When Division Is the Norm: Gitlin's Protest Tips

What should journaists know and think about when reporting on democratic protest? As the Hong Kong protests continue with signs of confusion and questions of leadership, author and former activist Todd Gitlin offers insights for reporters covering protests and social movements, where leadership, goals, and perspectives can be challenging to understand.  

Skilled reporters who routinely cover the ins-and-outs of electoral politics or the tactics of war are often ill-equipped to know the historical context and vocabulary necessary for understanding civil disobedience and social movements. When we saw confusion and uncertainty emerge about the direction and leadership of the Hong Kong protests, the Dart Center asked Todd Gitlin what advice he would give to reporters covering protests where leadership, goals, motives and perspectives can be challenging to understand and distill. Here are his tips: 

Participants in social movements very commonly disagree about goals. The fact that they disagree is important. It isn’t necessarily decisive. A movement isn’t a tight group, a membership organization, or a political party. It’s a distinct sort of phenomenon. For more on this, see my book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, and last week, on October 2, at Tomdispatch, with respect to the People’s Climate March.

That demonstrators disagree about tactics and strategies is also common, and important. This does not mean that what every demonstrator says is a) frozen in time or b) equally significant. Reporters should clarify, as best they can, the weight of respective participants’ statements. Are extreme voices those of experienced participants? Outliers? It can be helpful to understand which media the various parties relate to—in other words, what sort of social-cultural-political-ideological world they live in.

Bystanders have interests, just as demonstrators and adversaries do. If someone in Hong Kong complains about demonstrators obstructing traffic, does she or he have a direct stake—as business owner, commuter, or whatever? If someone, in government or not, says there are “outside agitators” at work, what is the evidence? Is this the sort of thing they always say? If there are outside agitators (and often enough there are), how significant are they?

In fluid situations—which are the norm when real movements are at work—even sober, knowledgeable observers will disagree in their interpretations of what’s happening. For example, a Hong Kong reporter for a reputable newspaper there told me last week that there’s no leadership group in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central. Others report differently. It’s important to try to understand and convey reasons why reasonable observers might disagree in their assessments.

Elites, governmental, corporate, or otherwise, are also commonly divided. It’s easier, no doubt, to suss out the inside players and their dispositions in the relatively accessible US than in, say, opaque China. Nevertheless, the effort has to be made.

Readers, listeners, and viewers deserve some insight into the world views of movement participants. What kind of history do they carry around their heads. (The obvious example in Hong Kong is memories of, and lessons learned from, Tiananmen Square in 1989.)

In the same vein, readers, listeners, and viewers are entitled to know that past situations, movements were also divided and complicated. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not lead the March on Washington all by himself. There were grave tactical differences among the speakers. During 1961-65, a deep cleavage ran between civil rights activists who wanted to emphasize direct action and those who wanted to emphasize voter registration..