Sarah Sobieraj, author of Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism, comments on the misguided emphasis activists often place on mainstream media attention.
Adina Nack: What is media-centered political activism, and how perilous is it?
Sarah Sobieraj: I studied 50 U.S. activist groups from across the political spectrum, expecting to find engagement in a range of political strategies, but nearly every organization had the same strategy – attracting attention from the mainstream news media. They invested astounding amounts of time, money, and energy into media preparation and training, but were largely unsuccessful. This exclusion from mainstream news diminishes the richness of our political discourse, and consequently weakens democratic processes, but I found that the activists’ relentless pursuit of media inclusion also threatens activism.
With news coverage as the raison d’etre, organizers often approached their own members as potential liabilities in need of discipline. As a result, open communication among fellow activists was often replaced by rigorous attempts to control their speech and behavior. Activists were meticulously schooled on talking points, warned about “entrapment,” and reminded repeatedly to “stay on message” at all costs. In some cases, members were given practice interviews, recorded, and critiqued by their group. This happened in the organizations that allowed participants to speak to reporters; many groups had designated spokespeople and prohibited other members from answering journalists’ questions altogether. This member management stemmed from desires to control whatever fleeting coverage the group might attract. This approach was practical but could also be toxic. One activist described feeling like a prop, invited only to show journalists that their group had numbers, but told to keep quiet and stay out of the way.