On Martin Luther King Day, students at the University of Michigan held a rally to demand various changes at the university, to promote racial diversity and inclusion on campus. First, the demands of the Black Student Union, which organized Monday’s rally:
I initially heard about this story from a few friends with ties to the University of Michigan, but I don’t know enough about student life there to speak about students’ experiences. What struck me, even more than the demands, was the way that this rally and the BSU’s demands were represented in news coverage. Here is the beginning of MLive.com’s coverage (MLive is one of the larger news organizations in Michigan).
The threat of “physical action” is emphasized in both the headline and lead paragraph, while activists’ demands are put later in the story. This type of coverage is entirely predictable. I don’t mean to single out MLive here, since I believe most news organizations would make a similar decision if they decided to cover the BSU rally. For comparison, here is Al Jazeera America’s coverage:
Some members of the University of Michigan’s Black Student Union issued a list of seven demands to college administrators Monday calling for improved racial diversity and inclusion on campus. The participants gave the university seven days to meet their requests before they consider a ‘physical’ form of activism to spur reforms.
In each case, the word “physical” is in quotes. None of the news coverage specifies what “physical action” may entail. Neither does the BSU Twitter feed. Given the way that news organizations tend to cover protests, a vague threat of physical activism may be the worst way to attract attention. Journalists are more likely to cover “disruptive” protests that include some physical destruction of property (Oliver and Maney 2000), but they cover the violence more than the underlying issues being protested. At Michigan, physical action is placed in the lead paragraph, before any activist is quoted to elaborate on their views.
Most of the social movement organization leaders I have met, either as a reporter or in my time as a graduate student, are keenly aware of how protests may be covered. They take great pains to avoid ambiguity and discipline members about what types of “physical action” are counter productive. Monday’s rally at the University of Michigan helps show why. There was no violence. There was no disruption. And yet the threat of disruption is emphasized.
A recurring theme of this blog, so far, has been that word choices matter a great deal in news coverage. The BSU can say what they want at their rally. They can choose to engage with a wide variety of audiences across the world, drawing more attention to the problems on their campus. It’s a tremendous opportunity to control the story. But seizing this opportunity requires thinking critically about the core message and how it will be perceived by others. How do you perceive a student group threatening “physical action” if their demands aren’t met?
It’s an ambiguous phrase, so each of us probably fill in the gaps based on our own experience. I think of UCLA student protesters’ tendency to physically occupy buildings as a symbolic protest. Other student activists may think “by any means necessary.” Journalists usually think disruption is the story, more than the activists’ ideas. A few people may react very negatively to any vague threat of “physical action” on a college campus this week if they are still thinking about the shooting yesterday on Purdue’s campus. Obviously this last connection may be a stretch – and it also falls in to racial stereotypes – but people don’t always form these connections in a rational way.
To change people’s perceptions, you need to first consider how they think about the world and how they will respond to different kinds of ideas. How will people outside the movement will perceive the movement’s rhetoric and actions? I know that some of my friends who read this will see it as “selling out.” Maybe members of the BCU would agree with this sentiment, maybe they wouldn’t. Like I said earlier, activists holding a rally have an opportunity to craft their own message, and they are free to do so as they see fit. It is important to think strategically about who to target, then say what will best reach out to them, since rallying core supporters often requires different media strategies than building widespread public support or putting pressure on established elites.
In retrospect, it seems clear that the BSU would have been more successful specifying exactly what they will do if their demands aren’t met. Regular protests in a major campus gathering area? Camping out day and night? Student activists have been “occupying space” on campus long before the Occupy Wall Street movement popularized the protest tactic. Clearly specifying the next step would change the headline. Instead of being vaguely scary, a headline promising more protests at a specific time and place could be a useful rallying cry to attract additional followers. It’s also a great beacon for reporters, who can plan a week in advance. @THEBSU did a great job tweeting out their message on Monday, making it easy for reporters to insert their demands. I’m shocked that they haven’t gone back on Twitter to correct their one major strategic mistake.