Media coverage of protests tends to generate consistently high ratings, page clicks and readership, which attracts more ad revenue. And when it comes to the protests themselves, in an increasing number of cases there is more than meets the eye. In some instances there is the stated reason for the protest, such as a common environmental or a safety concern, and then the unstated reasons that may better explain why someone was willing to make an investment of thousands if not millions of dollars to prop up the protestors.
The professional-protest economy has gotten very good at creating made-for-TV and made-for-social media events. The recipe is simple.
- Form a group around a theme that makes it look like you’re a victim or that you stand on morally higher ground than everyone else.
- Obtain funding for that group from an activist foundation. Or, not uncommonly, it’s the funder itself that conceives of the whole thing, from the theme of the cause and the creation of the protest group, to of course its branding. #GottaHaveAHashtag
- Create the core organization by paying professional activists to lead, organize and recruit others, and then be willing to pay who you need to make a show of it at protest events.
- You can target third-party events like a company’s annual meeting or an industry convention, or you can create your own events. The beauty of any protest is that with the right camera angle, you can make 20 people with signs look like popular opinion.
- If you’re having trouble recruiting people to your cause, simply run an ad on Craigslist looking for “paid volunteers,” which is an oxymoron. You can’t be a volunteer if someone’s paying you. That would make you an employee or paid contractor. More on that in a moment.
- With a core group of “paid volunteers” you have a better chance of recruiting others who are willing to join a protest to be a part of something, or to just be where the action is.
- Promote it all on social media and blanket the traditional media with your publicity outreach.
And there you have it, a protest-in-a-box.
The current protest model is based on a tried and true formula and counts on the general media’s need to drive ratings and readership by depicting volatile events as though they represent a popular uprising.
The prevalent and outdated assumption in this kind of media coverage is that these events spring up from the grassroots (Professional protests do not); that the participants are only there because they believe in the cause and not because they are paid (Increasingly many are being paid for the very act of protesting); and that their presence indicates they are willing to risk their jobs or studies for something bigger than themselves (Many don’t have jobs, or are still under the finances of their parents, and many of their professors actually encourage them to join the protests).
In other words, while the professional protest formula follows a very 21st Century template, media coverage of these same protests is still rooted in a 1960s narrative, one that automatically assigns hero status to just about anyone willing to block traffic.
One Question that Could Change Everything
If the general media wanted to bring its coverage of many of today’s protests into the 21st Century – if for any other reason than to be responsibly accurate – journalists would ask protestors one question and then base their coverage on the response. That question?
Who’s paying you to be here?
To be sure, many protestors aren’t paid at all and truly have bought into the cause of whatever it is they are against. Others who may be paid, still may have no idea where the money originates. But make no mistake, in more cases than you may realize there is a money trail if you are inclined to look for it.
If journalists ask this question of event spokespersons and other leaders every time, they might start to see a more clear and consistent pattern.
If a journalist makes sure to know which interviewees are paid and by whom – by asking directly or doing some investigative work – it would shape coverage with the same sort of accuracy as when the same journalist asks corporate spokespersons for their names and titles. In both instances, the valid premise of the question is to provide context that’s based on the motives and self-interest of those involved.
This shouldn’t be too much to expect this since it’s largely regarded as normal journalistic practice when protestors are not involved. But it seems that when they are involved, they get a pass. Just calling themselves “protestors” is enough to give them automatic immunity from standard journalistic scrutiny.
Protestors as Rock Stars
I once happened to be at an event where a group of grungy environmental protestors led a rally where they played acoustic guitars and ladled barley soup to the crowd. On stage it was a mini Woodstock. They gave the visual impression they could have made their way to the event by hitchhiking, riding bikes or traveling communally in beat up old school buses.
What the crowd didn’t see, but I did, right around the corner was a parked caravan of shiny new, air-conditioned tour buses fit for Bruno Mars and his band. This is where the 21st Century “hippies” retreated to presumably to cool off, drink and eat something better than barley soup, and expand their carbon footprint. The behind-the-scenes infrastructure looked less like that of a group of grassroots environmental protestors, and much more like one suited for a million-dollar, gas-guzzling traveling circus.
If the media wanted to report on the very high-dollar feel of this organization, all it had to do was walk around the corner and just watch, just as I did. But if it did, that would have blown the narrative.
So, if you happen to be a reporter, I’d challenge you in the name of accuracy, to make sure to ask every protestor you come across a simple question, and be willing to use the facts involved to shape your story. Ask, “Who’s paying you to be here?”
Also published on Medium.