Expert Commentary

Making the news: Movement organizations, media attention and the public agenda

2010 study in American Sociological Review on characteristics of social advocacy organizations and their level of media attention.

One strategy of social movement groups has been to leverage local media coverage of events in order to advance public opinion and debate around that particular organization’s focal issue. However, not all social advocacy organizations are created equal, and seemingly similar groups can inspire more media attention than their peers. What, then, are the attributes that set one organization apart from the pack when it comes to garnering increased media exposure?

A 2010 study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published in the American Sociological Review, “Making the News: Movement Organizations, Media Attention, and the Public Agenda” (PDF), analyzed 187 environmental organizations in North Carolina and more than 2,000 local newspaper articles published about them over a two-year period in order to discover the characteristics of organizations enjoying the most media attention.

The study’s findings include:

  • Staff size was related positively to news coverage: roughly every two additional staff led to one extra article per newspaper over a 2-year period. However, an organization’s age, number of committees, professional affiliations and networks had no significant effect.
  • Organizations that mobilized people through on-the-ground organizing and worked alongside stable political figures gained greater media attention. Demonstrations and protest events were effective tactics for increasing media visibility, even once researchers controlled for differences in organizational platforms and resources.
  • However, large protest events did gain greater media attention than small events, and organizations with large memberships experienced advantages in terms of the media coverage they received after making public claims about an issue.
  • Organizations that employed deliberately confrontational or “identity deployment” strategies of building alternative organizations gained less news coverage than those employing more traditional advocacy tactics to attract media coverage.
  • The way groups approach an issue matters: “organizations working on issues that address economic and social dimensions of the environment gain greater media attention.”

The researchers conclude that “the findings presented here indicate that news media report more extensively on organizations that are geographically proximate, have greater organizational capacity, mobilize people through demonstrations or organizations, and use conventional tactics to target the state and media. The findings regarding proximity lend support to the longstanding claim that media routines and localism as a criterion for newsworthiness shape news content.”

Tags:  campaigns and media

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