Getting the most from mainstream media

IssueNovember 2011
Feature by Rona Drennan

After recently reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies about “churnalism”, distortion and propaganda in the global media, I thought hard about choosing the “Getting the most from the mainstream media” workshop at the Rebellious Media Conference, among all the opportunities at the RMC for learning about new (to me) ways of communicating for activists. As an anti-war activist not based in London, I feel that the local press and broadcasters still provide ways of getting the message out beyond our friends. The local weekly paper goes into 46% of the households in the immediate area and our street leafleting cannot match over 25,000 households daily, which is the circulation of the Argus in Brighton and East Sussex. It is still all about swaying public opinion. We can email, facebook, twitter and blog for our friends, but what about those who are not signed up for “our” news? As Monbiot says, “every battle we fight is a battle for the hearts and minds of other people”.

The description in the programme seemed to fit with my idea: “...the mainstream media can allow activists to reach out to wider audiences”. It also offered practical guidance. The deciding factor was that it was led by the media officer for a charity whose work I follow and respect, War on Want, and a working news reporter from the Guardian.

It really did live up to expectation and more. While Monbiot’s guide is still the recommended manual for activists, hearing directly from working journalists with up-to-the-minute experience and examples was exciting. There are possibilities for working with mainstream media, rather than exploiting it. There are still reporters and editors willing to check facts and publish “the earth is not flat”.

Here are some of the highlights to show why I felt this workshop lived up to its billing.

Matthew Taylor, a news reporter at the Guardian, recommended the direct telephone approach to reporters via the paper’s switchboard. He gets 30 to 50 unsolicited emails daily, so he needs help to focus. This is not to say the approach should be unplanned. The snappy strap line and two sentences of explanation are needed, but if you are able to give an “exclusive” of advance notice on an action (like the student protests, or UKUncut in Fortnum and Mason), or revelations (linking South African Arthur Kemp, an advisor to the BNP, to the murder of Chris Hani), and if you have a professional or academic or any expert evidence, then a direct approach followed by an invitation to chat over a coffee may be the way forward. (Yes, it was a bit London-centric but Paul Collins from War on Want made up for that by including advice on regional situations).

Matthew also talked about studying what the mainstream are publishing and not assuming only the Guardian can break a story: the Mail ran the story on the royal Kate what’s-her-name’s dress being made in a sweatshop in Romania, and The Times ran “Britain privatises military intelligence”. The workshop lived up to the programme description of practical help. Our breakaway groups were given a good portion of time (never enough when you meet new people!) to discuss real campaign ideas provided by participants, and Paul critiqued our straplines and objectives.

One of the participants was interviewed by Paul as an example of one-to-one interviewing. Paul had shown us a clip from BBC Newsnight of the scientist from University of East Anglia interviewed along with an American climate warming denier. The scientist said “shut up” to his opponent instead of “may I finish my point”, and swore at him on camera. Our workshop participant was interviewed on the topic of Ethiopian government interference in the destination of charitable donations. He was calm, sincere, knew his stuff and was able to answer the difficult questions. Chalk up one for the activist over the expert scientist. I hope he gets his chance to sway opinion.

And I look forward to the workshop video (have you purchased your conference DVD?).

Topics: Media