I recently finished Brian McNair’s Introduction to Political Communication, and it was an ok read – very much an introduction to a topic I already had a fair knowledge of. It introduced a few new ideas and, mostly, a large number of specific cases that are useful/good to know. But one concept McNair mentioned is one that has angered me this past year, concerning how certain events are reported in the media.
Agenda setting in the media is something that every political actor tries to achieve, and almost every act we undertake is a political act in some respect. An online commentator I watched recently said: “Everything that happens is a political act, and the only people that get to pretend otherwise are those privileged enough to not have politics impact them at all.” What kind of media coverage is achieved, however, depends on the scale, impact, or controversiality of these actions.
Many are left unreported, mostly because a majority are relatively negligible, such as choosing to take public transport instead of a car on your work commute – nobody really cares, unless some massive change is announced. Others don’t get coverage because the people carrying out the actions, those that are affected by them, and/or those trying to bring attention to them do not have the resources to garner the necessary audience. Sadly, a lot of Indigenous groups and other underrepresented demographics fit into this category, and therefore the media tends to ignore them or portray them in a less than desirable way.
A perfect example of this would be how the agenda is set around the cashless welfare cards that are being trialled to a number of people on welfare benefits. A lot of attention is given to the witless politicians who subject these people to public humiliation and to the relatively minute number of actual ‘bludgers’ or drug addicts, but most outlets – even those that sympathise with these people – rarely communicate directly with the people suffering on welfare payments.
But the issue that I immediately compared to the examples given in the book was the climate change protests that have taken the world by storm. Admittedly, it is not the best example to compare it with – McNair specifically talks about how acts of terrorism are a violent form of political communication. There is usually some form of political messaging behind it and a hell of a lot of context leading up to the attack, but the media, particularly the mainstream media in the 24-hour news cycle, often don’t provide this context. Most of the coverage is dedicated to the atrocity committed, the responses and statements of the relevant perpetrators and politicians, and a focus on the victims of the attack.
Now, all of those things are absolutely newsworthy after a terror attack – don’t get me wrong there. The issue, in this case, isn’t what is reported, but what is omitted and the framework that results from that omission. While the perpetrators can receive the coverage they desire, the agenda setting surrounding the media response is out of their control and almost always works against them. In the case of violent terror attacks, I should hope it does work against them – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand their message and the reasoning behind the attack, both pieces of information that could be used to try and prevent further hostility and build some kind of rapport towards peaceful talks.
In the case of the climate protests, especially the Extinction Rebellion ones, it goes without saying that the members and supporters of these groups are by no means violent or extremist; the minority that are usually get condemned rapidly as opportunistic and stupid. They do, however, receive similarly dodgy coverage in the media.
Extinction Rebellion’s actions are a form of communication trying to trigger positive action on climate change from their respective governments, often through disruptive protesting. They can command the attention of the media quite easily by doing this, and only resort to these measures because all other forms of communication thus far have yielded few results. Attention, however, is only half the game, and the loosely organised and mostly leaderless movement lacks the resources or cultural capital to take a hold of the narrative as well.
The media often casts these protestors as welfare bludging, jobless hippies who have nothing better to do than throw rush hour traffic into more chaos and ruin the days of the ordinary commuters. Many of these antagonistic outlets do not communicate directly with the protestors, and if they do it’s usually only a token quote or two alongside the disdain from opposing community members. Focus is drawn to the increased traffic and (rather manufactured) public opinion about the protestors’ actions, thus dragging it away from the highly relevant message that is being clearly conveyed.
Your mild inconvenience on your morning commute means jack shit compared to the existential inconvenience the global population – starting with people who are clearly not you in your privileged position – will face if urgent action is not taken on all levels of government. Important research and facts are completely omitted, replaced instead by clickbait headlines about ‘yet another protest’.
The issue here is not the protestors being disruptive, but the media setting the agenda against them. More effective media strategies may need to be developed by groups by Extinction Rebellion, for sure, but the core problem is how the media presents events. The Brisbane Times recently had an article talking about how happy Aurizon – a rail freight company that makes money delivering coal shipments – was with the upcoming anti-protest laws in Queensland. Sorry, but I think the voices of our Indigenous peoples, the climate scientists, and the protestors trying to justify themselves are a little more important than yet another corporate giant.
The media narrative must be commanded skilfully – to ignore the affect it has on movements like Extinction Rebellion is to have our voices ignored in the fight for climate justice.
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