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The Interdependency of Mass Media and Social Movements

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Abstract

This chapter discusses the interaction between social movements and the mass media. It explains why and how this relationship can be seen as one of mutual dependency. Social movements need mass media attention to amplify their claims; the media attend to movements because they create newsworthy events. We take stock of the research that has been done and focus on various elements of this relationship. Following a classic political communication process approach, we first discuss the causes for media to devote attention to social movements and their events. Next, we focus on the content of this coverage and how it is analyzed by social movement scholars. Finally, we look at the various consequences of media coverage for social movements, in terms of mobilization, reaching political change and obtaining favorable public opinion. on media-politics dynamics, with a special interest in the role of non-institutional actors, such as social movements. Furthermore, he has an interest in methods for comparative research in political communication and the application of time series analysis in that area.
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The Interdependency of Mass Media and Social Movements
Rens Vliegenthart
Stefaan Walgrave
Abstract
This chapter discusses the interaction between social movements and the mass
media. It explains why and how this relationship can be seen as one of mutual
dependency. Social movements need mass media attention to amplify their claims;
the media attend to movements because they create newsworthy events. We take
stock of the research that has been done and focus on various elements of this
relationship. Following a classic political communication process approach, we first
discuss the causes for media to devote attention to social movements and their
events. Next, we focus on the content of this coverage and how it is analyzed by social
movement scholars. Finally, we look at the various consequences of media coverage
for social movements, in terms of mobilization, reaching political change and
obtaining favorable public opinion.
Authors’ bio
Rens Vliegenthart is assistant professor in political communication in the
department of Communication Science and at the Amsterdam School of
Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. His research focuses
on media-politics dynamics, with a special interest in the role of non-institutional
actors, such as social movements. Furthermore, he has an interest in methods for
comparative research in political communication and the application of time series
analysis in that area.
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Stefaan Walgrave is professor in political science at the University of Antwerp
(Belgium) and head of the Media, Movements, and Politics research group (M²P).
His research focuses mainly on media and politics and on social movements and
political protest. In political communication, his main research is political agenda-
setting by the mass media. Regarding social movements and protest, his research
tackles the determinants and features of protest participation by individuals.
Introduction
This chapter provides an overview of the large literature on social movements
and the mass media. While mass media are of course an important player all kinds of
other communication channels especially new media and the internet are
relevant for social movements as well. They are discussed in other chapters in this
handbook (cfr. chapters Bennett and Bimber). There is a large amount of theoretical
and empirical work on the relationship and interaction between social movements
and the mass media. Remarkably enough, one does not find many of those
publications in the journals and book volumes scholars interested in political
communication turn to. Research about social movements is mainly generated by
sociologists and much of the research on movements and media is found in
sociological journals and books. Maybe as a consequence, there is little knowledge in
the field of political communication about the relevant work movement scholars
conduct, apart from maybe some of the work by people such as Bill Gamson and
Todd Gitlin. The lack of integration of both fields is especially striking, since a lot of
the questions that are addressed in the specialized social movement literature are
very similar. Movement scholars are interested in media selection processes to
understand when, why and how social movements and their protest events make it
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into the news. They conduct large-scale content analyses to map and describe the
coverage of movements, their issues and their actions. And increasingly, they look at
movement outcomes and investigate how media content might affect their successes
in terms of mobilization and the achievement of political goals. At least partly,
students of social movements use a similar terminology as political communication
scholars. For example, framing is one of the key concepts in the research relating to
movements and their communication techniques. It has the same roots as framing in
political communication and it is used by social movements scholars in ways that are
comparable to its use in political communication.
The main difference between the two realms is that the object of study differs.
While political communication scholars are mostly interested in the institutional,
organized and ‘routine’ side of politics and their focus is on political parties,
politicians and elections, movement scholars focus on the non-institutional, the non-
organized and contentious side of politics. This has important implications in terms
of the power balance between the media and the political actors that are studied.
Because of the fact that politicians have a clear institutional power basedue to
representation in parliament, participation in government and other democratic
institutionsthey almost automatically carry a certain relevance for journalists. In
contrast, social movements, almost by definition, do not have an institutional power
base and, consequently, have to struggle harder for attention for their events, issues
and claims. They have to demonstratein different waysby staging events,
mobilizing publics and public opinion or by making valid claimsthat they are
newsworthy. We will show that social movements have less access to the mass media
than institutional political actors but that they, at the same time, are more dependent
on the mass media to get their message across. Despite this important difference
between the political communication of social movements and of, for example,
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political parties, we believe that research into the interaction between movements
and media is highly relevant for political communication in general; many of the
dynamics described in this chapter have their equivalents in the research into
relations between media and institutional political actors.
