How we made the media pay attention

Communications are extremely important for civil resistance. At the most fundamental level, when a group has decided that it must try to halt certain practices, start specific reforms, change the policies of an unresponsive system, clean up democracy, bring down a despot, or lift a military occupation, it is critically important to convey the grievance with clarity. Yet attentive news coverage can never be taken for granted or assumed. It must be won. Gaining the attention of the news industry is one of the central functions that must be planned by a nonviolent movement that hopes to succeed.

The Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha’s captivating TED Talk, “Pay Attention to Nonviolence,” has attracted wide interest. Her presentation is thoughtful and powerful, as is her film, Budrus, a documentary case study on how civil resistance can sometimes be effective despite daunting odds. The Palestinian village of Budrus stood to lose 40 percent of its land by the construction of an Israeli “separation barrier,” but through nonviolent action it was successful in persuading the government of Israel to move the Wall off their land and to the Green Line, the internationally recognized armistice line.

Bacha describes the disciplined village leadership that has guided this among several ongoing campaigns of civil resistance on the West Bank, which are almost always supported by Israeli volunteers acting in solidarity. She asks a penetrating question: Why do observers focus on violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict and not on the leadership of the nonviolent struggles that may one day bring peace? One reason why we don’t have a peace settlement, Bacha asserts, is the refusal to heed the exertions of grassroots leaders who are seeking to defend their land and water resources without violence. She says that without news coverage it is hard to make the case that civil resistance is the optimal course of action for Palestinian activists. She wants to “incentivize behavior” of this kind by rewarding it with coverage. In upbraiding the media, Bacha takes us squarely into one of the basic dilemmas for nonviolent movements.

In fact, Budrus is a lucid example in a long history of Palestinian civil resistance going back to the 1920s and 1930s, under the British Mandate, when the British and Zionists responded to the rare violent outbreak, but ignored the more typical nonviolent sanctions used by the Palestinians in seeking to preserve their way of life. By ignoring the nonviolent measures, the British and Zionists strengthened the Palestinian Arab elements that advocated violent resistance, including the forerunners of today’s violent Islamic revivalist organizations. By 1938, according to historian J.C. Hurewitz, “events taught the lesson that the use of violence as a political weapon produced results which otherwise appeared unobtainable.” (For more on how that pattern became entrenched, see my 2007 book A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance.)

The cold fact, however, is that the media owes nothing to nonviolent movements. The industries that comprise what we call the news media, and the corporate conglomerates or governments that control them, have their own priorities, purposes, and shareholders or government officials to whom they are obligated. They are not beholden to a civil resistance mobilization no matter how noble its goal or ignoble its opponent.

SNCC’s Atlanta staff in 1963. Photo by Richard Avedon.

During the U.S. civil rights movement, Julian Bond and I essentially managed a South-wide information system for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in what we called the “communications shop.” Before me, Dorothy Miller Zellner worked with Julian. (She appears to the left of him, at center, in the photograph above.) To show how important was the public-information function to SNCC, Bond held one of the few titles in our egalitarian organization: Press Secretary.

Our work was to get unreported accounts into news media circuits, recount unfolding stories, and ease the difficulties of working journalists who were trying to cover a complex mobilization. An additional purpose was to provide protection for civil rights workers. A reporter appearing at a jailhouse with pen and pad in hand might be the only intervention that could save the life of an arrested volunteer or staff member, because the sheriff or police would know that with a published news account that an individual was behind bars, they could no longer operate with impunity. The flow of information from our communications office—sharing background and facts from our projects across the southern states—often made it into the regional and national press, and was as significant to our larger objectives such as the organizing of voter registration drives, mounting demonstrations, devising mock ballots, and building alternative political parties. 

For the procedures that we created to work, our communications office had to earn credibility as a trustworthy source in the eyes of the national and sometimes international news corps. The reporters, whom we came know personally, were sometimes indifferent, rushing to meet deadlines, or suspicious of being exploited by propagandists. Julian’s natural inclination toward understatement set the tone. We avoided sensationalism, underestimated the numbers of individuals participating in movement activities, and triple-verified any count of atrocities. Even then, we might undercount in order to be safe. We attributed facts to named sources. The style was clear and unembellished with no opinions or value judgments.

