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Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies For Grassroots Organizing

February 18, 2017

primetimeactivismCharlotte Ryan’s Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies For Grassroots Organizing is nearly 20 years old, which means it predates pretty much the entire online media and communications infrastructure that exists today. Nonetheless it remains an impressively valuable tool for leaders and organizers seeking to engage more effectively with the media.

Prime Time Activism is a “how-to” book: not how to write a press release, eep a media list updated, etc., but how to use mainstream media as part of an overall strategy to advance your organization’s agenda and build its power.  To do that, Ryan contends, one must understand the media “world as it is” and then make decisions about how and when to use it. Here’s a summary of the book’s main points.

WHAT’S NEWSWORTHY: Something is newsworthy if it meets the criteria of public recognition, importance and interest. Public recognition includes: issue recognition, famous faces, trendiness and proximity. Importance is defined by: power, impact and currency. Criteria for interest include: good story, human interest, memorable emotions, visuals, cultural resonance and fresh twist.

GETTING FRAMED: A “frame” is a way of ordering information into a coherent story. A frame is almost always implied, rather than explicitly written in a news article or broadcast. A “mobilizing frame” has 3 characteristics:

  1. the issue, responsibility and solution are all defined collectively;
  2. they are conflictual—there is an “us” and a “them”;
  3. they launch a moral appeal—what’s happening is unjust, unfair and violates basic social standards.

A “demobilizing frame” does the reverse, defining the story as individual, obscuring sides, and avoiding questions of morality.

FRAMES contain: Core Frame (“the issue is…”), Core Position (“this is what should happen…”), Metaphor, Historical Example, Catch-phrases, Depictions, Visual Images, Roots, Consequences, Appeals to Principle. (See Appendix B, p 241 ff.)

FRAME CONTESTS: Your opponent will have its own frame it wants to promote. It’s important to take the time to understand your opponent’s view of the world, the way in which they want the story told, and the preconceptions reporters will have in mind. What then happens is a contest between you and your opponent as to how the story is told.

PEGS, LEADS & BITES: A “peg” is a “hook” on which to “hang” a story that otherwise isn’t “newsworthy”.  (Like pretty much every institution, the media has its own jargon that’s known by insiders and can be a baffling mystery to outsiders.) Ryan gives the example of a feature story on African-American infant mortality that was only broadcast after the Surgeon General had released a report on infant mortality. In this case, the Surgeon General’s report became the “hook” that made it “newsworthy” to run a pre-existing story.

A “lead” is the “what’s new” part of the story. Here Ryan’s example is of the maids at Boston’s luxurious Copley Plaza hotel having to clean bathrooms on their hands and knees. The exploitation of maids in the hotel business is nothing new; the “on their knees” angle is what made it a story for the mainstream media.

Bites” are soundbites. Not everyone is equally talented at speaking in “quotable quotes”, Ryan says. But people who are good at it are usually people who have practiced what they’re going to say, and who think of themselves as people worth quoting.

GETTING ACCESS: As with any institution, the media has its own avenues for allowing access to them (and their own roadblocks and detours for obstructing access).

NEWS ROUTINES: Reporters cover beats; they have deadlines and they have to file stories of a certain length (e.g., 90 seconds for TV, 20 column inches for print). Their needs vary depending on what medium they work in (radio, TV, print). [Today most reporters work in multiple mediums: e.g., the newspaper reporter who has a Twitter feed, files stories for the print edition of a newspaper, shoots video for the paper’s website, and has a weekly podcast.] Reporters’ needs also vary depending on what beat they cover (e.g., city hall, business, lifestyle, columnist). Ryan emphasizes that “challengers organizing in workplaces or in the electoral arena pay attention to the routines and organization culture of those they are trying to win over. Media work demands the same.

GATEKEEPERS: Reporters are the gatekeepers of the mainstream media. You needs to “get past” them before you can hope to be covered. Basically, Ryan suggests monitoring what reporters write, and doing individual meetings with them. Building relationships is, she suggests, the best way to build one’s credibility.

SOURCES: Reporters tend to have a limited circle of people they consider “good sources”. Journalists look for the following traits in a source: an institutional connection, productivity (good story ideas), accuracy (solid research & documentation), honesty, articulateness (knowledge, brevity & wit), consistency, accessibility.

MEDIA PLANNING: Ryan provides some useful outlines and questions (see p. 220 ff.) for both short and long-range strategies for dealing with mainstream media.



From → Books, Politics

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