We begin by discussing the relation between movements and media and why
this relationship can be seen as one of mutual dependency. After that, we look into
detail to the research that has been done on various elements of this relationship. We
adopt a classic political communication process approach and discuss causes of
media coverage of social movements and the protest they stage, the content of media
coverage of movements/protest, and the various consequences of media coverage for
social movements/protest.
Why social movements need mass media (and vice versa)
One of the first scholars to analyze the importance of the mass media for social
movements was Todd Gitlin. In his seminal book ‘The Whole World is Watching’
(1980), he describes the interaction between mass media and the U.S. New Left
movement in the sixties. Gitlin documents how the media and their framing of the
movement initially helped it to gain broader support. However, the requirements for
movement events to have characteristics that make them newsworthy such as
drama, conflict and personalization made the movements’ main leaders
increasingly focus on media strategies. Intensive coverage of internal struggles and
anomalies within the movement ultimately resulted in erosion of its public support.
Gitlin’s study clearly demonstrates the problematic nature of the relationship
between movements and media: on the one hand, movements need media more than
other political actors to mobilize potential supporters, gain public support for their
claims and, ultimately, political change (‘send my message’). On the other hand, mass
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media need movements since they stage newsworthy events, they ‘make news’ (‘make
my news’). But the interests of movement actors and journalists most often do not
coincide. As movements are interested in getting their message out their aim is to
direct the media’s (and the public’s) attention to an issue, journalists often do not
focus on the problem or issue the movement is signaling, but rather consider other
things newsworthy. They are, for example, more interested in covering the violent
characteristics of contentious confrontations, the internal conflicts in the movement,
or personal details about movement leaders. In many ways, the interaction between
movements and media resemble that between politicians and journalists.
However, due to the non-institutional position of social movements the
relationship between movements and the media is inherently more asymmetrical
than the interaction between politicians and the media. News media prefer to rely on
sources with a political power basethese sources provide the ‘official’ storyand
will usually take these political elite views as the starting point of their coverage
(Gamson 1992; Gamson et al. 1992; Gamson & Modigliani 1989; Gans 1980; Bennett
1990). Movements have to fight to get attention and when they get covered, it is far
from certain that the news takes over their frame or interpretation of the issue (Smith
et al. 2001). While the movements’ position vis-à-vis the media is disadvantageous
and getting favorable coverage is in many instances an uphill struggle, it is of crucial
importance. Compared to political parties movements very often have a weak
membership base and little other communication means though it can be argued
that the latter has changed due to the rise of new media and the internet (see chapter
Bimber). Hence, in order to target their audiences movements need the mass media
more than any other political actor. Moreover, the only real means of influencing
policies most social movements have apart from those movements that have
become political ‘insiders’ or that have the power to disrupt social and political life
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is playing on public opinion. Movements essentially mobilize the public, or at least
their constituents, to show to the power holders that large numbers of people do not
agree and want change (or no change). Without public support social movements are
powerless and their actions toothless. It is, amongst other means, via the mass media
that movements can reach out to both potential protest participants and to the public
at large (Gamson 2004). Institutional political actors such as political parties do not
need the media so much as they can enact policies even without public support.
Some even argue that the entire interaction between social movements and
political authorities takes place not as real-life encounters, but rather through claims
made in the mass media. Rather than in real-life encounters, social movements
interact with the authorities via the media: authorities learn about the movements
and their protest via the media while the movements learn about political
opportunities through media coverage of the actions (or absence thereof) of targeted
political elites (Koopmans 2004).
Since media coverage is so crucial for social movements, students of social
movements have studied quite extensively what strategies movements employ to get
into the media. Dieter Rucht, for example, describes the media strategies of social
movements since the 1960s and distinguishes four different strategies: abstention (no
attempts to get in the media), attack (critique on mass media), adaptation
(exploitation of mass media rules), and alternatives (create own movement media)
(Rucht 2004). This chapter mainly deals with adaptation strategies, which can be
argued to be for many movements the most important ones.
The extensive literature on movements and the media documents that
movement scholars deal with very similar questions as political communication
scholars dealing with parties, parliaments and governments do. First, they focus on
the direct movement-media interaction and look at the strategies movements and
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their leaders use to obtain media coverage and get into the news. Second, they look at
the content of movements’ claims and especially of the protest events they stage and
how these are covered in the mass media. And third, they look at the possible
consequences of media coverage on support for the movement (mobilization), on
politicians and policy makers, and on public opinion (Gamson & Wolfsfeld 1993).
