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Book Review | ‘Soundbitten’ examines darker side of biased media

Tufts professor’s book studies political activism

Published: Monday, March 4, 2013

Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 02:03

“I never thought this book was going to be about the media. I thought that I was just going to go study activists at a large national convening,” said Tufts Sociology professor Sarah Sobieraj on her most recent research and book, “Soundbitten: The Perils of Media Centered Political Activism” (2011). Despite her academic background as a sociologist, Sobieraj, a self−proclaimed media junkie, has found a niche in media studies. This has manifested itself in varying research, television appearances and her role as a leading media studies professor at Tufts. In light of the recent presidential campaign and Occupy Wall Street movement, the general public is increasingly interested in the way that politics are covered in this country and “Soundbitten” (2011) reveals a darker side of biased media coverage, specifically that of the 2004 Presidential National Convention here in Boston. Sobieraj’s book returned to the forefront of Tufts’ collective consciousness when she spoke at Tufts Thursday.

The stage is set in the first chapter of the book, where the protests of the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia are described firsthand by the author. “Amid the revelry, some participants were designated to provide medical care (one offered me sunscreen),” Sobieraj writes. These moments of intense observation and clashes with authority fueled her desire to systematically study the ways that activists carefully create and monitor media coverage of their cause. Early in the study, Sobieraj lays the groundwork that activists’ efforts to control media coverage prove futile.

Never one to shirk away from contextual background, Sobieraj presents a brief academic overview in the beginning of the book. For media studies students lacking sociology or political science training, this proves crucial to understanding the research methodology and findings. Civil society, the public sphere and mobilization fall close together in the realm of civil discourse, and are the bread and butter of an American democracy that allows citizens to exchange ideas in public settings, exercising First Amendment rights. Sobieraj highlights the reality that civil society might not have institutionalized political power, but associations within it can still change themselves.

Though traditionally academic in her writing style, the author manages to explain the research design of media−centered demonstrative mobilization in an engaging and unpretentious manner. She conducted more than 125 ethnographic interviews with protestors and reporters alike. Overwhelmingly, she found that counterculture activist groups pandered to the mainstream media in ways that fit the normal media rubric in this country. Perhaps with the perpetual 24−hour news cycle in mind, activists aimed to make journalists’ jobs easier by giving them what they want in a prepackaged manner. In their increasingly vain pursuit of media coverage, Sobieraj found that protestors were not only not mentioned in any local or national reporting, but also that the reporters ignored curious bystanders. Instead of seizing the opportunity to engage the general public, activists were busy hounding the media, somehow forgetting to engage any interested passersby.

On the other hand, the reporters that Sobieraj interviewed claimed a due−North moral compass, saying they wanted to report on the convention with fairness and accuracy. One quote from a newspaper reporter shows her personal amusement with the theatrical elements of the protests: “Maybe humor is the key,” she points out. Sobieraj discovered that stories focused on a local, colorful account of the proceedings with little in−depth reporting on the issues and events being protested.

As a richer narrative develops throughout the book, Sobieraj uncovers a subconscious bias that these reporters possess, a separate set of norms for reporting on political outsiders. In a comprehensive table about halfway through the 185−page book, she breaks down the norms for political insiders versus activists. Where political insiders are pursued by the news media, activists must actively pursue the press, often in unconventional and even undignified manners just to garner attention. Reporters shy away from condensed soundbites, instead searching for “authentic,” off−the−cuff remarks. She astutely points out that this is inherently ironic because these types of comments are usually off−message.

It is difficult to read the research and not become simultaneously engrossed in the findings and similarly repulsed and threatened by their implications. Sobieraj includes dozens of illustrative quotes and analyses of newspaper coverage that reach a damning conclusion that both the activists and media are getting this thing wrong. There is palpable discontent in her conclusion, where she writes of a “chasm that exists between voluntary associations and broader publics.” One can only hope that future journalists, such as the future Columbia Journalism School students who will now be reading this book as part of their course curricula, will take heed when framing the next wave of political mobilization in this country.

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