The Human Microphone #OccupiesWallStreet

I just searched “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) on Google News and in a quarter of a second I had 29, 300 results. That’s a lot of news coverage on one topic.

To say that mass news media coverage of this liberal American protest movement is picking up would be an understatement. If you follow the news on a daily basis, you’ve probably been exposed to coverage about the OWS protests in some form or another over the past week. For example, both the USA Today and The New York Times covered it again in today’s editions. The former featured it as their cover story and the latter mentioned it on their front page and continued the story on page 18.

USA Today 10-11-2011

The New York Times 10-11-2011

This is not a political blog and, for the context of this specific website, I don’t care about the politics behind the OWS movement. I am more interested in the act of protest itself rather than the content of the message. Protesting requires clever uses of communication for information dissemination and there are few clearer examples of effective uses of communication to spread messages than popular protest movements. Of course, social media has played an enormous role in the OWS protests, just like it has for any protest movement in the past few years. But today the focus is not on new media.

I would like to briefly point out one of the most interesting communicative factors of the OWS movement; the human microphone.

The Human Microphone 

It’s exactly what it sounds like. In many of the cities where the OWS protests have arisen the use of microphones and megaphones is prohibited without specific permits. As a result, the protesters have resorted to the human microphone technique in order to make sure everybody in the large crowds hears the speakers.

It’s a simple concept with a few steps:

1. The speaker says a few lines (usually one or two sentences).
2. The people closest to the speaker repeat those lines for others to hear.
3. To make sure that loud clapping does not complicate the repetition of the speakers’ words, the audience raises and waves their hands in the air when they would usually applaud.

As with many things in life, the best way to help you understand the human microphone is to show you. Check out the first minute of the video below in which Michael Moore speaks to protesters via the human microphone and also comments on the nature of the microphone.

To show you that this was not just a one time thing with Mr.Moore, here are more examples. The first is from a speech by environmental activist Bill McKibben and the second is from a speech by Eastern European philosopher Slavoj Žižek

This may appear silly because you cannot see the rest of the crowd; we just see the “front row”. Obviously the people who repeat what the speaker says can hear the speaker. They repeat the speaker’s words in unison so that the majority of the crowd that’s not close to the speaker can also hear what is being said. Think of it as a “human echo” effect.

The Medium is the Message

It is fascinating to realize the power of the human voice persists in this age of social media and technological media convergence. All the technology in the world would not create as powerful an effect as the human microphone does for these protesters. A recent NPR article by Richard Kim comments on this.

The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once. As with every media technology, to some degree the medium is the message. It’s hard to be a downer over the human mic when your words are enthusiastically shouted back at you by hundreds of fellow occupiers, so speakers are usually pretty upbeat (or at least sound that way).

In the above comment Kim alludes to the famous “The medium is the message” quote that was originally stated by communication scholar Marshall McLuhan.

Citing McLuhan’s media theories (1962, 1964), McQuail (2010) summarizes what McLuhan thought about media in this context.

…changes in media forms and technology can change our way of gaining experience in essential ways and even our relations with others (p. 81).

Thus, the message from the protesters, or any message for that matter, is never just about the content of the message. How we receive that message plays a huge role in how we interpret it; the medium is a big part of the message!

A radio news summary is interpreted differently than a newspaper article, a television image in interpreted differently than a description of the same scene on the radio, a blog post is interpreted differently than a book chapter, and a human microphone is interpreted differently than a traditional microphone. All of these media above might be talking about the same exact topic, but the way in which we get the information affects how we perceive it.

It is for this reason that the human microphone fascinates me so much. It is a very “old school” form of communication (for thousands of years, human beings only disseminated information orally) that is being revived today because the protesters do not have permission to use modern microphones.

This restriction on microphones, however, is turning out to be a benefit rather than an inconvenience for the protesters because the medium in this case (their voices) is helping to strengthen their message of solidarity and resistance.

While there are several issues with the human microphone (such as the inability to use jokes or discuss complex issues, as pointed out by this article) and while not everybody has such a positive perception of it (check out this article), I think that it has more advantages than disadvantages and agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion the aforementioned NPR article draws.

It is, of course, ironic that New York City’s attempt to crackdown on political protest by restricting “amplified sound” unwittingly ended up contributing to the structural strength of its rowdiest protest in decades. But like in Egypt or Argentina or Belarus or other places where the authorities sought to silence speech, the people found a way to be heard.

So how about it, can I get a mic check for this one: The people have the power.

The above statement seems to support the protesters. As stated earlier, I don’t want to make any claim of support or condemnation of the content of their message.

I do want the reader to realize the importance of preserving everybody’s right to “have a voice” and the fact that it is human nature for us to want to communicate and that we will always find a way to do so, even if it means using nothing else but our own human microphones.

