Producing Public Voice: Resource Mobilization and Media Access in the National Organization for Women

By Barker-Plummer, Bernadette | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Producing Public Voice: Resource Mobilization and Media Access in the National Organization for Women


Barker-Plummer, Bernadette, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This paper investigates the resource mobilization and media access of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Using data from NOW's archive and from a content analysis of the New York Times, it tracks NOW's 1966-1980 media access. Two factors were key to NOW's media access. First, NOW mobilized the material resources-- money, skills, technology, labor, and especially information-needed to serve as a news source for journalists. Second, NOW developed effective and reflexive media strategies by using its knowledge of the routines and discursive structures of news in its own media communications.

Access to news making, that is, the chance to have our voices and experiences included in an influential public communication forum, is a critical political resource. Such access, especially the kind of serious voice routinely achieved by political elites, offers sources wide distribution for their ideas and the opportunity to significantly affect public debate.1 Research suggests, for example, that news selections help set the public's issue agenda;2 that news constructions "prime" the audience in ways that affect evaluations of candidates and policies;3 and that journalists' framing choices can affect the audience's attribution of causality and blame for social problems, and their tolerance for civil liberties.4 Consequently, the question of how news stories are created, and in particular whose voices are included in these constructions, has become a critical democratic question.

Access to the news is an especially important resource for social movement groups. For these groups, such as the women's or the environmental movement, communication is a central goal. They seek to change public attitudes and understandings on key social and cultural issues through the creation and communication of new information and new interpretive frameworks.5 To do so, however, they must reach mass audiences. Access to news media thus becomes an important mobilizing resource for such groups. In addition, as voices of political dissent and social change, social movements' ability to access news media provides a critical test of the media's ability to serve as a legitimate source of information in a democracy.6

But how open are news media to social movement communications? Can social change groups strategically access newsmaking processes? Can they achieve routine access to news? How have they done so and at what costs? This paper investigates the media access strategies of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a central organization of the second wave of the U.S. women's movement. Using historical data gathered from NOW's archive and from a content analysis of New York Times coverage of NOW, it traces NOW's resource mobilization, strategy development, and media access during a fifteenyear period, from its founding in 1966 to its institutionalization as a voice for women's issues by the 1980s.

NOW's ability to access news media in this period was the result of two key factors. First, NOW was able to mobilize the material resources-money, skills, technology, labor, organizational structure, and especially information-necessary to serve as a reliable and routine source for journalists. Second, the group was able to develop effective and reflexive media strategies by mobilizing its knowledge of the routines and discursive structures of news and using them in its own media communications. These two factors contributed significantly to NOW's public visibility over time and to the group's role in helping to create a public agenda for "women's issues" in the United States.

A single case study approach to these questions has its limitations, of course. NOW is not typical of all social movement organizations. It is a mass-based organization with a national office and local chapters, not a local grassroots organization. Its longevity-more than thirty years-is also unusual for an advocacy organization. However, NOW is also an important organization in its own right.

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