#OccupyWallStreet as Media Criticism Classroom, Part 3

12 Oct

In the last post I shared my own personal observations of the field trips my students and I made to Zuccotti Park. In this post, I want to report my student’s reactions, as shared during the class period following our field trip and in their write-ups comparing their observations with news coverage. Their opinions are necessarily filtered through my own perceptions and retelling, so let the reader beware that my account is just that–an account. At the same time though, I will attempt to document what my students said, rather than offer my own judgment of their comments’ accuracy. I can’t say whether the 48 people in my Media Criticism course constitute a “representative sample” of college kids, NYU students, or any other group, so any conclusions that might be drawn about the rhetorical successes and failures of the occupation and its coverage by mainstream media outlets are, again, necessarily partial.

Observations about the protesters themselves:

  • Students noted the diversity of views expressed by the participants with whom they were able to have individual conversations.
  • The most common sentiment I heard expressed by my students in class was frustration. Frustration that the protesters’ message wasn’t clear, that there were no goals, or that there were no concrete goals, or no achievable goals, or that the goals had not been achieved yet.
  • On the other hand, many students were able to identify a unified message of solidarity-in-disastisfaction in the  “We are the 99%” slogan, and the effect of the protests in bringing attention to this message.
  • Some students knew or knew of NYU students who had participated in the protests and at least one who had been arrested during the march on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday.
  • Many students noted that a lot of the protesters (and some of their friends in other cities) were there because it seemed “cool” or “historic”; my impression was that my students did not think these were legitimate reasons to be involved in the event.
  • Students didn’t like when protesters generalized or made blanket statements without specific facts or personal experience to back them up. For example, one student quoted a protester who said she was participating in the occupation because  “lobbying doesn’t work”; my student doubted that the protester had ever attempted to participate in lobbying.
  • Some students pointed out that when they visited the occupation site, they did not see violence or hostility, that protesters were “chilling out” or maintaining a joyful atmosphere.

Observations about media coverage of the protests:

  • Several people commented on how much the story had grown since we had first started talking about it one week ago.
  • Students had heard of occupations in other cities, via social media sources like Facebook. Some described exploring Youtube videos, Twitter accounts, and blogs created by protesters in order to learn more.
  • Many commented on how mainstream news coverage focused on the most visually spectacular of the events, notably instances where police officers exercised physical force on protesters. They noted the difference between their own observations of relative calm and cooperation between police and protesters, and what television news had chosen to highlight. One student observed that the number of views on Youtube videos featuring violence was over ten times the number of views on footage of peaceful protest.
  • Some noted the differences in visual appearance of the protesters and protest site from what they had expected based on news coverage. For example, one was surprised to find how organized the site was, including a library, food service area, etc.
  • A few students doubted the representativeness of their own observations, since they were so divergent from the events they had seen on the news.
  • Students differed in their attitudes toward the news coverage. Some were highly critical, describing coverage as “condescending,” “vulgar,” and “frustrating.” They observed that even coverage which appeared sympathetic to the protesters (like Lawrence O’Donnel’s) focused on sensational aspects, like police brutality, instead of discussing protesters’ reasons for being there or the developments that had occurred since the dramatic incidents. Others noted that the protesters’ own diversity of opinions–and even vagueness–might account for the hesitancy of news outlets to go into detail on what they stand for.
  • Several students actually asked the protesters what they thought of the media coverage. The trend seemed to be that protesters were happy to receive coverage, though many of them had not personally seen any mainstream stories (given that they had been camped out in the park).
In my next post, I will reflect on this activity as a teaching tool. I will also attempt to offer insights as to how a similar assignment might be used in future media criticism classes.
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