Social Movements in the News

January 4, 2019

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of visiting scholars.

In 2018, a number of protests and demonstrations across the political spectrum—including teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, student marches against gun violence, white nationalist rallies, and, more recently, the “yellow vest” protests in France—made headlines. But the intensity and duration of mainstream media coverage of these different movements was varied, and plenty of other political actions in the U.S. and elsewhere went largely unreported. Why and when do certain social movements capture the interest of the media?

At RSF, visiting scholars Edwin Amenta and Francesca Polletta (University of California, Irvine) are studying the ways that social movements have transformed culture and everyday life. Drawing from interviews, public polls, and media coverage of social movements such as the civil rights movement, gay and lesbian activism, movements around abortion, and anti-tax and anti-welfare movements, they are examining movements’ impact on public opinion, institutions such as medicine and higher education, and the cultural assumptions guiding policymakers. They are also exploring how these movements have shaped Americans’ conceptions of inequality today, and why certain social movements have had greater cultural impact than others.

In a new interview with the foundation, Amenta discussed the multifaceted relationship between social movements and the news media, a relationship on which he is focusing:

Q. How and why does news media coverage of social movements matter? Which twentieth-century social movements attracted the most media attention?

Though the news media have changed quite a bit over the last few decades, there remains no better way for social movements to reach large numbers of people, gain support and legitimacy, and influence political officials and other elite actors than through the mainstream news media. That professional news outlets aspire to fairness and objectivity also affords their coverage greater credibility among third parties than that of partisan news sources or the various amateur news outlets provided through the internet. The media’s coverage of social movements can furthermore transform how a given movement’s constituents and followers are perceived by the general public.

For a long time, I have been compiling and analyzing the news coverage of U.S. movement actors in the leading national newspapers over the twentieth century.  This research spans the news coverage of more than 1,500 national movement and public-interest advocacy organizations in the New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.

During the twentieth century, the movement with by far the greatest coverage in these outlets was the labor movement, particularly during the 1930s. Just behind that movement, in terms of coverage, was the African American civil rights movement, which was at the center of a wave of coverage in the 1960s and early 1970s. The feminist movement—including waves of attention during the suffrage period, the 1930s, and the 1960s and 1970s—was the fifth most-covered movement. But there are also a couple of others in the top five that have not received as much scholarly attention as these three: The veterans’ movement received extensive news attention, especially in the first half of the century surrounding political battles over civil war pensions, World War I bonuses, and the GI Bill of Rights. So did the nativist/white supremacist movement, led by different iterations of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Q. Based on your analysis, what are the factors that most influence whether a movement will receive media attention?

At the movement level, there are four basic factors that seem to matter, two of them internal to them and two external. The first key internal factor is whether the movement has disruptive capacities, including organizations that routinely see disruption as part of their tactical repertoire, such as unions and strikes, and civil rights organizations and direct action. The second is simply having a strong organizational presence. This can include having many organizations in the field, as with the current environmental movement, or having large membership organizations with a federal structure. That tended to be the case earlier in the twentieth century when organizations like the American Legion, Anti-Saloon League, and Townsend Plan had many state and local chapters.

As for external conditions, the most important one is whether the movement gains advantages in national policy. Movements more easily mobilize and get more frequently covered when laws pass that give their constituents advantages. For instance, the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act of the 1930s boosted the labor movement and the old-age pension movement, whereas ending Prohibition led to the decline of attention to anti-alcohol movement actors.  Similarly, the civil rights movement actually received more coverage after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. 

Another external political condition that promotes media coverage of movements is whether there is a partisan regime in power, either of the right or left. When partisan regimes are in power, major changes in policy are likely, and as a result, movements are better able to mobilize and gain more news attention. Various crises can also promote the coverage of movements: for instance, unemployment promoted the coverage of the labor movement, war deaths for the anti-war movement, and the AIDS epidemic for the LGBTQ movement.

Coverage also builds on itself. Organizations that receive news attention will tend to remain in the news for cycles lasting half a year or more. With the labor movement, for instance, many individual organizations and unions—such as the AFL-CIO, the UAW, and Teamsters—stayed newsworthy for extended periods. Other organizations like the Anti-Saloon League, KKK, American Legion, Townsend Plan, and League of Women Voters found themselves in long runs of coverage in the first half of the century.  And the second half of the century brought extended attention to many of the organizations of the civil rights movement—including the NAACP, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party—as well as antiwar organizations like Students for a Democratic Society. 

Q.  Is any coverage valuable to movement actors?  What determines whether the coverage will be useful?

Not all coverage is helpful, as most movement actors want more than just to have their names in the news. They also see their beliefs and perspectives on political issues represented, including how they define social problems and what they see as the best solutions to them. They also often seek to set the terms of debate and define the most pressing issues.  

The actions that seem to generate the most favorable news coverage are the ones where movement actors seek to transform political institutions, such as attempting to pass certain legislation, running candidates for office, holding political party-like conventions, litigation over laws and rights, and engaging in direct actions that test the implementation of new laws. But at the same time, movement actors can also attract long runs of attention in the news for negative reasons that end up harming their cause, such as when leaders are under investigation by Congress or facing legal charges for breaking laws. In such cases, negative media coverage can be discrediting to the cause. In other words, there are a wide range of actions that movement actors can take that land them in the news, and these vary greatly in how well they get the movement’s messages across to the public.

Q. Does media coverage of social movements eventually influence public policy?

I have not yet drawn these connections, but other research indicates that the news coverage of movements systematically influences political agendas—what institutional political actors debate about and discuss.  This is the first stage in the passage of legislation—getting on the agenda—but that of course does not always result in policy change.  That said, movement actors do have ways in addition to media attention of influencing the other stages in the process. 

Q.  What is the role of news media coverage today for movements, now that there are so many alternatives through right-wing media and social media outlets?

It is true that now movements have many additional outlets in which they might get their views across. Also, now most people get their news through social media, so the gatekeeping function of what some have called the “legacy media” has eroded. Additionally, many people now get almost all their information from right-wing media sources, which are often lacking in factual accuracy. 

However, mainstream news sources still do almost all of the news reporting, so even most news that comes across from social media is ultimately from news organizations. These operations still have great legitimacy and remain on the radar of the main political officials.  President Obama scanned many papers a day, and President Trump is likewise paying close attention, even if only to declare unfavorable articles as “fake news.”  The effects of movement coverage on political agendas has remained in the current century. In current research covering additional newspapers and up to the present, we are finding that movement actors still seek to influence debates through the news.


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