Getting into the news
Scholars in political communication need little introduction in the
mechanisms that determine why certain events/actors get coverage while others do
not. News values, the gatekeeping function of the mass media, and fierce competition
over the limited available space in the media (Hilgartner & Bosk 1988) are a daily
reality for social movements. Every day, hundreds of messages are send by all kind of
movements in the hope that they will be picked up by journalists and editors
(Koopmans 2004). What then, determines the successful penetration of movement
messages in the media?
One of the most often employed tools for movements is the organization of
protest activities. Considerable research has dealt with determining the
characteristics of protest events that result in media coverage. Studies have focused
on the possible selection bias of media coverage of protest events looking at the
question what determines whether or not an issue makes it into the newsand on
the potential description biaswhat information about the event is (erroneously)
reported.
Research into selection bias has identified four factors that explain why some
events are covered and others not (Earl et al. 2004; Oliver & Maney 2000). These
factors are event characteristics, news agency characteristics, issue characteristics,
and time characteristics. Regarding the first, scholars find that events that are staged
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in proximity of a news outlet’s main office are likely to receive more attention in that
outlet (McCarthy et al. 1996; Mueller 1997). Furthermore, also the size of the event is
of importance: higher protest turnout results in more coverage (Oliver & Myers
1999). Additionally, intensity, violence, the presence of police, counter-
demonstrations and the social movement organization that organizes the event are all
factors that affect the quantity of coverage (Myers & Caniglia 2004; Barranco &
Wisler 1999; Oliver & Maney 2000). Second, news agency characteristics, such as
news routines in both the production process (Gamson 1992) and among reporters
(Oliver & Myers 1999) affect the likelihood that the event is covered. For example,
events that are planned in such a way that journalists can write about it before the
newspaper’s daily deadline, that are not staged simultaneously with other events and
that are communicated well in advance to journalists are more likely to receive
coverage (Ryan 1991; Oliver & Myers 1999). Third, issue type matters: events on
issues that receive more media attention in general and are higher on the issue
attention cycle (Downs 1972) are more likely to be covered (McCarthy et al. 1996).
Also events that deal with issues that are simultaneously discussed by politicians and
legislators are more likely to be covered (Oliver & Maney 2000). Rucht and Verhulst
(2010), for example, show that the anti-war protests in 2003 were comparatively
more covered in countries in which the government officially opposed war (German
and Belgium) compared to countries where the government supported war (UK, US,
Spain, Italy). Finally, time matters as well: the day on which the event is staged
affects the likelihood of coverage: monday events are more likely to be covered
(Oliver & Maney 2000; Myers & Caniglia 2004) and, in the US, protest is less likely to
be covered when the legislator is in session (Oliver & Maney 2000).
Description bias received way less scholarly attention than selection bias.
Smith and colleagues (2001) established that media outlets make quite some
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mistakes in reporting about the ‘hard’ facts of demonstrations though newspapers
are more accurate than television broadcasts and focus mainly on the disruptive
strategies movements use instead of on their claims.
Remarkably, many students of social movements see the selection and
description bias not as phenomena that have to be studied in their own right but
rather as data problems. Instead of taking the variation in coverage as an starting
point to theorize about the relationships between protest and mass media, the main
question that drives most investigations is how useful media data, especially
newspaper data, are to serve as an 'objective' measure for the occurrence and
characteristics of protest events (see among others the discussions in Earl et al. 2004;
McCarthy et al. 2008; Ortiz et al. 2005; Strawn 2008). Large scale content analyses,
mainly of newspaper coverage, are regularly carried out (early examples include
Tarrow 1989; Tilly 1978; more recent ones are Rucht et al. 1999; Rucht & Verhulst
2010; Soule & Earl 2005). Methodological discussions relating to protest events
analysis resolve around the earlier mentioned selection and description bias, as well
as sampling of newspapers and days to get a representative picture of movement
activity (Koopmans & Rucht 2002). The resulting data on protest have been used in
many groundbreaking studies, especially those that focus on political opportunity
structures, one of the classical theories in the study of social movements (some of the
most well-known examples include Kriesi et al. 1995; McAdam 1982). The result of
this predominant focus on media as source of information on protest events is fairly
little theorizing about the mechanisms that affect the biased selection and description
of protest events. Noteworthy exceptions in this respect are the studies of Oliver and
Maney (2000) and Oliver and Myers (1999), who relate their findings to existing
theories with regard to news holes, journalistic practices and selection mechanisms
referring elaborately to the journalism and political communication literature.
