Guest column: Mixed messages?

Bob Batchelor

Entering its second month, the Occupy Wall Street protest continues to gain strength as similar groups across the U.S. and around the world express outrage over the teetering economy. The demonstrators are a living embodiment of the widespread fear concerning a potential global economic collapse.

The images of demonstrators in the streets, emanating from NYC and across large and small American towns and cities, are readily available via the Web, cable news and other outlets. From a storytelling perspective, the demonstrators symbolize the anger welling up against entrenched institutions, ranging from large financial corporations to Congress.

The outpouring of emotion from the demonstrators sends a visceral message to those in power and provides a lasting image of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In contrast to the throngs of people in the streets, the media coverage of the protests offers a conflicted picture that cuts to the heart of contemporary criticism of journalism — how the profession balances between objectivity and sensationalism.

On one hand, reporters in New York and elsewhere are attracted to the fringes. Searching for a way to connect to potential audiences, these usually take one of several forms, from interviewing demonstrators that fulfill a preconceived or stereotypical idea of what a protester looks like to broadcasting celebrities that get involved. When a Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore or Alec Baldwin shows up, reporters flock to them, essentially killing two birds with one stone — covering a story angle and fulfilling the nation’s celebrity obsession.

Examining the Occupy Wall Street coverage, however, also reveals that media outlets themselves are sensitive to the idea that their reports contain inherent biases or focus on sensationalist elements. As a result, a healthy dose of self-policing is taking place, such as the recent Los Angeles Times article comparing news coverage of Occupy Wall Street and past representations of the tea party or the Associated Press piece questioning the core messages emerging from the group’s decentralized leadership.

Given the seemingly infinite number of news and opinion outlets and use of social media to zip messages globally, it is as if attentive media consumers understand that those who desire an ideological viewpoint can easily find it via one of the prejudiced news channels. There is not much crossover between hyper-partisan viewers who only read or watch news from where they reside on the political spectrum. Fox News viewers, for example, have a good idea of the kind of coverage they will see and the ideology it supports, similar to what a Rolling Stone reader expects to read.

For people who do not identify with the rhetoric emerging from liberal or conservative sources, the search for objectivity clashes the desire for angles or hooks that represent microcosms within the large, decentralized movement. Finding the story within the story seems logical, while simultaneously helping audiences make sense of the larger perspective. One argument, then, is that the media is providing audiences with the news and information they want in an understandable way. From a different perspective, though, it seems as if objectivity falls in favor of a race to the fringes.

Given that Occupy Wall Street is driven by anger directed at numerous sources, there is no simple message emanating from its leadership. As a result, attempts at harnessing or portraying it become more difficult from an objective viewpoint. Until a group of leaders or positions emerge that defines the protest for the masses, the media will be left casting about for storylines that stick.

Bob Batchelor is an assitant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.