Editors’ note: Movement organizations are dealing with an increasingly varied media and technological landscape, and that requires our use of a different set of tools and strategies. This article, which is drawn (with some minor alterations) from David Karpf’s new book, Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2016), provides a useful disruption of antiquated assumptions about the interfaces between movement and medium. We thank the author and Oxford University Press for their kind permission.
This article is reprinted from the Summer 2017 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Nonprofit Graduation: Evolving from Risk Management to Risk Leadership.” It was first published online on July 10, 2017.
We often make two mistakes with regard to the interaction of media institutions and political activism. First, we still frequently treat “the media” as a unitary, stable, and undifferentiated system. This was a defensible assumption in 1993, when William Gamson and Gadi Wolfsfeld wrote their authoritative treatment of the subject, “Movements and Media as Interacting Systems.” Gamson and Wolfsfeld demonstrated that “social movements need the media far more than the media need them.”1 They did so by tracing the interests of social movements and of industrial media organizations that typified the broadcast news era. But in the decades that have elapsed since that classic work was published, the media system has undergone a continuous series of upheavals.
We can no longer simply state that some protest actions are inherently more media-friendly or newsworthy than others. We now have to specify which media and which news. Protest tactics are made media-friendly when they align with dominant media technologies. They become newsworthy when they fit the norms, incentives, and routines of the major news organizations of the day. When we talk about the “media system,” we still largely have in mind the broadcast media institutions that dominated twentieth-century American politics—the nightly news and the daily paper in particular. Today, those broadcast institutions remain relevant, but they are also facing new competitive pressures, adopting new journalistic routines, and making use of new media technologies. As Andrew Chadwick suggests, we have replaced the old media cycle with a new “political information cycle.”2 Stories unfold differently in the political information cycle. Social media buzz helps to determine the mainstream news agenda. Partisan news sites highlight different stories to appeal to their niche audiences.3 If movements and media are interacting systems, then the dramatic changes to the media system must produce ripple effects that change the opportunity structure for social movements.
Second, we treat the media as though it were a mirror, held up to society and reflecting back the most important or prominent issues of the day. The dominant theories of policy change in political science, in fact, have long tended to ignore the role and interests of media institutions.4 These theories draw empirical data from newspaper coverage, equating it with evidence of public opinion and public events. Media attention serves as a stand-in for public opinion in this tradition: if a topic makes the front page of the local paper or receives four minutes of coverage on the nightly news, we treat it as evidence of public interest and public will. As Susan Herbst demonstrates in Reading Public Opinion, both political activists and legislators treat the daily news agenda as evidence of public opinion.5
But a long research tradition maintains that media has never been merely a reflective technology. Kurt and Gladys Lang first offered this insight in their seminal 1953 study of the MacArthur Day parades: media is a technology of refraction, not reflection.6 Introduce television cameras into an event, and you will manufacture a public spectacle. People will behave differently, performing roles for the cameras. Place newspaper reporters or bloggers at that event, and you will reveal different elements of the same spectacle. Media coverage is not a neutral arbiter or reflection of objective reality. It documents a performance that it is helping to cocreate. As Gamson and Wolfsfeld put it, “A demonstration with no media coverage at all is a nonevent, unlikely to have any positive influence either on mobilizing followers or influencing the target. No news is bad news.”7 Successful protest events are strategically designed to attract coverage from the dominant media of the day. And as the media system changes, so too must our understanding of successful protest events.
To think clearly about the opportunities that the changing media system presents to activist organizations, we must historically bracket successful movement tactics. Different media, dominant at different points in history, incentivize different forms of public spectacle. The release of a new policy report will be much more appealing to policy bloggers than to television journalists. Press conferences are an artifact of the broadcast era; bloggers see little value in a press release. The broadcast television era imparted great leverage to advocacy tactics that could make the six o’clock news. The current digital era, with its niche news programming, twenty-four-hour cable stations, hashtag publics, and social sharing, creates leverage for a different set of tactics. The relative power of individual protest tactics—petitions and sit-ins, marches and boycotts—changes apace with the shifting media system. Whether we label these changes to the media system as indicative of changing “media regimes,”8 “information regimes,”9 “hybrid media systems,”10 or “civic information paradigms,”11 the central point is that media technologies and media institutions play a role in determining the strategic value of various protest tactics. All movement power is, in part, premised on understanding and leveraging the interests of these changing media entities. Movement power is, in this sense, also media power.
Activism is adapting to the digital age (as are we all). Our expectations of activists, however, remain decidedly anchored in the preceding century. In particular, the era of grand U.S. social movements (roughly the 1960s and early 1970s) often receives hagiographic treatment from scholars a