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Only a few studies look beyond the coverage of protest events and discuss the
coverage of social movement organizations and their issues. An interesting example
is the study by Amenta and colleagues (2009) who content analyzed a century of New
York Times coverage of U.S. social movements and try to explain why social
movement organizations receive attention. The authors find that disruptive strategies
and resource mobilization contribute to frequent appearance. Also when there have
been recent policy changes that favor a social movement’s constituency, the result is
more media attention for the movement.
In sum, many of the findings relating to the question when movements and
their activities receive media coverage are entirely in line with theories that discuss
the gatekeeping function of journalists, news values and news routines. Movements
and their events have a hard time getting passed the news gates (many events do not
get any coverage at all), they need to score high on the news values to get coverage
(e.g. disruptiveness, numbers, violence…), and they need to tap into the news
routines of the news makers (e.g. easy access, close to media headquarter, announced
beforehand…) to increase the chance of being covered. These rules of the 'media
game' are clearly important for social movements, probably even more so than for
political actors with an institutional power base and with better access to the public.
Additionally, movements' opportunities to get into the media are often constrained
and sometimes facilitated by the external political and institutional context in which
the movement operates. Even when a movement follows the exact ‘recipe’ to get
media coverage by staging a ‘mediagenic’ event, external political circumstances still
affects its chances of being successful (e.g. political attention cycle, legislator in
session, counter-mobilization…). Hence, movements must not only take into account
the rules of the media game as such, but also the larger political context and the
potential reactions of adversaries.
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Social movements in the news
Fewer studies than the ones tackling movements’ access to the mass media
focus on how social movements, their protests and the issues they put forward are
covered in the mass media. In general, ideas and research regarding framing are well
established in this area. Students rely considerably on to the earlier mentioned work
by Gitlin (1980) and Gamson (1992), as well as on David Snow and Robert Benford,
whose work on framing tasks (Snow & Benford 1988) and frame alignment (Snow et
al. 1986) has been very influential. Their itemization of frames in a diagnostic (what
is the problem and who is responsible?), prognostic (what is the solution and who
needs to take care of it?) and motivational (a call for collective action) aspect has been
widely considered as a useful starting point to analyze media coverage (for example
Rohlinger 2002; Rohlinger 2006; Snow et al. 2007).
When investigating media framing of social movements and their issues,
studies have looked at strategies employed by movements to receive coverage in line
with their frames and at the political context that contributes to this. Rohlinger
(2002), for example, looks at several pro-life and pro-choice organizations in the U.S.
abortion debate. She finds that media strategies of movement organization, such as
the use of frames that resonate with wider societal debates, as well as establishing an
organizational structure that fosters an efficient interaction with journalists,
contribute to media framing that is in line with the framing of the organization.
Furthermore, she finds that movement organizations adjust their media strategies
depending upon the political context: in a favorable political context where access to
the political elite exists, organizations choose deliberately to stay silent in order not to
start any public discussions and thus maximize political gains. In less favorable times
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when they are denied access to politics, organizations seek the media and choose to
work with allies (Rohlinger 2006).
Another example of a study looking into the impact of social movements on
media’s issue framing is the research by Terkildsen and colleagues (1998). Based on a
content analysis of, again, the abortion debate coverage in the major US media
outlets during the 1960s and 1970s, they show that media coverage often takes over
frames that had been initiated by the pro- and anti-abortion groups; most media
frames could be traced back to at least one interest group within the larger pro- or
anti-abortion movement. The authors claim that the media may sometimes ‘invent’
frames but that most of the time the terms of the debate are set by organizations that
strategically produce issue frames. The study, however, also stresses the autonomous
role of the media by selectively and repetitively opening its gates for specific groups.
Also, as the conflict and the issue matures, the media start playing a gradually more
active role and are more reluctant to embrace movement frames.
An example of work that addresses a similar question, but focuses specifically
at protest events is the study of Smith and colleagues on the coverage of protest
events in Washington DC in 1982 and 1991. They conclude that when movements get
attention because of their protest events “… the reports represent the protest events
in ways that neutralize or even undermine social movement agendas” (Smith et al.
