Brockport Sociology

Sarah Sobieraj—How and Why Social Movements (Fail to) Gain Media Attention

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By Thalia Nunez
Thalia Nunez is a freshman intending to
double major in Education and Sociology.

On October 24, 2013 Dr. Sarah Sobieraj came to The College of Brockport to speak about her book, Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism (2011).  Dr. Denise Copelton worked with the American Democracy Project at Brockport to organize the visit.  Dr. Sobieraj started out her exciting talk by sharing a story of a protest she witnessed in Philadelphia that seemed incredibly massive.  Protestors successfully gridlocked the city for a couple of hours, people were dragged to police wagons passively letting their bodies hang slack, they locked hands inside of PVC pipes to make their human chain more difficult to disassemble.  She was awestruck.  Later, she was even more surprised to find that this massive event failed to gain media attention.  This sparked her interest in how activists’ voices get heard, particularly by the mainstream news media.

To study this interesting issue, Dr. Sobieraj worked with 50 different activist groups, covering an incredible range of political issues (anti-war, education, abortion, immigration, environmentalism, etc.) and across the political spectrum. The main focus of Dr. Sobieraj’s research was a consideration of how activists endeavored to get their message to the public (via news media outlets) and how journalists made sense of activists’ attempts to do just this.  The groups that Sobieraj studied received little coverage from the press. When the activists were mentioned in the media, their cause was given little attention. The media often trivialized their cause by focusing on fringe members or not giving the cause prime billing.

In Dr. Bridges’ Introduction to Sociology (SOC100) course, we learned about different theories of “collective action.”  Sociologists are interested in how groups of people come to act collectively with a common cause and offer more than one explanation for how and why this occurs. Once groups are able to act collectively, Sobieraj asks, “What happens next?”  There’s more than one way to talk about how social movements can and do affect social change, but, gaining media attention is a critical step in the process. Sobieraj’s research illustrates that this is a far more complicated process than we might initially suspect.

Sobieraj found that journalists do not always consider protestors worthy of media attention.  Most of the movements she studied were acutely aware that if they did achieve media attention, they were likely to only get a short excerpt from what they said on camera (a “sound bite”).  Sensitive to this, the movements Sobieraj studied practiced and polished the statements they wanted to share with the media to try to distill their message in as clear and succinct a way as possible (to guard against misrepresentation, among other things).  But, Sobieraj found that when journalists interacted with these polished performances of protest, they did not interpret the protestors as “authentic.”  Rather, they read those practiced performances as “staged”—perhaps just individuals looking for their 15 minutes, but not activists passionately committed to a cause.  Activists’ attempts to garner media attention and to ensure that their messages were heard, accurately interpreted and represented in the media were actually working against them.

Interestingly, although Sobieraj’s research was undertaken prior to Occupy Wall Street, she discusses the intense media attention this movement garnered in her discussion.  Consistent with her theory, journalists reporting on Occupy Wall Street interpreted the protestors as “authentic” in ways that many contemporary social movements are not.  Dr. Sobieraj discussed why this was the case and how this process worked to the advantage of the Occupy movement, but also may have produced a less than clear message about the movement’s origins, qualms, meanings, and intentions.

The discussion after the talk produced a lively discussion of what to do next.  We learned that Dr. Sobieraj’s book is being taught in courses on journalism at some colleges and universities.  Perhaps a new generation of journalists will learn to be more careful about prejudging what ought to count as authentic political participation and civic engagement.  Afterwards she spoke candidly with the Sociology Club about her research.  Thanks for joining us, Dr. Sobieraj!

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