In his analysis of how the media treated the new left student movement of the 1960s and 70s, Todd Gitlin showed how the movement was at first trivialised and marginalised through images that emphasised frivolity, youth, outlandishness, militancy and deviance whilst reports understated numbers, effectiveness and neglected the content of the movement’s statements and the causes of their protests. “Thus the protesters were made the issue rather than the things they were protesting.” Such media images and symbols are powerful, not only in shaping the public perception of a movement but also the movement’s perception of itself.
The media tends to present images and style not meaning and content: “the media intervene to label these activities as deviant or illegitimate, marginalising them and diverting public attention away from the root causes of social conflict towards its epiphenomenal forms.” Protest actions and events are described as theatre spectacles rather than as “part of a democratic struggle over vital issues.”
It is the style that is copied and multiplied whilst the radical message of the protesters is diluted and ignored. Kellner argues that “when television portrays social change or oppositional movements, it often blunts the radical edge of new social forces, values, or changes. Moreover, it tries to absorb, co-opt, and defuse any challenges to the existing organisation of society.”
The environmental movement is often characterised in the media as “just another special-interest group” looking after its own “economic and institutional well-being” rather than a “broad-based social movement”. The more radical environmental groups are sometimes treated as fringe loonies.
For example, Earth First! took exception when ABC’s World News Tonight suggested that the so-called Unabomber was linked with their organisation. According to Earth First! the “top level” meeting of Earth First!, that the Unabomber was supposed to have attended was actually a public conference which 400 people attended. (The FBI apparently obtained a list of attendees.) Earth First! also claim that a hit list that two of the Unabomber’s victims were supposed to be on was in fact produced by an underground anarchist publication not connected with Earth First!