2001: 1398). Smith c.s. find that protest event coverage tends to focus on the drama
of the event and the details of the event itself (e.g. violence, arrests…) and movements
seem to fail to draw attention to the issue they mobilize for. In political
communication terms: mass media tend to frame protest ‘episodically’ while
movements’ aims would be most served by a ‘thematic’ framing (Iyengar & Kinder
1987). This work supports earlier work by McLeod and Hertog (1992) that shows that
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protest is often subtly described by reporters as being deviant highlighting the devide
between protesters and the public.
In contrast, Rucht and Verhulst’s (2010)case study of how the demonstrations
against the war on Iraq on February 15 2003 were covered in 8 countries points out
that movements do not always have to complain about the media coverage they get.
They write: “The February 15 demonstrations received a newspaper coverage of
which most organizers only can dream of: protests were said not only to be the largest
ever seen, but in addition, attracted ordinary people from all parts of the country and
all layers of society”. The newspapers gave ample of attention to the slogans, claims
and frames of the protesters and highlighted their arguments against war on Iraq.
In line with the earlier mentioned study of Gitlin, Liesbet van Zoonen's (1992)
study of the relation between the Dutch women movement and the media
demonstrates that news media tend to exaggerate differences and conflicts within the
movement and focus on the feminist side of the movement, which does not work in
its advantage. However, she argues that even in a situation where the dominant
media frame differs considerable from the movement frame, social movements have
opportunities to express their ideas and opinions in the mass media.
Other authors have made similar arguments that, even when media framing
may not be directly supportive for the movement, getting in the news creates in any
case occasions to express a movement’s views and fosters responses by other political
actors. Theoretically and methodologically, this idea has been elaborated by
Koopmans and Statham (1999) who developed a method of media content analysis,
which they labeled 'political claims analysis', examining the claims that social
movements and other political actors make through violent acts, protest, public
statements etc. In later work, Koopmans (2004) theoretically develops the idea of
'discursive opportunities' for groups that put forward claims and challenge political
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elites. Through these discursive opportunitiesessentially windows of increased
media coverage for movements, their issues and claims movements get access to
the news. Such a temporary opening of the media gates is related to the legitimacy of
the movement’s claim (the extent to which other actors respond supportive to the
message) and its resonance (the number of responses of other actors).
The study of media coverage of social movements resembles in many ways the
classic political communication studies of, for example, election campaign coverage.
There is an interest in visibility of actors and their issues and in the frames they
manage (or not) to get across in the media. The available research emphasizes the
role of movements’ own activities in getting the message across (agency), as well as
the political context (structure) that influences the way movements and their issues
are presented in the news. Movements can be successful in gaining favorable
coverage, they can generate frames of the contentious issue that are picked up in the
media, but the media do tend to be tough to convince as journalists are often more
interested in the personal and conflictual peculiarities of the movement than in its
message. Movements must take advantage of discursive opportunities that are not in
their own hands but depend on the way other actors react to their claims generating a
temporary cycle of news attention.
Consequences of news
Following the influential article by Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993),
consequences of media coverage of social movements and protest can be roughly
classified in three categories. First, media can have an impact on the direct
sympathizers and exert an influence on a wide variety of actual forms of participation
of these peopleranging from joining protest activities to making financial
donations. This can be labeled the mobilizing function of the mass media. Second,
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media coverage legitimizes the existence of the movement and its claims, making it a
relevant actor for those holding political power. In that way, media coverage is a
requirement for movements to affect politicians, policy makers, and the political
agenda and decision-making processes. Gamson and Wolfsfeld label this the
validation function of the media. The third purpose for which movements need
media coverage is scope enlargement. If the movement is successful in getting its
claims and demands in the media, it draws attention to the conflict from actors that
were not previously involved and can function as an ally. The main relevant actor
might well be the general public (Gamson 2004). A favorable opinion from an
involved public is one of the key legitimizing sources for the movements’ claims and a
powerful tool to exert political influence. In this section, we will consecutively deal
with mass media’s role in movements’ mobilization, with how mass media can be
instrumental for movements to help them reach their political goals, and with how
mass media coverage can create a favorable public opinion towards movements
and/or their issues.
Mass media and mobilization
The mobilizing function mass media have has been demonstrated in several
studies, looking at a wide range of coverage characteristics and protest activities. In
their study of the spread of anti-immigrant violence in Germany, Koopmans and
Olzak (2004) demonstrate that the previously mentioned discursive opportunity
structure matters: visibility of claims by radical-right actors and anti-immigrant
claims by other actors foster violent behavior against asylum seekers and other
immigrants, while anti-radical right statements decrease the occurrence of violent
events. In a similar vein, Vliegenthart and colleagues (2005) demonstrate that the
visibility of Dutch environmental organizations in newspapers contribute to increases
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in their membership figures. Smith (1999) found that more than one fourth of the
members of Friends of the Earth became member after viewing media coverage of
this environmental movement organization.
