Exploring Internet Influence on the Coverage of Social Protest: Content Analysis Comparing Protest Coverage in 1967 and 1999

Article excerpt

This study examined the coverage of two social protests set three decades apart. Findings showed that journalists covering anti-WTO protests in 1999 relied on official and authoritative sources more than journalists covering anti-Vietnam war protests in 1967, despite today's Internet-enabled access to alternative sources and thematic analyses. No change was seen in use of protester sources or thematic versus episodic frames in story valence. Providing a backdrop to today's emerging study of online information seeking by journalists, this study suggests that conventional strategies in news sourcing and framing may endure despite the resourcefulness facilitated today by the Internet.

Social movement organizations consider both social protest and news coverage of social protest to be major political resources. This paper expores where the two intersect, by examining whether journalists follow a pattern in protest coverage. This study inquires also into whether sourcing strategies and framing of social protest has begun to change as journalists gain access to contacts and debates/arguments/research over the Internet.

A good location to study such information seeking by the press is within the info-activism created in cyberspace during the protests against the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Seattle in November and December of 1999. The WTO meetings between governments and trade organizations from across the world were shut down after human rights groups, students, environmental groups, religious leaders, labor rights activists, and other groups with diverse agendas thronged the streets of Seattle demanding fairer, less exploitative trade decision making. This mobilization of masses of people with non-violent as well as anarchist protest repertoires was one of the first examples of trans-border networking and activism facilitated by the Internet; activists used Web sites, e-mail, listserves, e-groups, and Indymedia to mobilize.

Even though the Internet provides movements such as this one a tool for political organization of those who are "accessible" (i.e., knowledgeable, interested, sympathetic Web surfers or those who devise their personalized political information networks over digital media), mainstream media are still the ones expected to provoke popular debate and public opinion. How the mass media respond to these debates themselves and how they access via the Internet the contexts and arguments behind the movement become questions fundamental to a democracy still dependent on mainstream media for generation of public opinion.

Sources and Social Protest

Reflecting the hierarchy in government and society,1 scholars argue, journalists defer to a hierarchy in sourcing-official sources over unofficial ones, sources in government and industry over those outside.2 When covering social protests, even general reporters rarely interview ordinary protesters, and organizations that are resource-poor have problems gaining coverage.3 Cans noted that disorder news is affected by whose order is being upset and focuses on the restoration of order.4

The strategies used by social protesters may involve different behaviors-even disruptive behavior-to garner attention from the media, but protesters have little control over the aspects and actions that the media choose to highlight or underplay.5 In a 1994 book on the media and the Vietnam anti-war movement, Small writes "Oppositional mass movements have a difficult time obtaining fair, much less favorable, coverage from establishment media, even in the freest of democracies. For a variety of economic, political and institutional reasons, journalists and their employers tend to denigrate those out of the mainstream...."6

Small's content analysis of newspapers, magazines, and television coverage showed that journalists concentrated on violent and radicalalbeit colorful-behavior on the fringes of the activity. They undercounted the crowds and ignored political arguments the protesters' leadership presented. …