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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Lecture denounces media coverage of activism

Published: March 30, 2012
Section: Front Page, News

Sarah Sobieraj, professor of Sociology at Tufts University and recent author of “Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism,” led a lecture titled “Covered: Activists, Journalists, and News in a Shifting Media Landscape” on Thursday afternoon in the Mandel Reading Room.  She discussed the forms of rhetoric used by popular media and the “unsettling” relationship developed between journalism and activism.

Sobieraj analyzed the rhetoric of what she called  “mainstream media.” She named well-known establishments such as The New York Times, with which she illustrated how “mainstream” the perceived problem has become. She mentioned how one New York Times piece blatantly described protesters as “ridiculous” and as “buffoons.”

Sobieraj believes that the media consciously selects the majority of what is shown to the public, illustrating her point with when non-violent demonstrations rarely appear in the media; demonstrators will only be publicized when they resort to some form of violence toward the police.  Sobieraj displayed a provocative photograph of protesters with black bags on their heads sending a clear message to the press: We are protesters, we are not terrorists.

She also criticized the organizations and activists trying to gain coverage by the mainstream media. Here, she describes how the media’s portrayal of activists in the worst light becomes a serious issue. Activists become so involved with their image, Sobieraj said, that often they are only allowed to regurgitate dogma instead of explaining each individual’s true opinion. This can be hurtful to the cause itself because many who would otherwise join are uninspired to do so. Sobieraj mentioned how she has actually seen activists direct questions to the organization’s website. Other activists are even trained so that they will not embarrass the organization, and are told to just “shut up.”

Sobieraj also had contention with the Occupy Movement. In the early stages of Occupy, she explained that there was barely any coverage. The media gave excuses as to why there was such a lack of attention on Occupy by labeling the movement as unimportant. Shown on a chart, she presents how with the increase of hostilities toward police at Occupy camps there was a boom in coverage. She demonstrated the serious misuse of journalism and the inappropriate priorities of the news coverage.  Sobieraj compared the number of articles on the early Occupy Movement to that of the number of articles on Michael Jackson’s doctor—Jackson’s doctor has more.

Sobieraj ended after multiple questions on the effects of journalist on activists. “This is about journalism, not so much the journalist.” She explained how journalists perceive they are just doing their job, yet she believes “journalism should be serving a different function,” one with fewer motives or conscious aims.