When is a protest not a protest
November 6, 2011
About a week ago, I found myself heading down to the Occupy Chicago protest to complete an Oral History assignment for my Audio reporting class. I had been through the protest a couple of days earlier, but due to unsuitable audio conditions (i.e. massive road construction 10 feet away), had decided to return at a later time.
When I walked up Jackson Place towards the Fed and the Chicago Board of Trade, I had a flash of panic. Where were all the unwashed protestors? I expected to find people sleeping on the sidewalk and some volunteers serving up hot coffee to the early risers, but what I found instead was a giant pile of signs and one guy with a donations box.
I later discovered that this was normal. The protestors didn’t usually show up until 1pm or so and didn’t march until 5pm, when they would have the largest audience of commuters and pedestrians. Furthermore, I learned, all of these details were carefully laid out, along with the structure of the organization and its various committees, in a Google Calendar. Had I bothered to Google ‘Occupy Chicago Schedule’ I could have saved myself a lot of time.
At the time, however, I felt totally disillusioned. Where were the masses of people who had left their previous lives to join the movement? Where were the young people braving the cold nights to make their point to the establishment? Where were the sign holders and petition carriers and drum circlers?
As it turns out, they’re in New York (and Oakland, Calif. and a few other major demonstration locations). The reason I was expecting to come across a mass of protestors at 9:30 in the morning is that most of the coverage I have seen of the movement comes out of the national news bureaus located, conveniently, just a few short miles from the original and largest Occupy protest, Occupy Wall Street.
This is partly my fault. Having come from a national politics job, I tend to still read the national papers and watch the national news before turning to NBC5 or the Chicago Tribune. But partly, this expectation and subsequent disappointment was a result of a (very) successful message campaign by the protestors themselves that stated that they were not getting fair coverage in the media. Here they were, they said, day after day, protesting the 1 percent and no one came to amplify their message in the mass media.
Admittedly, I still managed to complete my assignment and did not return later when the bulk of the scheduled activities commenced, but I left with a renewed sense that what you see on the news, even without an intentional bias, can greatly affect what is known in the general public. And journalists can lose sight of this. They’re entrenched in the story and forget that the public only sees the minute-twenty package on the evening news. Coming to this story as someone who only glanced at it before Monday, I was reminded how what we leave out of the story can affect it more than what we put in and that editing can distort both the scope and importance of a story.