Why the Press Didn’t Cover Your Demonstration
An activist can have plenty of reasons to summon his faithful to march in a demonstration. He might call the gathering to petition the government for a redress of grievances. He might want to advertise the size of his community. He might do it to build cadre for the future. But the true aim of the organizers is to attract media attention.
By this measure, the weekend Women’s March, held in multiple cities, did OK, attracting numerous and sizable stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and cable TV. But the 2018 coverage did not match that given the 2017 Women’s March, leading some to complain that the press had deliberately marginalized their protest.
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Feminist marchers aren’t the only ones to lament low coverage of their demonstration. The conservative Media Research Center groused that ABC, CBS and NBC unfairly allotted three times as much news coverage to the Women’s March on the first evening of coverage as they did to the March for Life in Washington, staged last Friday. The March for Life attracted an estimated 50,000 and 100,000 bodies to D.C. while the Women’s March gathered about 10,000. Where’s our coverage, cried the March for Lifers!
Setting aside these dueling complaints for a moment, why does the media slather more coverage on some demonstrations and less on others? The easy—and usually wrong—answer to the question about why the media does what it does settles on “liberal media bias.” But liberal media bias doesn’t go very far in explaining why a “liberal” event like the Women’s March 2018 received less coverage than Women’s March 2017.
For the answer, we must explore the newsroom mindset. Scratch a journalist and he’ll dismiss marches and demonstrations as boring pseudo-events that are about as exciting to cover as a slow melting glacier. Some reporters resent covering such pre-planned events—they feel no obligation to be your publicist. But ink and airtime can be yours if you follow the basic guidelines for attracting coverage that I’ve observed after a lifetime of consuming news stories about marches and demos (and sometimes evening assigning or writing pieces about them!).
Reporters Delight in the Novel
The reiteration of almost anything—a second Transformer movie, another President Bush, the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl—tends to dull the average journalist’s enthusiasm. One reason the March for Life doesn’t get a media pop is that it gathers annually, making it as predictable a story as the return of the swallows to Capistrano. The first Women’s March electrified the press because few reporters had witnessed such a gargantuan demo in Washington. Also, none had ever seen a pussy hat before. While it was fine for the Women’s March 2018 to recycle the hat and the slogans from last year, it was unrealistic to expect this year’s demo would land the same punch. The addition of #MeToo to the agenda wasn’t enough to refresh it.
Make Your Second Demo Bigger Than the First
Journalists are suckers for momentum. If this year’s demo is smaller than last year’s demo, it will gather less attention. The Women’s March 2018 organizers have an excuse for a smaller Washington demo: They deliberately downsized from the 500,000-plus participants of 2017 to 10,000, redirecting organizational efforts to Las Vegas, where the accent was on ending Republican control of Congress and the states. That might be fine for the movement’s long-term goals, but smaller crowds almost always translate into less news coverage.
Concentrate On New York and Washington
The Women’s March 2018 attracted millions across the country this year, with estimated crowds of 100,000-to-200,000 in New York, 250,000-to-300,000 in Chicago, and 300,000-to-600,000 in Los Angeles. The aggregate numbers amazed, but they did not translate into boffo news coverage because the national press maintains its highest regard for things that happen where they live—New York and Washington. By New York standards, 100,000 ain’t that many. Never count on the national media to come to you: You’ve got to come to the national media if you want press.
Beware Media Competition
No matter how big or original your demonstration, it’s competing with other news events for headlines. When other news intrudes, as it did this weekend when the government staged its shutdown, your audience appeal will decline. If possible, never schedule your demo against other big news. (FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver thought the march was bigger news than the shutdown, but he is decidedly in the media minority.)
A Little Violence Goes a Long Way
The Women’s March 2018 was exceedingly civil. As a peaceful soul, I would never advocate violence by demonstrators or the destruction of property, but I would also alert activists to the truth that the press loves the sound of breaking glass, police-car sirens and tear-gas grenades. Remember how they delighted in the mayhem of the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle and the burning cars following the Trump inauguration? (Warning: Violence may engender deep coverage but not the kind you want.)
A Final Note: Keep It Simple
Refine your demonstration to its essence as the press gets confused when offered too many story lines. The 1963 March on Washington focused on civil rights. The anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s called mostly for an end to the Vietnam War. LGBTQ marches on Washington in recent decades were about gay rights. The official Women’s March 2017 agenda ranged wide and far, including not only women’s rights but the intersectionality of immigrant rights, “environmental justice,” disability rights, worker’s right, reproductive rights and a call to “end violence.” I assume many of today’s protesters support the whole program, but my sense of 2017 rally-goers in Washington was that they were attending the march in defiance of Donald Trump, inaugurated the day before. Can the same be said of this year’s protestors? As bad as Trump is, he’s not the same unifying boogeyman he was a year ago.
I fear that no amount of advice will help the Women’s March expand its 2017 mindshare. Maybe the group will become a victim of diminishing returens, like so many other protest organizations, and will become like March for Life—an annual reunion of the faithful that doesn’t make much of a political difference but makes its participants feel good. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—as long as the organizers don’t depend on the press for coverage.
Don’t follow demonstrators, watch your parking meeting. Send fresh slogans Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts go to the demos to party. My Twitter always gets swept up in polices arrests. My RSS feed wears an anarchist’s mask, taking it off only during meals.
via POLITICO Magazine
January 23, 2018 at 06:52AM