The most famous description of American TV is "a vast wasteland" – and that was 40 years ago. Now it’s much worse: A study by Rocky Mountain Media Watch found that the average local TV station runs so much mayhem and fluff – crime, disaster, pets, sex, showbiz – there’s almost no time for real news. The networks are more serious, but focus heavily on Washington politics. Still, a creative, timely direct action with good visuals can get coverage – and the vast wasteland has a vast audience.
Very few local television stations, even in the largest cities, have reporters assigned specifically to cover the environment – or any other specialized topic, for that matter. Almost all TV reporters are generalists and, while exceptions do exist, employed more for their hair than for reporting ability.
Add to this the fact that TV reporters are often assigned to cover two or even three stories a day, forcing them to race from story to story with only the most cursory research and preparation. You’ll begin to see why local TV news is so shallow – forcing you, the activist, to make your message as simple and easily understood as possible in order to have any chance at accurate coverage.
The gatekeeper at the local station – the person to whom you want to get your press release and make your pitch – is the news assignment editor. But since this is TV, it’s not enough to have a relevant story and coherent soundbites. TV needs pictures – preferably pictures of people in action.
A creative direct action should, of course, provide such pictures – but even that’s not enough unless it’s staged well. Choose a setting for your action that’s not only visually interesting, but also symbolizes your issue. For example, if you’re protesting a federal law that prohibits citizens from filing appeals against off-shore drilling, stage your action on the steps of the US courthouse. But if your main message is the irresponsibility of the company responsible for the drilling, take your action to company headquarters.
Here are some other ways to add visual interest to your direct action:
- Banners, of course. Banners should not only express your message, but should be designed for easy reading at a distance. This means that not only should all the colors and symbols used be legible, but the banner itself must be big enough to be seen against whatever backdrop you’re hanging it on.
- Clothing. Sometimes, what your activists are wearing can tell the story as well or better than a banner. For example, for a protest at a toxics facility or nuclear dump, dress everyone in haz-mat suits. If you’re raising hell at a stockholder’s meeting, dress up as caricatures of fat-cat capitalists. Or skip the banner altogether, and have your message spelled out in letters on the protesters’ t-shirts.
Much of what we just said about local TV applies also to the networks – although, thankfully, national news broadcasts tend to have somewhat less fluff and filler than their local affiliates, and reporters may actually have time to research a story. But because the networks have only 22 minutes a day to cover the world (or pretend to), it’s much less likely that they will cover a direct action as breaking news. You may see a snippet of an action included as part of a larger feature story on the issue, or a very brief mention of an action that made international news. But in such instances, the networks are most likely to have gotten their footage from a local affiliate. Therefore, concentrate on getting your action covered by local TV, but send press releases and make follow-up calls to the networks and let them know a local affiliate was present. If they want the footage, they’ll let the affiliate know.
The great exception to the rules of local and network TV is, of course, Cable News Network. CNN has an enormous news hole to fill – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – so if your action features a relevant message and good visuals, it has a pretty good chance of getting on.
Although CNN’s audience, at any given moment, is only about 1 million (compared to 5 to 10 million for the ABC, CBS or NBC evening news), it is a tremendously influential audience – journalists, policy makers and news junkies. Try to bring your action to the attention of either the local CNN bureau chief, or to the Environment Unit at world headquarters in Atlanta. CNN is more likely to send a crew to your action than the networks, but remember, they also have the capability of borrowing local footage.