8.13. Media Coverage of Social Movements

In the media, the talk is always about finding out “the truth.” But what attracts attention is controversy.

Getting attention and media coverage is a major goal for most social movements.

But the media landscape has changed a lot, just over the past ten, twenty years.

Our news sources are more digital, more diverse, more fragmented, and more likely to be passed through social networks than they used to be.

What are the implications of these rapid changes for social movements?

I think it’s important, first and foremost, to remember that almost all of the media organizations in the United States are businesses.

Specifically, they’re ad-based businesses. They make money to the extent they can attract people to consume the ads they bundle with their products.

In theory, consumers like us are only supposed to reward the news organizations who do the most informative, accurate, comprehensive reporting.

But in practice, increasingly people are flocking to news sources that echo their own personal beliefs and perspectives.

Increasingly, slick presentations, hype, fiery partisan debates, and fluff pieces attract more attention than doing a good job covering the most important news.

There are two broad types of media organizations out there: the ones who will, like the mainstream media, attempt at all times to present an air of neutrality, and the ones who will invoke a passion for the “truth” to explain their commitment to presenting news and opinions from a particular viewpoint.

In every media organization, the talk is always about finding out “the truth.”

But at the core of every media organization, the business model is always about attracting attention.

And what attracts attention is controversy.

Your cause to save puppies might get a mention in a fluff piece. But it’s never going to become a media juggernaut.

The causes that gain the most media coverage are the ones that inspire passionate supporters and passionate opponents.

And if there aren’t any passionate opponents to your cause yet…perhaps the media will take it upon itself to create some—through speculative, poorly-sourced coverage that “raises questions.”

You may dream of your movement conquering the media—and the world—through its virtue and charisma. But in this media landscape, the outcome of just about any movement is largely predetermined.

You may win some allies, who are willing to promote your movement, and will try to raise it up as an example of the kind of noble, important causes only their organization will report on.

But just as surely, you’ll attract some enemies. Some reporters sniffing for a scandal. Some organizations that want to hold up your movement as an example of an underreported threat.

And the mainstream media, bound at all times to appear “neutral,” will feel compelled to cover “both sides,” no matter how silly or unpopular the other side’s arguments may be.

It’s a catch-22. Because movements need media coverage. But at the same time, we have a media ecosystem that takes movements of all kinds—and turns them into the kind of highly charged, controversial, and scandalous stories that will attract the most attention for them—but create powerful enemies for the movement.

It’s something to be aware of, as you plot a media strategy.

A smart movement will know that the media will try to turn their movement into something it isn’t necessarily—and plan ahead to resist those attempts.


This is the 137th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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