The Occupy Wall Street movement may prove to be a test of the news media, not unlike the protest movement of the 1960’s tested the media then. The difference is that in the 60’s, “the media” was really just three network evening newscasts and newspapers. Most people might say the big difference was that there was no cable news, but it’s more than that. There was no mainstream media, new media, social media and alternative media. Back then, as the sarcastic saying goes, freedom of the press was only guaranteed to those who owned one. Now, everybody has a printing press; It’s known as the Internet. But there are still similarities. Just as the news media in the 60’s took a while to figure out the protest was an important cultural news story, the news media fifty years later is still trying to figure it out as well. And just as the media then went from one extreme to the other, the media today is still trying to find a balance. As comic commentator, Jon Stewart, sarcastically and semi-accurately put it, “mainstream media moved its coverage dial from blackout to circus… the only two settings it has.”
I say semi-accurate because if you look at the Pew Research “news coverage index” which quantifies news coverage, the Occupy Wall Street (sometimes referred to as OWS) coverage went from 2% of the news hole the last week of September to 7% the first week of October, peaking at 10% the second week, before dropping back to 4% in the latest report which covers the period from October 17th to the 23rd. The corresponding “new media index” which quantifies coverage in the so-called blogosphere and, theoretically, general interest, put the OWS story as the third most-talked about story that week. But – and this is an important but – this was the first time the story even made it to the most-discussed list. And the movement didn’t even make it to Twitter’s most-discussed list that week. Now, here’s the first of many caveats I am going to make in this article – because of the mechanics of fielding a survey, getting the results and analyzing them, the surveys cover the time period before the more recent conflicts between police and protesters.
Jon Stewart isn’t the only one to raise questions about the media coverage. Current TV’s Keith Olbermann may have led the way with his “outrage” at the blackout. The “non-coverage” of the movement seems to be getting as much coverage as the actual movement. The Columbia Journalism Review looked at the non-coverage and the various reasons given by news organizations ranging from NPR to The New York Times. An article on the Poynter Institute website quoted a Columbia University professor who called the coverage lazy and predictable. Interestingly the article mentioned 1960’s protest movement coverage but didn’t go into the issue. And The Atlantic in its wired publication said media only responded when called out about its non-coverage.
Even so, the various surveys beg the chicken-or-egg media question: which comes first – media coverage or public interest. Does the media coverage generate public interest, or does the media respond to the public’s interest in a story? Gallup found that that more than half (56%) of the American public say they are following the OWS story “closely,” of which a fifth (18%) say they are following the OWS story “very closely.” That is lower than the average for the 200 news events tracked by Gallup. That showed 61% following a story closely and 22% following a story “very closely.” Again, the survey was before the more recent coverage of the conflicts. Interestingly though, Pew found very similar results to Gallup. A fifth (19%) say they are following the story “very closely” while more than half (58%) is following it either very or fairly closely.
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So, that would seem to justify the media’s earlier “blackout” coverage. Right? Well, what about the difference between the “new media index” interest and the “news coverage index.” Well, some more caveats. For starters, one could argue that the new media index really doesn’t truly measure general public interest, only that of the “Interneterati.” (Yes, I just made that word up. I think of it as the new media version of Literati.) And that they have a different set of values. For example, the Pew new media index found that the blogging community (or at least the ones they monitor) supports the OWS movement by a more than two to one margin. with nearly half (46%) of the conversations ‘championing’ the movement while less than a fifth (18%) opposed. The other third (35%) were neutral. But the general public has a much more mixed view. A separate Pew poll found the public pretty equally divided in their opinion of the movement with 39% supporting it and 35% opposing it. Gallup found even more uncertainty in the public with two-thirds (63%) saying they just didn’t know enough to say. Only a fifth (22%) supported the movement while a sixth (15%) opposed it.
In 1962, Telstar I was launched, the first of what was to be many communications satellites connecting the world media. In 1963, “a middle-aged wire service reporter” named Walter Cronkite took over the anchor chair at CBS. In the 60’s, the media coverage is credited (or blamed) with transforming public opinion from one that was, for the most part, supportive of the Vietnam War to one that generally opposed it. The impact of the media coverage of the civil rights movement of that decade is still a matter of debate. In 2011, the OWS movement has its own website, actually many websites; its own Twitter account, actually several Twitter accounts; blogs by the dozens if not hundreds. And it has become a worldwide movement without Telstar 1 but with the Internet. Meanwhile, traditional media is doing what? What is its role? Fifty years from now what will be the assessment of the media’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street?