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.
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.”
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!