Columbia Journalism Review JR
Date: September/October 2001
Title: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: The Globalization Protests and the Befuddled Press
Author: John Giuffo
Faculty evaluator: Suzanne Toczyski
Student researchers: Caroline Hubbard, Cathy Jensen, Derek Fieldsoe
Corporate media coverage: NY Times, 2/5/02, A-15
The US press failed to inform the public of the core underlying issues of the major anti-globalization protests of recent years. Dramatic images such as protesters enshrouded in tear gas, facing down a line of police officers dressed in riot gear have come to dominate the media coverage and overshadow the actual reasons that thousands of people are taking to the streets.
In July of 2001, over 100,000 people went to Genoa to protest the G-8 meetings. Corporate television gave little recognition to the issues that were being raised by the protesters. CNN showed few protesters actually sharing their views or reasons for protesting. Instead, news correspondents briefly summed up the protest in terms of who was there. This broad summary format was significantly lacking attention to specifics of the meetings or the protests. On Fox networks, the Genoa protesters were all but ignored.
A hard look at more than 200 stories by major news outlets including: ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek, shows serious weaknesses in the coverage of the four largest protests-the International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague in September 2000; the Hemispheric Free Trade talks in Quebec City in April, 2001; the European Union summit in Gothenburg, Sweden in June of 2001; and the G-8 meeting that took place in Genoa in July of 2001. The problem is not so much the focus on the small percentage of protesters who acted violently but that the coverage lacks context.
The message that protesters are trying to get across is that they want more democratic control (and less corporate control) over the rules that affect the environment and labor conditions around the world. This includes more democratic control over supranational organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, whose un-elected leaders, the protesters argue, override democratically determined laws and regulations in the name of “development” and “free trade.”
There are many instances of police brutality at these large protests, yet what tends to be emphasized by the mainstream news sources are the few acts of violence perpetrated by the protesters. For example, at the Genoa protest that took place last year, approximately seventy members of an Italian SWAT team barged through the doorway of a site where protesters were organizing. This led to the hospitalization of sixty-one demonstrators.
However, few news sources reported the police violence, and most sources focused on protester violence. CBS News released a Web report that indicated that the protesters were injured during the previous day’s events. European news sources and Independent News organizations, such as Indymedia.org put out full reports of police brutality against the protesters.
An article in The New York Times, written by Andrew Jacobs supports the notion that the media coverage of anti-globalization protests is appalling. Jacobs reports, “most press accounts focused on security concerns and the potential for violence…leaving little room for explanations of why people were protesting in the first place.”
UPDATE BY AUTHOR JOHN GIUFFO: We’ve heard the phrase “September 11 changed everything” so often that it has become a cliché to call it a cliché. But in terms of the global justice movement, 9-11 changed a lot. Support of violence as a legitimate protest tactic was waning before the attacks, but it dropped off the radar afterwards. The drama of the globalization-related protests was play-acted anarchy compared to our glimpse of the real thing that fall morning, and it seems like we’ve lost our collective stomach for such measures.
The few protests since, such as the New York City World Economic Forum protest in late January, have been relatively violence-free, comparatively under-attended affairs. Before, the violence had usually been the story, but the big story during the New York protests was that there was no story, and that the police had maintained order in a still-shaky city. None of the core issues the movement addressed have changed, but their perceived importance has waned in the swirl of global violence that has wracked the world in the past year. Quite simply, it seems like we’ve got bigger things to worry about. The coverage reflects that. The number of foreign correspondents at American news organizations has been shrinking for twenty years, and there are only so many left to go around. Protests in Sao Paolo, Brazil lost out to Operations Condor in the mountains of Afghanistan.
There’s another complicating factor – what can best be described as a sort of “message drift.” One of the movement’s main strengths has been its ability to subsume a multitude of complaints under the banner of anti-corporate democratization. But since the conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East have drawn away the keyboards and cameras of journalists, the anti-corporate protesters have been willing to share the stage with pacifists and pro-Palestinian protesters. Even IndyMedia, the main organizing news and message site of the movement, in a post to the site on January 11 conflated the economic issues behind the protests with what it called “the violence being committed against the people of Afghanistan.”
That’s not to say all the media are distracted. Some news organizations have done an admirable job recognizing the need to dedicate space for explanation and detail when covering the protests. A good example is the Washington Post, which covered the mid-April World Bank/pro-Palestinian protests relatively comprehensively, (arguably because it was a hometown affair) pausing to take time to explain the protesters’ preparations, the issues behind the economic and anti-Israel protests.
The global justice movement is very much in flux, and that has been one of the central challenges to it getting its message out. Calls for taking sides in the Middle East and against intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq threaten to drown out other voices advocating for clean air, or fair trade, or re-regulation in corporate ownership structures. There is a limited amount of space in newspapers, and only so much news airtime on television. The more messages that reporters have to get into their stories, the less they can explore those messages. It would seem the global justice movement has to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.
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