Media Bias, Media Endogeneity

By Charles Seguin

Citizens of large nation-states generally receive most of their information on social movements through news media. Accordingly, the media are one of the central institutions targeted by social movements. In attempting to understand movement effects on media, movement scholars have sometimes, but certainly not always, conceptualized media-movement interactions within what I would call the “bias model.” The idea behind the bias model is that media attention and framing are subject to numerous organizational, cultural, political, and institutional selection processes which filter movement messages and events to determine which will receive coverage and how they will be framed. That is, some population of movement events and messages exist in the world, and are distorted in news media representations through differential media selection and interpretation. Within the bias model, the media nicely fits the analogy of a movement target—a wholly separate entity at which a movement takes aim. While we’ve learned a lot from the bias model, it is incomplete, and often misleading. The media-movement relationship is endogenous for two reasons.

The first reason is that, movements are targeted by the media for the media’s own purposes, and with major effects of movements—media and movements are “interacting systems” (Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993). Consider, for example, Huey Newton’s recollection of the Black Panther Party’s recruitment success after an armed protest at the California State Legislature in Sacramento sparked national media attention:

Sacramento was certainly a success […] in attracting national attention; even those who did not hear the complete message saw the arms, and this conveyed enough to Black people. The Bay Area became more aware of the Party, and soon we had more members than we could handle. From all across the country calls came to us about establishing chapters and branches; we could hardly keep track of the requests. In a matter of months we went from a small Bay Area group to a national organization (Newton and Blake 2009 [1973]:159).

Thus movement resources, such as chapters of a movement organization, are often a joint outcome of both movement and media activities. Movement researchers have shown also how tactics and movement framing evolves alongside the news media (e.g. Koopmans 2004; Oliver and Myers 2002). Research designs that treat movement resources or activities as exogenous drivers of media attention are thus likely overstating the impact of movements and understating the role of the media.

The second problem with treating media as a target is that the distinction between the media and movements, or between journalists and activists, is not always clear. The extent to which the movement and media are distinct actors varies considerably by historical and political contexts. Social movement studies came of age in a period in which, and through the study of cases, in which media and movements could be considered separate entities with clear boundaries. The civil rights movement, an example central to the study of social movements, operated in a media environment where the rise of large-scale newspapers and broadcasting by national television networks meant that the costs of creating movement specific media to reach the masses was prohibitive. Journalist’s devotion to professional norms of “objectivity” also precluded them from adopting explicitly activist positions. Media institutions could therefore usefully be considered distinct entities from social movements, even if there were strong interactions between the two.

Looking to the precursors of the civil rights movement, however, the distinction between media and the movement is far less clear. Many of the leading activists in the anti-lynching movement could be considered journalists, or their activism could be seen as a type of journalism. T. Thomas Fortune, W. E. B. Dubois, Walter White, and Ida B. Wells certainly fit this description. The early NAACP, for instance, sent investigators to the scenes of lynchings to gather facts for later reporting in their journal The Crisis. This was basically a form of muckraking journalism. Thus, while the NAACP targeted the media, they were also essentially a part of the media. Black newspapers of the time, such as the Chicago Defender, had a similar mission to report and denounce lynchings. The Chicago Tribune, a leading white newspaper, took an anti-lynching stance, gathering a database of lynchings that would later be emulated by the NAACP and the Tuskegee Institute. In this case, where is the line to be drawn between media organizations and movement organizations? How do we maintain a distinction between movement actors and movement targets? If these boundaries are so unclear, how to conceptualize the movement’s effect on its target?

Today’s media environment is arguably more similar to that in which the anti-lynching movement operated than it is to the civil rights era media environment. The large newspapers no longer command the market share they once did, nor do the large broadcasters. While ownership of these large companies has become more concentrated, the Internet has eroded their monopoly position as gatekeepers of political information. Likewise the normative distinction between journalists and other citizens has been eroded as not trained as professional journalists now again occupy a prominent position within the news media (e.g. Nate Silver or Vice News). The rise of “outrage discourse” in political opinion outlets (Barry and Sobieraj) has perhaps more resemblance to the partisan press of the 19th century than it does to mid-20th century journalism. Perhaps the most uncanny resemblance between these periods is that the Washington Post is now publishing data on police shootings, much like the Chicago Tribune and NAACP did with lynchings.

As movement scholars continue to study new targets, we need to continue to be careful about when we treat movements as separate and independent drivers of change. Like the news media, many of the boundaries between movements and their targets are not so clear cut. If we aren’t careful we risk forgetting that movements do not cause social change in any simple sense, because they are themselves social change.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Protestors and their Targets

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