Pressing Your Point:

Advice for Handling the Media

 

If you hang out long enough at Zuccotti Park or at any of the protests linked to Occupy Wall Street, there is a good chance that a reporter will approach you at one point or another. This often seems like a good deal. They can give you the opportunity to reach a wide audience, plus it’s pretty damn cool to see your face on TV or your name in print. But remember, these guys and gals can be a slippery lot. For the journalist, it’s not usually about helping you spread the good word of economic justice. It’s about getting the quote they’re looking for so they can file a story before their editor jumps down their throat.

As a rule, journalists don’t set out on a mission to distort your message or make you look like an idiot. This is increasingly true of the coverage of OWS, which started off as snide and dismissive, but has grown more serious and supportive as the weeks go by. And while there are glaring, ugly, Sean Hannity-shaped exceptions, most journalists try to honor their professional responsibilities, inasmuch as the constraints imposed by their editors and deadlines will allow them. Remember that the staggering majority of them are part of the 99%. Pay in journalism is notoriously low and job security is basically non-existent. But this is no reason to let your guard down when you speak with them. They have a job to do, and they have certain, predetermined ways of going about this job. Knowing this, we’d like to offer a few suggestions and strategies in case you find yourself on the receiving end of an interview.

 

Know who you’re talking to. Different news outlets will treat you differently, so make sure you find out who the reporter works for. If you don’t recognize the name of their employer, don’t be afraid to ask what they’re all about. Do they claim an ideological perspective? Are they part of a conglomerate or independent? Folks at OWS tend to be pretty savvy when it comes to knowing media outlets, so feel free to ask a nearby protester about a publication you’re unfamiliar with.

As for the different types of media you might run across, independent and alternative outlets—like Indymedia or the Global Revolution TV folks broadcasting live from Zuccotti Park—are inclined to be sympathetic to the cause. They probably won’t play games trying to get you to say something “stupid”.

Conservative outlets—such as the National Review, WorldNetDaily, and, most obviously, Fox News—will generally arrive with a negative view of the protests already in mind. They are there to gather fodder for their ideologically-motivated attacks on OWS and are unlikely to report anything except that which makes us look ill-informed and unreasonable. Distortion is their bread and butter, so these outlets should be approached with extreme caution. Hell, I’d be inclined not to talk to them at all. But if you do choose to talk to a conservative outlet, it is a good idea to have a friend with an iPhone or other recording device take their own video of the interview. This tactic already helped OWS protester Jesse LaGreca shame Fox News when they chose not to air his articulate defense of OWS and excoriation of the network and its parent company. Since LaGreca and his non-Fox cameraman had their own video of the exchange, they were able to get it on YouTube where it went viral and eventually reached an even wider audience when it aired on TV talk shows.

In between these two poles falls most of the mainstream press. They have less of a personal stake in promoting or denigrating our cause. Their slant is likely to be determined by the frame they intend on using for the story. Their editors may have them there to report on the protesters motivations for occupying the park, or it might be a story on the park’s “unsanitary conditions.” You can try to ferret this out, but journalists will generally be reluctant to clue you in. Fortunately, OWS has gained enough momentum that these outlets—the New York Times for instance—have been forced to take us seriously. The tone of recent mainstream articles is less condescending than those that appeared in the days following the September 17th taking of the park (when such articles appeared at all). Don’t let this shift make you feel too comfortable, though. Reporters’ inbuilt biases remain intact. Most, for example, will still take the word of the NYPD over that of a protester. If what you say contradicts the authorities, you’re gong to be held to a higher standard of evidence.

 

Live interviews vs. taped and print interviews. Not all interviews operate the same way. Taped interviews and interviews for print publications lend themselves to manipulative editing. In these situations, journalists pick and choose which of your quotations, if any, they will include in their finished product. Your statements will be shorn of context, so it is important to try to make sure that every sentence you say is capable of standing on its own without contradicting your larger point. This can be very difficult, and no matter how careful you are, these kind of interviews put the greater share of the power in the hands of the reporter. We are not powerless, however. As noted above, having a friend videotape the interview can help check these distortions. If your words are twisted or if, like Jesse LaGreca, your interview goes unaired for ideological reasons, you can take your own video to the web to expose the unfairness of the media representation.

It’s unlikely that a television or radio journalist will engage you in a live interview, one that is broadcasted at the same time it is shot. Journalists tend to shy away from these interviews precisely because they are not in complete control of them. Sound-biting and editing are not an option when the interview airs live. These sorts of interviews can be difficult; the person asking you questions almost certainly has more experience in front of a camera or behind a microphone than you do. However, the statements you make will be aired in the context you provide for them. One statement cannot be plucked from a larger exchange in order to misrepresent or over-simplify your views. Even in these situations, though, it is important that you...

 

Choose your words carefully. A reporter asks you a question. Take a deep breath. Mentally plan out what you want to say, what your main point is. Now say it.

The words that you say to journalists aren’t like the words you say in normal conversation. You can’t take them back. You can’t qualify or explain them and expect to see these qualifications and explanations taken into account. You could deliver a 15-minute exegesis on the corrupting power of corporate money in political campaigns and the inanity of the carried interest loophole, but if the words, “the cops have been dicks” pass through your lips, all of your articulate discourse was for naught. I can almost guarantee you that “the cops have been dicks” are the only words that’ll see print.  Even in live interviews where sound-biting is not an option, bombastic or aggressive statements will be what the journalist presses you on and what sticks in the mind of viewers or listeners. Just because you can place your words in context doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be carefully considered. And if their questions are leading in a certain direction, feel free to say, “that’s not important, what’s important is…”

If the views or rhetoric you want to express are provocative, that’s your right. But just keep in mind that any inflammatory statements you make are likely to drown out everything else you say.

 

Personalize the issue. Personal stories tend to be better than political critiques at intriguing journalists and connecting with audiences. A journalist probably won’t give an interviewee the time or space to discuss the finer points of the Federal Reserve interest rate. This kind of considered discourse, alas, is not a part of the contemporary news media, and no matter how airtight your monologue, they’re not going to change their asinine practices for you.

What they will find time and space for are personal stories. “All my life, my teachers, my parents, and politicians told me that to make it in America I needed to get educated. So I took out loans and studied hard. Now there are no jobs to be had and I’m $30,000 in debt. Why is it that the people who ruined the economy got bailed out while I’m sleeping on my friend’s couch?” “My husband and I lost most of our savings in the financial collapse. We’re worried about paying for our children’s education, let alone our retirement. I just can’t believe no one has been held accountable and that no real changes have been made to stop this from happening again.” These kinds of narratives are catnip for reporters, and they’re tremendously effective at communicating with the public. Connecting the politics of economic justice to your day-to-day life reminds everyone what is at stake here: alleviating the real hardships of real people. So think carefully about what has inspired you to protest and tell your story. Stories are powerful because they connect us to one another, they let us identify with somebody we don’t know. Political jargon can feel abstract and alienating, but stories are profoundly human. They are one of the best communicative tools we have.

 

Pay Attention to the Coverage and Learn From It. The only way to know what the media is saying about OWS and the 99% Movement is to read and watch. By carefully studying the coverage, you can learn to mimic what works and avoid what doesn’t.

Journalists aren’t something to fear. The more coverage we receive—even if its dismissive—the more we seem to grow. The public watches us on the news and they see past the distortion, and recognize themselves in our grievances. But if we are careful and thoughtful about our relationship with the media, we can help ensure our power to connect with the 99% across the country reaches its full potential. So speak up, but speak smart. 

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