Several recent studies have conceptualized the mobilizing role of media within
a diffusion framework (Soule 2004): by considering the mass media an indirect tie
between sender and receiver, the coverage of (successes of) certain protest tactics
might result in an adoption of those tactics by groups elsewhere, which is called a
diffusion process. Myers (2000), for example, focuses on the distribution of media
outlets across U.S. cities in the period 1964-'71. He demonstrates that riots that take
place in cities that have their own network affiliated television station are more likely
to diffuse than riots that take place in cities that do not have such a television
channel. Very similarly but in a different context, Braun and Vliegenthart (2009)
show that media attention for fan violence in the four weeks preceding a soccer match
in the Dutch competition increases the chance that fan sides will get involved in
collective violent behavior (see also Braun & Vliegenthart 2008). Andrews and Biggs
(2006), finally, focus on the spread of the 'sit-in' as a protest tactic among the U.S.
equal rights movement in the sixties. Using circulation figures of newspapers, they
demonstrate that also in this case, media can be considered as an important
transmitter of information about protest events taking place at different locations.
Another perspective on the potential mobilizing role of the mass media focuses
on the idea of ‘collective identity’ and how mass media may contribute to establishing
such an identity. In fact, social movement scholars agree that for people to take action
together they must have a kind of ‘we’-feeling, a distinct feeling of belonging together
(often opposed to a ‘them’). Such a collective identity can be constructed. Studies
have investigated to what extent and how mass media coverage may contribute to
creating such a ‘collective identity frame’ (Gamson 1995). An example of such a study
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is the work by Roscigno and Danaher (2001) who investigated the textile workers’
insurgency in the South of the US in 1929-1934. Internet nor television existing, and
with hardly any organizations in the form of unions, the textile workers collective
identity that led to strikes was co-produced by the advent of local radio stations that
played songs about working in the textile mills featuring textile workers.
Also when it comes to investigating the mobilizing role of media coverage,
scholars of social movements have relied on the framing theory. The theoretical
argument has been made by Gamson (1995) who states that all three ‘collective action
frames’ sets of beliefs that inspire and nurture collective action are strongly
affected by media coverage. Media coverage can nurture the feeling of injustice and
fuel the preparedness of taking action by, for example, dramatizing and personalizing
responsibility for the grievance. Media can spur the feeling of agency by, sometimes,
depicting citizens that can alter the conditions and terms of their daily lives. Media
can contribute to feelings of collective identity by describing the aggrieved groups as
unitary and by defining clear adversaries.
Cooper (2002) investigated peace protest in Germany and compared several
waves of peace protest. She finds that the size of these protest waves is associated
with the interpretative frames of the issue in the German media: when mass media
and movements concur in their framing of the (peace) issue, mobilization is
facilitated and the protest wave is larger. But media framing can not only contribute
but also thwart a movement’s mobilization efforts. Entman and Rojecki (1993)
investigated the media framing of the US anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s. They
show that the New York Times and Time Magazine provided unfavorable coverage of
the nuclear freeze movement (focusing on the emotionality of its appeals, the absence
of expertise, the non-political nature of its demands, the impotency of its actions, the
disunity in the movement etc.). As a consequence, although supported by the
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majority of citizens, mobilization remained limited. What the media did according to
Entman & Rojecki, was not eroding the support for the issue of the movement
support remained fairly stable over time but rather discouraging people from
participating in the movement by creating the impression that they adhered to a
minority point of view and that their potential efforts would be in vain.
Most studies deal with how mass media, through their ‘normal’ and non-
partisan coverage, unintentiously contribute to the turnout social movements can
realize. Increased mobilization is considered as a side-product of routine coverage.
Yet, sometimes, under specific circumstances, mass media seem to willingly mobilize
in support of a (weakly organized) movement. Walgrave and Manssens (2005)
analyze the case of the White March in Belgium, the biggest collective action event
ever happening in that country, and show how the newspapers not only amplified the
triggering events that sparked the mobilization (child kidnappings and murders) but
that they also, and apparently deliberately, mobilized people to participate in the
march. They referred extensively to the White March as a ‘solution’ to their anger,
they stressed that there would be no violence, they printed posters that announced
the march and they stated beforehand that the march would be a big success.
