When Bad Coverage is Good Coverage

We know a lot about the ways media coverage shapes mobilization. Supportive coverage can help movements challenge dominant discourses, expand support, and gain leverage (E.g. Gamson et al 1992). Conversely, negative coverage can delegitimize movements in various ways, including by skewing coverage away from substantive issues or disproportionately highlighting violence in the movement (E.g. Gitlin 1980). Although research on movements and media take varying methodological and substantive approaches, it is a generally accepted proposition that, all things being equal, positive media coverage supports movement mobilization. Yet we would expect it likely is not this simple.

Some movements have especially salient frames about media bias that are central to their grievances. Conservative movements in the U.S. in particular have long-held perceptions of liberal bias about the “mainstream” media. This belief appears broadly held and supported by major conservative media (e.g. Brock 2004). Consequently, negative coverage may have a complicating effect on some (especially conservative?) movements.

Rather than providing evidence against mobilization, negative coverage may legitimate conservative grievances of a liberal bias; and hence provide added incentive to mobilize. This is not to say that for conservative movements ‘‘bad news is good news.’’ Instead, such coverage may have this effect if it fits into a well-developed frame of what constitutes a grievance, how the media at large fit into this, and consequently, what may mobilize participants. Further, potential participants should likely have access to alternative ways (here, through conservative media) to help interpret critical coverage in the broader media.

This was seen in a recent article on protests in the contemporary Tea Party. Although not the focus of the paper, results suggested that rather than dampening mobilization, negative coverage subsequently led to increased mobilization. Further, this only held true when considering the situation of high salience in the media. This suggests that when movements have established frames that allow sympathizers to interpret negative press, such coverage might not always be a bad thing.

Of course, there are likely a whole host of other factors and issues at play. At the very least, this effect may be curvilinear (too much of a bad thing likely really is a bad thing). This would also only hold for people who were already otherwise sympathetic to the movement. We would also need a better understanding of how media bias frames are connected to action (such as through re-interpretation in supportive media).

If we contrast this to Occupy, I don’t imagine we think coverage (which was by most measures far more critical) helped spur mobilization. And while it seems most Occupy participants shared an understanding of media bias (especially of corporate owned media), the movement lacked anything close to the kind of media infrastructure to re-interpret negative coverage into mobilizing frames. I have not come across studies that expressly address this question, but anecdotal evidence from conversations with a few activists suggests a keen awareness that critical coverage can sometime deepen resolve. This then changes the question from asking how movements are able to receive supportive press, to the ways in which critical coverage can be re-framed into action frames. Any thoughts?

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

One response to “When Bad Coverage is Good Coverage

  1. Definitely check out Christian Smith’s (1998) book American Evangelicalism. He develops a theory of how, because American Evangelicals are “embattled” and in conflict with broader American society, they develop a stronger subcultural identity.

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