The interactions between the media and social movements is seen as a asymmetrical relationship. This is because social movements need to be seen and heard in order to ; mobilise support, validate themselves and project their frame of the given situation. It’s a circumstance where perhaps the activist need the media, more than the media need the activist. Media continues to operate irrelevant of whether there are protests or not, but perhaps movements are unable to achieve large scale change without the media’s assistance .
Here are the three ways in which the media influences political and social outcomes:
- The extent and the content of media coverage of a social movement, influencing a movement’s effect. The extent of the media coverage of the 1996 White March in Brussels, has been argued as the reason for the March itself. The March was the largest in Belgian history and centered around the failings of the judiciary and police in the Marc Dutroux case. The case was covered by five Belgian newspapers in a period of the three months leading up to the initial demonstrations, causing many to argue that the ‘media co-produced the White March’.(Walgrave and Manssens 2000).
- How the news covers a movement’s activities e.g. protests, the media frames for these activities can be crucial to whether or not the public agrees and feels connected with the issue (Smith, McCarthy et al 2001). Media coverage of protests are often communicated through what McLeod calls a ‘protest paradigm‘ and unsurprising this is largely negative, much to the frustration of the protestors. The 2010 student protest against tuition fees where framed as a mob of thugs and anarchists who have embarrassed Britain. The British public may have found it difficult to support an issue cloaked in such violence, in which protestors where thugs rather then members of society, or more importantly people’s children. The media can also choose not to cover a protest at all, silencing the movement from the public agenda.
- News coverage can have a direct and independent effect on policy making through influencing public opinion. In a democratic society the governmental system observes public opinion, and may alter certain policies depending on how popular or unpopular they are (Fuchs and Pfetsch 1996). An example of news coverage effecting policy is the 2005 hunting act. The banning of fox hunting was extremely popular with the British public, and the media. A MORI poll commissioned by the BBC found that 76% of the public wanted fox hunting band, the Daily Telegraph also carried out a similar survey stating that the majority of the public where in support of the ban as well. These public opinion statistics became an amplifier stating what the public wanted and put pressure on the Labour government to pass the act. Articles in recent years still further the narrative of public opinion against fox hunting such as this article in the Independent.
These three examples of the media’s influence are indeed important however it’s difficult to measure that importance. The connection between the media’s role in social and political outcomes is largely based on assumption. It’s difficult to separate the media from the context of what is going on in society at that time, as the media only provides a certain perception. The role of the mass media is normally not theorised, nor is there much empirical study of the media in social movement outcomes (Smith, McCarthy et al 2001). We know the media influences the outcomes of social movements because it plays the function of communicating to mass audiences, but to understand the strength of the media’s role in particular social movements requires further research.
We know that media coverage is important and that positive media coverage is a movement’s goal, however the media only plays a part role in influencing a movement’s outcome. What a movement’s objectives are and how they can be achieved within the political, economic and social structures we operate in can influence a movements outcome far more than anything else. The mass media is just a part of that mechanism.