Arguably, such an active mobilizing role of the media is exceptional and remains
confined to instances where there are no strong movement organizations that can
mobilize themselves, where there is no countermovement, and where the issue is a
valence issue. These circumstances are not that exceptional, however. Research on
the Million Mom March in the US, the marches of the Movement Against Senseless
Violence in the Netherlands, and the Anti-Gun movement in the UK all
mobilizations in reaction to random violence has lead to similar observations of
active media mobilization (Walgrave & Verhulst 2006).
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Although the media do most of the time not act as directly mobilizing agencies,
they are often indirectly instrumental in spreading the information that a protest
event is planned. Mobilization is often described as the link between supply and
demand of protest. Aggrieved people search for a way to let their voices be heard
(demand), movement organizations stage protest events (supply) (Klandermans
2004). Bringing demand and supply together requires communication and
information. Depending on the context, many potential participants receive the
mobilizing word via the mass media. Several studies based on protest surveys, direct
surveys with people demonstrating, have shown that many of the participants got
informed about the upcoming event via the mass media (Walgrave & Klandermans
2010; Walgrave & Verhulst 2009).
Mass media and political elites
Mass media coverage may not only be advantageous (or disadvantageous) for
mobilization but it may also have a direct impact on political elites and on how they
respond to the protest. In terms of political elites’ direct reaction to the protest itself,
Giugni and Wisier (1999) examined protest policing and media coverage of protest
events in Switzerland. Their results suggest that mass media coverage works against
repression. When protest gets a lot of media attentionit is 'under the spotlights'
authorities are less willing to resort to repression against the events as violence may
create adversarial attitudes among the population (and further reinforce the
movement’s support).
In a broader perspective, these results can be connected to a larger theme in
the social movements literature regarding the action repertoire of social movements.
Especially the work by Charles Tilly has proved to be very influential in this regard. In
one of his last books Tilly (2006) elaborates the notion of so-called ‘WUNC’-displays.
20
WUNC is an acronym referring to the typical traits of collective action by social
movements: collective action should display ‘Worthiness’, ‘Unity’, ‘Numbers’, and
‘Commitment’. Implicitly, Tilly suggests that the more ‘WUNC’ a collective action is,
the more it will impress the power holders and the larger the chance that it will result
in political change (or in preserving the status quo). It is clear that political elites,
most of the time, do not directly observe collective action; but learn about it primarily
via mass media coverage. This implies that the more a collective action event is
described by journalists as consisting of many worthy, united and committed
participants, the more the event will impress power holders and the larger the chance
that they will act accordingly. In this sense, the picture sketched by the mass media of
the protest has potentially large effects for their effectiveness. It is no coincidence,
then, that movement spokespersons, journalists and police, after an event, often
engage in verbal battles about the numbers of people that showed up (McPhail &
McCarthy 2004).
There are few studies that try to measure directly to what extent media
coverage of movements, their issues and their protest events affect political elites and
the policies they enact. An exception is a recent study by Walgrave and Vliegenthart
(2009) who show that mass media act as an intermediary actor. In a study in Belgium
1993-2000, they assess the agenda-setting power of protest: when people
demonstrate, does the issue they turn to the streets for receive more attention in
parliament and government in the subsequent period? Their results support the idea
that media coverage matters for protest effectiveness. Protest has a direct effect on
the political agenda but the media largely act as an intermediary: protest is often
picked up by the media leading to an increase of attention to the issue; this, in turn,
leads to substantial effects on the parliamentary and governmental agendas. Earlier
work by Costain and Majstorovic (1994) pointed in a similar direction. They argue
21
that the movement’s rights movement legislative successes were the consequence of a
congruent effect of movement activities and media coverage (and public opinion).
Mass media and Public opinion
Can social movements, via the mass media, impact public opinion? Many
studies in the broad realm of political communication have claimed that media
frames have an effect on the audience and may change what people think about
particular issues (Scheufele & Tewksbury 2007). The same most likely applies to the
frames social movements want to communicate to the public. When movements
manage to get their frames in the news, it is likely that (parts of) the public will
develop attitudes that are favorable to the movement’s issue. In a previous section,
we showed that movements sometimes are successful and can inject new ideas and
frames into the public debate and the media. So, one can assume that movements
may sometimes reach and affect the public via the media. But studies directly
investigating this triadic relationship are rare.
An exception is a study by Terkildsen and Schnell (1997). They examined how
mass media outlets in the US from the 1960s onwards framed the feminist struggle.
