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Media Attention and the Political Impacts of Occupy Wall Street

This May Day brought unprecedented numbers of Americans out in the streets to mark international worker’s day. But in Pittsburgh, one wouldn’t know that a few hundred residents also gathered to protest the corporate behemoths whose buildings dominate the downtown landscape and whose policies have devastated our economy, our local community, and our health. While the local newspaper saw it fit to report on the May Day protests in Madrid, and the broken windows and arrests of activists in other parts of the country, our local event was ignored.

This portrayal of the news will come as no surprise to most readers, but it is important to our democracy to raise up the problem of media bias in reporting on major social conflicts like the one highlighted in the OWS movement. We’ve examined news reports on the OWS protests and the Tea Party protests to see whether and how political bias in the mainstream news media may be affecting American’s understandings about the depth and significance of these two movements.

Newspaper Coverage of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party (January 1, 2011-April 30, 2012)Source: Full-text searches of 2,233 U.S. Newspapers using Access World News

Starting in January, 2011, the patterns we see in the first graph show that the Tea Party receives a fairly consistent level of media attention, with a slight decline in more recent weeks. In contrast, OWS received intense attention in October and November as the movement spread, but this was not sustained, and the total amount of media coverage declined by half in December and again in January, with continued declines through March and April.

Looking at the Tea Party over its first year in the second graph, we see a very different trend. Starting in February 2009, which corresponds to Rick Santelli’s comments on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, there is a small increase in attention in March, followed by extensive coverage of the 2009 Tax Day rallies. This level of attention is not sustained, but starting in June media coverage of the Tea Party starts to increase again. Unlike OWS, then, there is an overall increase in media attention to the Tea Party, and quite notable spikes in coverage in January and February, 2010.

Newspaper Coverage of the Tea Party (February, 2009-February 2010)Source: Full-text searches of 2,233 U.S. Newspapers using Access World News

While some may argue that the decline in media attention reflects the closures of camps and an actual decline in OWS activism, our research on local OWS organizing suggests that many local groups remained active following the disbanding of camps, and many took on new forms. In addition, while we found a decline in the number of newsfeeds posted to the Occupy Wall Street website beginning in early 2012, there was a notable and persistent increase in the numbers of posts that has remained since the beginning of April, as we show in our third graph. In other words, OWS is still active, and we might be seeing another wave of activity, but this isn’t apparent from the mainstream media coverage of the movement. At the same time, analyses of Tea Party protests show steep declines in activity between 2009 and 2012. Using a combination of web searches and newspaper coverage of the Tea Party's signature Tax Day rallies, we counted 1,022 protests in 2009, which declined to 853 in 2010, and only 701 in 2011. Yet the media coverage conveys the sense that the Tea Party’s size, trajectory, and level of activity overshadows OWS.

Newsfeed posts to Occupy Wall Street website (August 1, 2011-May 1, 2012)Source: http://www.occupywallst.org

Clearly, editors in many media markets are downplaying the activities of Occupy Wall Street, and we can surmise many reasons for this. But reading between the lines, another story is apparent about this potent movement and its impacts on politics in this country. For starters, it is patently clear that the movement has drawn attention to the problem of inequality and its links to public policy. The significance of idea of the “99%” is that it portrays inequality as a political rather than an individual failing.

Newspaper Articles Addressing theme of Inequality (January 1, 2011-April 30, 2012)Source: Full-text searches of 2,233 U.S. Newspapers using Access World News

Our analysis of newspaper articles mentioning ‘income inequality’ in any context between January of 2011 and March of 2012 in the fourth graph shows that references to income inequality grew sharply following the launch of OWS. At the peak in December and January, there were over 500 articles per month. This began to decline in February and March, but even the low point in March 2012 remains almost double the number of references to inequality prior to OWS, and there is a slight uptick in references to income inequality in April. This suggests that OWS has helped shift the public agenda by expanding media and public discourse about the problem of inequality. Being cautious, we can conclude that the movement has had some cultural impact, even if it has not directly resulted in clear policy shifts.

This raises the question of how we might even be able to know whether the Occupy movement has had an impact on policy when its presence is being downplayed if not dismissed by the mainstream media. One read on the under-reporting of OWS protests is that the spread of localized and persistent protests to communities around the country has the corporate elite running scared, and they are using their influence on commercial news media to suppress a story about popular anti-corporate uprising. Indeed, assessments of Tea Party protests show that they receive substantially more media coverage than progressive movements—even those that are much larger and representative of broad constituencies. In their recent book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson demonstrate that the Tea Party received extensive and often sympathetic media coverage, especially from Fox News. So clearly there is an interest in channeling public unrest over the economy towards some policy prescriptions rather than others. And no doubt the OWS call to “tax the rich” ruffles some feathers in corporate media boardrooms.

But to sustain the energy of activists and to recruit new participants, any movement needs to be able to show that it is having some impact on policy. So it is worth investigating whether we can see some traces of the Occupy movement’s impacts in the policy arena.

We hear a lot about the camp evictions and more confrontational responses of authorities to public protests, but we also know from past movements that elites tend to respond to popular threats in multiple ways. They prefer approaches that undercut movements’ potential to gain new sympathizers, and overt repression can backfire in this regard. A better approach is to challenge or dispel some of the grievances that help fuel popular support for a movement.

Here we can point again to Pennsylvania, where Occupy protesters in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and elsewhere in the state have honed in on Governor Corbett’s proposed budget, which slashes funding to key public services like transit and education. Following months of public protests against the Corbett budget, Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette reported that, miraculously, nearly $100 million additional dollars of tax revenue have appeared in Pennsylvania’s general fund. This is 3% above the projected revenue figures which produced the $719 million deficit Corbett used to justify massive cuts in public spending.

Significantly, the Post-Gazette story attributes increased revenues to “strong collections of corporation and sales taxes.” But the story doesn’t address why corporations have been more willing to pay their taxes this year than in the past. It doesn’t ask whether the state has stepped up corporate tax-enforcement in response to budget shortfalls, something Occupy protesters have demanded. Or perhaps corporate leaders realizing on their own that they need to pay up if they want to avoid fueling protests that have drawn so much attention to widespread corporate tax evasion and inequitable national tax policies.

Most effects have causes, and good reporting should explore these causal connections. Reading between the lines, we might say that the Occupy movement is having much more of an impact than readers of the mainstream media are led to believe.