If you’re reaching out to the news media as part of your grassroots social justice campaign, it’s important to know the difference between your hook and your message. Your news hook is whatever you use to get reporters to show up in the first place (e.g. hanging a banner on Mount Rushmore). A campaign message is what you actually want to communicate to the public, through the filter of the news media (e.g. “America needs real leadership from President Obama on the issue of global warming.”).
Do I see Beyond the Choir co-founder Madeline Gardner up there?
Hooks and messages are rarely the same exact thing, and it is important to know the difference. An attention-grabbing tactic (which is the hook) can all too easily become the entire story, without any reporting about why activists might go to such lengths. More times than not this is what contemporary mainstream news coverage of protests and direct actions looks like. I have helped to plan actions that were only covered as part of the traffic report because the news desks had decided that the only thing relevant to their audience about our action was the potential that we would disrupt the smooth flow of traffic!
The good news is that this kind of coverage is not inevitable. Strategic, trained, disciplined activists can positively influence this process. Here’s how it works. You want news outlets to cover the issues, but it is generally very difficult to get them to do so (even though this is exactly what the media is supposed to do). So you use creative tactics, perhaps even including direct action or nonviolent civil disobedience to attract media attention and communicate your message to a broader audience. Unfortunately, that’s often what it takes to get the media’s attention. The challenge then is that reporters are typically sent to cover the tactic itself, rather than the issue. So it’s important to think through how you will use your creative action as a hook to get media attention, but then to bridge away from the tactic to talk about the issue (the message).
In today’s mainstream media environment even well intentioned reporters are usually not very informed about the issues raised by social justice campaigns. The structure of the contemporary news media makes cost-effective, dumbed-down news production a more valued commodity than in-depth journalism. Budgets for investigative journalism have withered and died in news companies across the country over the past 20 years. So most journalists do not have the time to look into the issues they are covering beforehand. As a result, they tend to ask uninformed questions that are beside the point. They tend to fixate on obvious tactical considerations (e.g. “How do you go to the bathroom when you’re hanging that banner?”) rather than to ask about your reasons (e.g. “What solution to global warming would you like to see President Obama push for at the G8 summit?”). While you shouldn’t try to dodge questions that are genuinely about the issues, you certainly don’t have to answer totally irrelevant questions. Do your best to steer journalists in the direction of issue-oriented questions. After all, informing the public is supposed to be journalists’ job.
This is what bridging is all about. Bridging is acknowledging the question, bridging away from it, and communicating your message. A great example is when a friend of mine locked herself on a “tripod” (a device made up of three metal poles set up like a tipi, tied together at the top, with a platform to sit on near the top) to stop a proposed nuclear power plant. A reporter asked her, “How do you go to the bathroom?” Sure, her unconventional tactic is what got the media there in the first place, but she was not there to talk about her unconventional tactic – and she certainly was not there to talk about going to the bathroom! Her response (paraphrased) : “The issue isn’t my waste. We’re here to talk about nuclear waste, how it recklessly threatens our safety, and how we don’t need it.”
There you have it: the hook and the message.