The five frames they discerned in real media coverage where then embedded in an
experiment to see whether these ‘real’ frames had an impact on the public. They
found that these frames indeed had a substantial impact on the subjects. Most frames
generated a significant negative or positive impact on the saliency and direction of
subjects’ attitudes regarding women’s rights. The study thus shows that when
movements’ issues are framed in a certain way in the media, that this framing affects
public opinion in favor or against the movement.
Specifically related to protest coverage McLeod (1995) found that how protest
is covered affects how people perceive protest. Experimental subjects were shown two
22
slightly different TV stories of the same protest event. These differences in framing
and focus of coverage led to significant differences in subjects’ perceptions of the
protesters and their legitimacy. In a follow-up study McLeod and Detenber (1999) set
up a similar experiment on news coverage of anarchist protests. They suggest that
differences in coverage not only lead to differences in identification with the
protesters, but more generally to more/less support for the right of people to protest
and to different levels of support for the issue at stake. In short, framing of protest in
the media leads to more or less support for the status quo.
From a much more general perspective, Gamson (1995) has convincingly
argued that movements need mass media discourse in order to be able to connect
with public opinion. Gamson not only states that movements can reach the audience
via the mass media but that a shared understanding created by the media is a
precondition to reach, via the media or not via the media, the audience. Media
coverage, not specifically on social movements but in general, creates a kind of
common understanding and knowledge that can be used by social movements to
mobilize. Media provide the common background and make sure the public and
movements speak the same language and refer to the same events. In short, social
movements draw on available media discourse to create ‘collective action frames’ that
are a necessary precondition to turn parts of the public into participants.
Wrapping up the section on the consequences of media coverage for social
movements, we can state that research is well developed especially when it comes to
mobilization. Ample research has convincingly shown that media coverage has a
positive effect on mobilization for protest and recruitment in movement
organizations. The mechanisms are diverse and range from diffusion processes over
information dissemination to direct and deliberate mobilization by the media. Far
fewer studies have investigated the direct effects of movement or protest coverage on
23
political elites and their policies. The available studies suggest that media coverage
also affects the political outcomes of social movements: media act as an intermediary
conveying the protest to political elites who perceive movements only in their
mediatized form. Finally, a few experimental studies established that the way protests
are covered in the news has considerable effects on the perception of the staging
movement, on its legitimacy and on the support for the movement’s issue.
Conclusion
We set this chapter off by contending that mass media are of crucial
importance for social movements. Even more than any other political actor,
movements are highly dependent on media coverage to reach their constituency, to
turn bystanders into potential participants and to convey their message to the protest
targets. After reviewing the research literature, it is obvious that our initial claim is
warranted by the facts; media are key for movements. One could even state that it is
difficult to imagine that social movements would exist without the mass media (we
would in any case not be aware of their existence).
A second observation is that social movement scholars are dealing extensively
with the mass media. The research field is vast and quickly expanding. We could only
review a part of this exhaustive literature here. The largest stream in the movements
and media literature, deals with mass media as a source of information about
movements and their events. Apart from that, by far most work has been focusing on
how and under what circumstances social movements get access to the news. We
know quite well why some movements get coverage while the public remains
oblivious concerning others. That work is entirely in line with mainstream
communication research on news values and news routines. Another substantial body
of studies examines the effects of media coverage on mobilization. Some fields of
24
research have developed to a much lesser extent. Concurring with the relatively poor
performance of social movement scholarship when it comes to assessing the political
impact social movements have, we know relatively little whether and how coverage of
social movements affects their political outcomes. We have every reason to expect
that media are an important interface relaying protest with political elites but we
hardly have studies that scrutinize this relationship empirically. This probably is
where movement and media studies can still make most progress.
Finally, the most remarkable conclusion is the ‘splendid isolation’ of students
of social movements dealing with media on the one hand and the mainstream
political communication scholarship on the other. Both communities deal with
largely similar questions how do political actors get into news, how are they
covered, and with what effect? they do so relying on similar theoretical approaches
framing, gatekeeping, diffusion… and they even draw on identical methods
content analyses, case studies, experimental designs… but they do not seem to be
really on speaking terms. We hope this chapter increases the awareness among
students of political communication that there is an entire community of like-minded
scholars tackling very similar questions that may be worthwhile to turn to.
Key terms for indexing
Social movements, protest, framing, mass media, coverage, diffusion,
mobilization, protest events, agenda-setting, gatekeeping, news selection, description
bias, media access, media power, issues, political elites, public opinion, news values,
news routines, protest event analysis, discursive opportunity structure, experimental
research, collective identity, repression.
25
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