December 28, 2010 4 Comments
In the wake of the student protest earlier this month there have been journalists left and right (quite literally) condemning, agreeing with, or just analysing the student movement.
A post on New Left Project (NLP) about left-wing journalists potentially undermining the movement got me thinking. It is important for people to understand about why the protests are going ahead, and there will clearly be divides in how it is reported (as well as divisions threatening the development of the movement itself – but that’s another issue for another day). The main point of the argument set out in the post above was that in attempting to “add an extra layer of horror” to the actions of the police, left-wing press classifying the protestors as ‘kids’ suggests that they are naive as to what they are protesting about – lending more power to right-wing groups who dismiss protests as juvenile and borne out of boredom, not political awareness.
It’s a point well-made, and one I happen to agree with, although I couldn’t offer a satisfactory solution. What we’re seeing is that reporting of protests is being polarised into two factions. Firstly, to the left, who portray protestors as children – in the sense that it is emboldening and indicative of the times that people so young are now beginning to care – and then the right, who portray protestors as children who have no idea of why they are protesting, are politically illiterate and just out to cause trouble.
More left-wing journalists tended to take the approach of embedding themselves in the protest – most notably New Statesman writer Laurie Penny – whereas other not-so-left journalists chose to stand outside the kettling area and remark on what they could see from the edges. Hardly in-depth and thorough. It’s worth noting here that core members of the movement do not feel helpless or voiceless in the slightest – they are busy writing blog entries, networking on twitter, getting other groups involved. But they lack the audience that mainstream press can automatically count on.
However, in seeking to tell the protestors’ story in a way directly opposed to traditional press who have turned a blind eye or railed against the students, Penny perhaps risks infantalising them (although of course the term ‘children’ or ‘kids’ was used in an observational sense – children are taking part in protests; it’s a surprising and powerful thing to see) as the NLP article argues so articulately.
There are limitations and dangers as a journalist, of assuming that just because you have been there you know the ins and outs of the movement and can accurately pinpoint and describe the feelings behind it. I myself attempted this earlier, as a supporter of the movement and as a journalist – it’s extremely difficult to gauge motives of thousands of people, and speak for them all without pigeon-holing and patronising them by assuming that you understand their motives. Journalists have the greatest freedom of being able to weave in and out of organisations; to try and get to the ‘bottom of things’ and report back on what they’ve seen – but it’s important to remember that they are ultimately outsiders. Even those who share the same beliefs as core members of movements will likely be left out of some of the proceedings, or treated with suspicion, lest they attempt to discredit the movement or interpret things entirely differently.
Of course, this shouldn’t deter journalists from attempting to discover motives and meanings of these events. After all, the demonstrators cannot do it so effectively to a broad audience themselves – though access to twitter, facebook and collective blogs is gradually changing that. However, activists still rely a large amount on journalists’ interpretations of a movement they are removed from – however close they perceive themselves to be – and whilst it can add authenticity and a credible voice, it has the potential to be the undoing of a movement.