What’s Going on Outside the USA? You Probably Don’t Know

About two months ago, I shared with you some details about The Geopolitics of Representation In Foreign News: Explaining Darfur, a book I had just began to read which summarizes a study of international mass news media that looked at international news media representations of the crisis in Darfur that started in 2003.

The study reviewed how ten influential media organizations from around the world covered the Darfur crisis from January 1, 2003 until February 28th, 2005. The media organizations which were reviewed are the China Daily (China), the People’s Daily (China), Mail & Guardian (South Africa) , Al-Ahram (Egypt) , the Guardian (United Kingdom) , Le Monde (France) , The New York Times (USA), The Washington Post (USA), the website for BBC News ( Kingdom), and finally the English language website for Al Jazeera ( Among other items, the researchers assessed whether or not the national interests of the country in which the respective media organizations are located, their funding sources, and their primary audience demographics played a role in how the news organizations framed their coverage of the Darfur crisis, at what time they began to cover the crisis, the total number of articles written about the crisis, the monthly peaks and lows for coverage about the crisis, and the depth and content of their articles.

The study and it’s results are worthwhile because the media organizations that were analyzed are read by billions of people everyday, which leads to those people’s perceptions about the events on the ground being greatly influenced as a result. For example, People’s Daily  (among the world’s largest ten newspapers) portrayed the Sudanese government favorably despite the fact that it was directly responsible for deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Darfur. As a result of this portrayal, the majority of the Chinese population had the wrong idea about what was actually going on in Sudan and never realized that a genocide had occurred.

Due to the extensive nature of the study and the fact that I have a lot of other required reading to do for the courses I am taking and teaching, I have not yet finished the book. However, I am slowly but surely reading the last section and will definitely write some sort of summary of the findings in a future post.

The reason that I mention the book is A.) because I want you to get excited for my eventually summary of it and B.) because I read some data from it this morning about American portrayals of international media events which I want to share with you. I’ll keep it brief, and use mostly quotes from the book.

The New York Times & The Washington Post: Foreign News Coverage

I was reading the chapter of the book in which the Darfur representations of The New York Times and The Washington Post were being compared. Before they got into the details of the comparison, a good overview of international news coverage by United States press was presented.  Although the Times and Post actually did a fairly decent job of accurately and fairly depicting the Darfur crisis when compared to some of the other organizations studied (if you care to know, the Post did a better job than the Times according to this study), the overview discussed the sad fact that general coverage of international events by American media has significantly declined over the past few decades.

The first quote that struck me was this one:

In 2009, the US was ranked twenty-fourth in the global Freedom House rankings of press freedom (Mody, 2010, p.  218).

To make sure that their information was accurate I looked up the information they were referring to: the 2009 rankings and the 2010 rankings.

As you can see, the USA is tied with the Czech Republic when it comes to how free our press is. One of the main issues with the press system in America is that it is based primarily on money. This capitalistic system works well for many aspects of our society (although it still needs some major improvement), but does not really work to guarantee that our media organizations will cover the most newsworthy international events. Freedom of the press in this capitalistic system also means that the press is free to make as much money as they wish. That’s a bad thing because it means increased profits can become a greater incentive than  fair and balanced reporting of significant international events.

Referencing another book on the topic, Mody (2010) states that while the original idea behind the First Amendment was to prevent the government from censoring the press,

Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, a commercial interpretation of press freedom became increasingly dominant: The freedom of the press was the right to own one (p.  218).

The profits for traditional newspapers such as the Times and the Post have declined significantly as the Internet has grown. As a result, these capitalistically oriented companies have been forced to cut costs dramatically.

A lot of this cost cutting has been accomplished by decreasing coverage of international news events which were deemed as unimportant for the US audience to be concerned with. Just as bad as no news coverage is a lack of fair news coverage, and this happens a lot because the newspapers do not wish to offend those who give them the money.  A discussion of what is deemed as ‘important’ news coverage and how the respective organizations decide what is important for the American public can be saved for another blog entry. Just know that these decisions on the advantages/disadvantages of covering a story are made on a regular basis.

And now some quotes from the aforementioned book (I love using that word, by the way, I recommend it if you want to impress your friends)!

On the Cambodia Genocide

The Times and the Post published more than 700 articles on Cambodia between 1970 and 1975 while the US still was engaged actively in Southeast Asia. 

But the foreigners (including Americans) were evacuated at the end of 1975.   So..

In 1976 and 1977, when two million people were killed, the Times and Post published 126 articles and 118 articles, respectively. Most of these stories were short, appeared in the back of the international section, and focused on the geopolitics of communist rule rather than on the suffering of the Cambodians (Mody, 2010, p.  223). 

