005; McKiggan, 2005; Edwards & Cromwell, 2006).

In this way, news values filter what appears in the media – and more importantly what doesn’t – not in any prescribed way, but more as a result of a sort of tacit professional consensus which usually acts to ‘reinforce conventional opinions and established authority’ (Seaton, 1997: 277). Meyer (2002: 30-31) suggests that news must also pass through another filter, which he calls ‘the rules of stage-managing’, which selects news based on its style of presentation and ability to attract an audience’s attention.

Most protestors are not the focus of regular news beats and so tend to rely on protest events to broadcast their news, however, most of these are ignored in the mainstream media (McCarthy et al., 1996a: 494). In addition, social movements have to contend with representative democracy, which leads governments to emphasise that dissent should take place in ballot boxes and not on the streets: a point of view endorsed by the mass media (McChesney, 1999). In spite of this, the mass media’s influence is not monolithic and some social movements and interest groups are able to maintain moderately useful media relations, publicising their activities in a predominantly positive light – something that will be discussed later in more detail. The overall inadequacy, or inequality, of coverage of protestors and social movements compared to other better placed insider groups has caused some authors to lament that the only way for social movements to obtain positive coverage is through the adoption of public relations techniques (Shoemaker, 1989: 215). This has led to the development of various media handbooks, which explore how social movements may better exploit the mass media (Monbiot, 2002). At this stage, it is worth considering that it is not only social movements that complain about adversarial media coverage. Both governments and corporations also convey the same general attitude (to the public at least), regarding their negative treatment by the mythical left wing media (Edwards & Cromwell, 2006). However, the big difference between insider groups and most social movements is that the former can mobilise huge political and financial resources to publicise their positive activities, and still spend fifty per cent or more of their public relations resources on pre

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