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The Reciprocal Relationship of Media and Movement

Editors Kathrin Fahlenbrach, Erling Sivertsen and Rolf Werenskjold’s volume Media and Revolt: Strategies and Performances from the 1960s to the Present was published last month. Following, the editors introduce the timely volume and share an excerpt from the Introduction. 




Looking at journals, television, or on the internet in these days, news dealing with protests abounds: the upheavals around the Euro-Maidan in the Ukraine, anti-governmental protests in Bangkok, the “Occupy-Gezi-Park”-manifestations in Istanbul or protest actions of NGOs like Greenpeace against oil companies or whale hunters. Obviously protest has an enormous “news value”: it offers spectacular pictures, it makes evident political conflicts and decisions by polarizing their actors, and it offers media the chance to perform as center of society.


While the relevance of media for social movements has been discussed by several sociologists and media scholars, the specific interplay between mass media and protest actors still requires deep research.


Our volume seeks to answer the following questions: How do social movements attract mass media attention? How do protesters guide public attention by the use of visual symbols, pictures, and protest performances? And how do mass media cover and frame protest issues specifically? The book’s wide array of case studies deals with protest in interaction with specific media, ranging from print media, film, and television to internet and social media.



The following is an excerpt from the Introduction.


In his famous protest song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1969/70), Gil Scott-Heron made a strong contrast between the mass media and revolution: on the one hand, a passive consumerist culture that is dominated by television; on the other, protest and revolution on the streets of those who are marginalized in society and will never become visible in television culture. Like many other protesters around 1968, Scott-Heron proclaimed a general change of society, a revolution, as the only way of providing emancipation and equal rights for marginalized social groups. Television, being part and instrument of the pre-established order and affirming its rules and values, would not be interested in such a change and would be the wrong place for fighting for a new social order.


Ironically enough, it was around 1968 that the mass media, and especially television, discovered the attractiveness of protest events. Since then, the strong opposition between the mass media and protest and its actors, on both sides, has lessened. In addition, a complex interrelation between them evolved. As this volume demonstrates from a multidisciplinary perspective, Western societies even saw a growth in the close interrelation between the mass media and protesters.


Social movements of the nineteenth century, such as the labor movement or the women’s movement, expressed their protests in the streets and in oppositional journals or magazines. These alternative media predominantly addressed their own participants and their sympathizers. Since social movements in this period had only a limited access to the mass media, they needed prominent alliance partners within the media and the political system to give them public legitimacy. They concentrated their engagements both on protest in the streets and by building institutional organizations as parties or trade unions.


The development of the mass media after 1945 radically changed the preconditions of political discourses. In particular, the rise of television as a leading mass medium in the 1960s marks a turning point in Western democracies. Because public attention via television became a relevant currency of political power, political representatives have since had to adapt to its criteria of news coverage. This implies that public discourses, dominated by television, became more open to different actors, groups, and organizations: according to the criteria of media selection, they have to concur today not only in terms of political programs and goals, but also in terms of media adequacy.


In the 1960s, the Western mass media discovered the news value of protest events, so, at least for moderate movements, it is easier today to access the mass media sphere. The reasons are manifold. Two of the most relevant are: protest actions attracting the attention of the viewers because of their dramatic character; and the polarization between protesters and addressees visualizing huge and often diffuse social groups, institutions, or governments. By covering protest events, the Western mass media, especially television, may act as a “social center” of democratic societies (cf. Couldry 2003; Gitlin [1980] 2003). Nevertheless, the interrelation between social movements and the mass media is highly complex and often paradoxical, as Gitlin ([1980] 2003) showed in his canonical study. Although both sides might follow up on different or even divergent motifs and frames, there is a structural bind between them that is first of all based on the common need for public attention. Often, both aim to attract public attention by the use of dramatic and symbolic pictures.


Since this era, the mass media has switched from being a “bystander,” observing conflicts between protesters and their addressees, to being a “player,” actively participating in the conflict (Gamson 2006). As Gamson argues, participation begins with their use of pictures and the way they represent the different players within the public “arena.” While they follow up on specific journalistic and economic interests, they have their own selective criteria when covering protest visually. When protests are represented by pictures, this implies different processes of framing: the actions are framed by a camera and its apparatus; by the journalists and their interpretational frames; and, finally, by the editing process and the layout.


During the twentieth century, social movements gained a remarkable influence in Western societies as social and political actors through their public presence. Especially the moderate ones, such as the peace movement, the women’s movement, or the environmental movement, were successful in influencing not only common sense culture, norms, and values, but also laws and politics. Despite being marginalized at the beginning, they articulated a need for change that generally fit into the worldviews and attitudes of journalists and other media representatives—and of the established culture. As Dieter Rucht (2004) argues, moderate movements do not intend to change society as a whole, but present themselves as “early-warning-systems,” touching on the relevant crises and problems of Western societies, and have the potential to attract the interest of mass media actors.


Today, social media on the internet is another important sector of the public mobilization and self-organization of social movements.On the one hand, social media might be used to attract mass media attention, for example, by addressing prototypical news values in the dissemination of information and pictures on blogs or on YouTube. Given the possibilities of interactive digital media and the internet, protest actors gained, on the other hand, greater autonomy from the mass media. Since the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, we may observe a growing relevance of web-based social media. They allow social movements like the global justice movement, the Occupy movement, or the Arab revolutionaries to communicate transnationally and build networks beyond national borders (della Porta 2007; Gitlin 2012; Schiffrin and Kircher-Allen 2012; Eltantawy and Wiest 2011). Recently, we witnessed the instruments that social media offered people in North Africa to organize protests and revolutions against their authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. As these revolts demonstrate, social media sites are especially efficient in mobilizing huge groups of supporters and active protesters, addressing them personally as “friends.”




Kathrin Fahlenbrach is Professor for Media and Communication Studies at Hamburg University, Germany. Her publications on protest movements and media include a book on visual protest of the student movement in mass media. Together with Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth, she is editor of the series “Protest, Culture, and Society” (Berghahn Books, New York/Oxford).


Erling Sivertsen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Media and Journalism, Volda University College, Norway. He teaches Media Studies and Photojournalism. Sivertsen is a sociologist who has published several studies on the media and politicians, media and banks, and on photography and mobile communication in journalism.


Rolf Werenskjold is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Media and Journalism, Volda University College, Norway. He teaches Media Studies and Media History. He is a historian and media scholar who has published several studies on the media and 1968, modern American history, and Norwegian foreign news journalism during the Cold War.


Volume 11, Protest, Culture & Society