On foreign news items in general:

Riffe’s 1980-1990 content analysis of the New York Times found that the number of foreign news items dropped by half in the twenty-two years between 1969 and 1990. Although the stories published in 1990 were longer, on average, than those published in 1969, the total number of foreign news paragraphs had gone down significantly (p. 223). 

On the reasons for US media’s failure to confront the Bush administration before the misleading Iraqi invasion:

Reasons given for this timidity since September 11, 2001 include patriotism, fear of being accused of aiding terrorists, the market niche for a partisan right-wing press, journalists’ need for access to government sources, and the cost cutting that led to global retrenchment of US journalists after the 1991 Gulf War (Mody, 2010, p.  219). 

The New York Times and The Washington Post are among the most respected news sources in the Untied States and throughout the world. Even though newspaper circulation is down, these papers still play a powerful role within the news business; they influence the stories that smaller news organizations decide to cover and the frames that they will choose to cover those stories with. Mody (2010) reminds us that

Newspapers around the world use the Times to inform their reporting (p. 226).

It is no secret that the United States is more connected to the outside world than ever before in history. As a result of this connection, it is vital for the populace to be aware about events happening far away from home.

If you are working in the corporate world, for example, you want to have some knowledge about current events in the Middle East before you meet with an important investor from Turkey. If politics come up during the business dinner (remember they might not follow American ‘small talk’ etiquette and they might actually ask you for your personal political opinions), you do not want to look like a fool by not knowing what’s going on. If you work in the medical field, you want to be able to form a trusting relationship with the patient. If the patient is from a different culture and you don’t even know where their country is, they will not trust you and will not follow doctor’s orders. These types of examples could be used for any field out there and I could go on all day.

The bottom line is that American portrayals of international events are declining (only the biggest news stories are covered) because of less funding and as a result our knowledge of the foreign news events and their cultures is shrinking. The capitalistic press system will probably stick around among the elite media (such as the newspapers being discussed here) over the next few decades, so the audience should take matters into their own hands.

That’s YOU.

Learn to seek out other sources of news. I am not saying you should stop reading the Times and the Post (they usually produce very good quality journalism for the stories they do cover), but I am saying that you should not only read those elite newspaper publications. Read at least one blog a day from a different country or one news article from an international media organization (i.e. Al Jazeera). You will be amazed at how different their framing of international events is.  As I write this, one of the featured international stories on GlobalVoices, a collection of blogs from around the world, is about a state of emergency in Trinidad & Tobago.

I bet you Trinidad & Tobago will not be on the front page of the Times or the Post tomorrow morning.

Mr. Splashy Pants

As I am working on my next ‘big’ post (It will be up sometime next Wednesday, and I’m excited about this one!) I wanted to share a fun video about social media from a TED talk.

What’s a TEDTalk?

The more I watch them, the more I love these TED talks.  According to their website, TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading new ideas. The organization originally started out by organizing conferences, but today they have also posted more than 900 of their ‘TEDTalks’ to the Internet. These are fascinating because they are usually not very time consuming, are very interesting, and are extremely informative. Also, they seem to cover every academic discipline.

Ohh, Mr. Splashy Pants

The video below relates to this blog because in four quick minutes it provides a humorous (yet serious) example of how social media can be used to impact real change in our world.

It looks at a Greenpeace campaign to stop whale hunting in Japan, and shows us how the Internet helped to spread the word about this campaign. Traditional media outlets such as newspapers and TV stations did not really pick up on this campaign (because Greenpeace does stuff like this all the time), so the Internet community did.  And in a very creative way. logo supporting Mr. Splashy Pants!

The cool part is that the campaign actually worked, and the Internet PR probably had a lot to do with that success.

The below video is also interesting because it seems to point out that the Internet is playing an agenda setting role and is actually influencing traditional media coverage. In his textbook, McCombs (2004) discusses the influential power which traditional “big name” news organizations have in setting the agenda for the less powerful organizations. The likes of the New York Times and The Washington Post are described as the elite leadership which other news organizations base their agendas off of.

However, the Internet might be changing this trend, and that’s really cool! In the future, the Internet and what the mass audience discusses on the Internet might set the agenda for what the traditional news organizations talk about.

Now, for the naysayers out there, I admit that I did not research this myself and that I am not basing my thoughts that Mr. Splashy Pants might have influenced the agenda of traditional media on any actual academic research. I am aware that correlation does not imply causation. Perhaps all of the attention on Mr. Splashy Pants did not have as big an impact on the eventual outcome as the video below implies, but the prospect of the impact that similar Internet ‘viral’ stories in the future could have on traditional media coverage is certainly a real one that’s worthy of attention.

So, without further adieu, I present the example of Mr. Splashy Pants.