Cityview: Sink or Spin

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Several years ago I was running a media practice training for disability rights activists. I stood up front and casually mentioned that reporters need “victim stories.” It was like a bomb had gone off in the room. “Our people are not victims,” 50 people shouted at the same time. “And we will never willingly call them that!”

It was a learning moment for me, but also for them. On the one hand, demeaning labels the media often use for people with disabilities rightfully enraged these advocates. On the other hand, I knew the news business was hidebound with conventions. One is that no reporter will write about a broad social problem unless that article can start with a personal story to illustrate the problem. Why attend a media training, I asked the group, if you’re not willing to give reporters what they need to do their job? They asked right back, why shouldn’t we ask the media to do a better job?

Let somebody else organize to improve the media, I decided. For those whose mission is to organize, to develop affordable housing, to create jobs and address all the other issues that comprise community-based efforts, it’s our job to use the media.

Lots of authors and pundits skewer the evils of today’s corporate media. A new book by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Trust Us, We’re Experts, who also wrote the PR-debunking classic Toxic Sludge is Good for You, shows how public relations experts have used studies to manipulate public opinion, especially on issues of health and safety. The media critic in me applauds them for revealing the ugly truth that policy fights can be determined by who paid for the best study. But the media practitioner in me knows that reporters would often rather sit at their desk and cover a decent study than leave the office to write about a protest, regardless of huge turnout, banners, chants and even reasoned demands.

It’s true that too much news starts, “A new study finds…” But on the other hand, why deplore a tendency that can be so useful? If some PR flack can manipulate the media by cooking up numbers and distributing them to the world to prove a point, then anyone can. I am going to leave aside any debate on whether we have to be responsible for living in the world as it should be rather than the world as it is. That’s a worthy discussion, but for now let’s just assume that increased media coverage–of everything from broad social policy issues to how each of our organizations is the greatest thing since sliced bread–is a goal we all share. (Stop reading if you disagree, but if you want to raise your organization’s profile, read on.)

Until several years ago, reporters routinely offered one of two responses to my efforts to drum up coverage of housing policy issues for the organization where I last worked, National People’s Action, a coalition of more than 300 grassroots neighborhood groups. Either the issue wasn’t important enough to be a story or, if it really was important, then the topic and our position were “inside baseball.” This frustrating state of affairs continued until I realized that, if I began by talking about Mrs. Smith, who lost her home through no fault of her own because (insert details here, it really doesn’t matter, just make it a good story), reporters not only listened, they called us back. We released our own study–several of them, in fact. We had numbers to prove our points, we had people who could talk about living next door to an abandoned building and what it’s like to lose your home to foreclosure unjustly, and we built our issues.

“Victims,” whose plight even the greenest reporters could grasp instinctively and write about dramatically, carried these issues forward in the public mind and led to reforms. Those who fight back, be it against foreclosure or any other undeserved situation, are no longer really victims. I would say that they all became experts on their issue, in a way very different from the “experts” to whom reporters usually refer. In fact, there’s nothing greater than seeing someone who started out knowing little more than how she got screwed over quickly come to understand the system to the point where she can lecture a producer from NBC Nightly News.

Yes, someone should reform the media, but that’s not our battle. Meanwhile, using the media is where the action is, and using it right will unfailingly lead to more coverage of grassroots issues. Computer programmers talk about the concept of “garbage in, garbage out.” As activists, we need to give the media something they can work with–instead of suggestions on how to improve–in order to get what we want out of them. It can be done, and it’s worth doing, for the bottom line of your organization: to win victories on issues of concern to communities.

So if you have a message you want to get heard, aggregate your data and get ready to spin your butt off! Then pick up the phone and dial up the press. Odds are you’ll be amazed when you call to offer a story, prepackaged with data that reporters can use without ever having to leave their desks. When was the last time your organization released a study? You probably are an expert in something already. But media practice is not just about studies. It’s also about stories. And often enough the stories we’re telling involve (at least at the start)…victims.

Gordon Mayer is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has specialized in assisting grassroots groups on media relations.