Reporters from Southern white-owned newspapers were often hostile to the movement and did not consider acts of brutality, casualties, or attacks on African Americans as newsworthy. Many today believe that the media were unambiguously on the side of the movement, provided it with influence and authority, and that its reporters were nearly co-workers. This is not true. We had no expectations that the news industry would assure that the movement was properly or fairly reported. We knew that securing appropriate coverage was our responsibility and a function of our integrity. (For more, see my chapter “Getting Out the News” in the 2010 book Hands on the Freedom Plow, which includes essays from 52 women who worked with SNCC.)

It is possible for a nonviolent movement to earn the interest and focus of news organizations, although under certain circumstances it can be difficult for the aggrieved group to do so for themselves and third parties may need to perform the function. Popular movements have large numbers of participants. They have dramatic, even theatrical moments. Their songs and music possess the power to penetrate psychological defenses. Such mobilizations may shape history. Properly presented, disciplined civil resistance for social and political justice can be highly enticing to news outlets. If those whose work involves public information are scrupulous and systematic, they can win the confidence of working reporters or, today, go straight to the internet.

The Palestinians worked effectively with the media during the 1987 intifada, even under circumstances that demanded clandestinity and before the technological changes that have lifted the cloaks of secrecy in the Middle East. Some of the activist intellectuals who shaped the uprising, which used predominantly nonviolent forms of struggle, were willing to speak under their own names, rejecting the noms de guerres of the military cadres. Developing skills in releasing reliable news releases, nearly two dozen previously unknown spokespersons became adept at informational methods and using fax machines. Among the hundreds of popular committees that helped the Palestinians to survive under harsh curfews and reprisals was one called the FACTS Information Committee, which played a role similar to that which Julian Bond and I had performed in the civil rights movement.

As reporters from around the world arrived to cover the first intifada, they were escorted by Ghassan Khatib, Daoud Kuttab, Radwan Abu Ayyash, Mubarak Awad, and others into villages and refugee camps. Guided into modest refugee housing, journalists were encouraged to take photographs, as they met and interviewed scores of the women, youths, and men who were leading the popular committees. Reporters became the “darlings of the Palestinians, and bane of the soldiers,” Joel Greenberg wrote in the February 12, 1988, Jerusalem Post, conveying the Palestinians’ own self-reliant efforts at fighting to lift military occupation and for their independent statehood.

Amiram Goldblum, former spokesperson for Peace Now, the Israeli peace organization, told me in 1994 that he was the only member of the group with a title. In the same way that Julian Bond alone had the title of Press Secretary, movements often need to designate someone as the go-to person, to assist reporters in obtaining formal quotations with attribution. In Poland in 1980, for instance, the Solidarity union chose historian Jacek Kuroń as spokesperson for the strike committee until the regime severed the telephone lines and arrested him and Adam Michnik, another Warsaw historian, who had also kept the international news media apprised. Their interactions with the media contravened official Polish news agencies that virtually blacked out coverage. Kuroń and Michnik’s reports for foreign journalists boomeranged back, to reach the Polish people through Radio Free Europe.

The way in which a movement works with the media is vital to accomplishing its goal. Information must be presented scrupulously, in part to earn the trust of journalists and the outlets that need credible sources for their reportage, and in part to reach the target group. Nonviolent movements possess all the attributes of exciting news stories, and, properly offered to the news media, they may be able to project their quest onto a larger stage of public opinion. Even without having any expectation that news coverage is their due, they can persuade the media to pay attention if they make it part of their larger grand strategy. Julia Bacha’s film awakened in the Budrus villagers the perception that their campaign was being followed in far-flung places—as it was, and continues to be. Making the international media pay attention is not merely a matter of asking their good favor. It begins within movements themselves, on the ground. It is integral to fighting for justice with consistency between the means and ends, where the right strategy and simply telling the truth converge.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.