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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social Movements and the Journalistic Field: A Multi-Institutional Approach to Tactical Dominance in the LGBT Movement


Social movements typically consist of several diverse organizations, with each using subtly different tactics to advance a similar, but not equivalent, vision of social change. The landscape of powerful social institutions in which a movement is situated affects which tactics become dominant among these organizations (and thus, within the movement) and which tactics are sidelined, discredited, or not even considered. The mainstream media is one example of a social institution that may have such a constitutive effect on social movements. When the mainstream news media – conceptualized here as a journalistic field – produce more substantial coverage of a given movement tactic, they may increase the tactic’s legitimacy, permitting organizations that perform the tactic to occupy a more dominant position within the movement. In this paper, I analyze media coverage of LGBT movement activity in a sample of mainstream newspapers from 1985-2008 to examine whether, in its coverage of the movement for LGBT rights, the mainstream media have focused on the LGBT movement’s legal tactics, organizations, and framing, and have downplayed other types of movement tactics and framing. This paper expands upon empirical studies from the communications and sociolegal literatures, which find that litigation often attracts publicity, whereas protest activity rarely receives any substantive news coverage. The data presented here will likely have implications for the new, multi-institutional approach to social movement theory. They should help to clarify the ways in which tactics, when amplified by media coverage, influence the ascendancy of specific strategies and organizations within a social movement.

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