Over the past three days, at least 50,000 people rallied in cities across Australia in opposition to Tony Abbott’s government. At home that night and the next morning, they eagerly waited to see how they’d be covered by the mainstream press. For the most part, they got nothing. The protests made no front pages and led no bulletins, and while they were covered, they certainly weren’t covered prominently.

That’s prompted plenty of criticism, not all of it from activists.

John Birmingham, writing this morning at the Brisbane Times, said he thought basic reporting on significant events was something the mainstream media had over bloggers and citizen journalists. After watching the coverage of the march, he’s not so sure:

“These were not mass protests of the size and style of the Vietnam era. They weren’t as large and certainly not as violent and disorderly as civil rights protests in Queensland in the 1970s and ’80s. But they were large enough to be worthy of more basic news coverage than they received. They were arguably more important to community record-keeping than a bit of colour and movement on Paddy’s Day. And inarguably more important than the other ‘top’ stories which enjoyed more prominence; the ‘attack’ of a body boarder by a dolphin, the ‘Real Housewife’s Toy-boy All-Nighter’, and Lara Bingle’s insta-boob shot.”

So why didn’t the March in March protests get more significant coverage?

The protests happened mostly over the weekend in 33 cities. RMIT journalism academic Alexandra Wake, who’s worked in newspapers and for the ABC, tells Crikey she doesn’t think there are journalists working in 33 cities and towns over the weekend in Australia. Because of this, social media was crucial to the stories that did appear. Wake says once she noticed the march on Facebook, the ABC picked it up shortly after.

Another part of the problem for March in March, mentioned by everyone Crikey spoke to, was the complex number of issues that drove people onto the streets — it made simplifying the protest into a 300-word hard-news story difficult.

Margaret Simons, of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, says she wouldn’t be too quick to condemn the coverage. She compares the March in March to the coverage of the protests prompted by the murder of Jill Meagher. “It’s easy to say x number of people marched for y,” she says.

When there’s a lot of issues prompting a march, journalists will focus on one of two things: violence, or the signs. “Those are traditional news values,” Wake said. “Most of the coverage I saw tended to be about the signs. It allows you to simplify the story for a 30-second news grab.”

Naturally, the media also suffers from biases. Simons says there’s always a level of scepticism to be overcome about whether it really was a mass protest or merely contained “the usual suspects.” And the media’s whole way of covering politics tends to ignore what happens outside of Canberra, even though this can be what most resonates with people. “Voices outside the bubble are having trouble getting heard,” she told Crikey. “This isn’t just activists, but also all sorts of people with different points of view.”

Many of these people have turned to alternative media. There’s been a proliferation of alternative news sources of varying levels of professionalism, many of which covered the rallies in far more detail. But if mainstream media attention is the goal, how can activists get covered?

Toby Ralph isn’t a man you’d normally associate with left-wing grassroots activism. A corporate spinner who’s consulted for big tobacco and the Liberal Party, he nonetheless knows plenty about how to reach and use the media. Ralph says March in March may have been a grassroots event driven by dissatisfaction with the government, but that in itself is hardly surprising.

“The fact that some always disagree with the government of the day is hardly news… The trick to getting news coverage is to be newsworthy — to either say something compelling or do something sensational. March in March failed on both counts,” he said.

When it comes to activism, gimmicks work. That’s why groups like GetUp focus on them instead of getting numbers out onto the streets. Make a point well, or in a manner that’ll get people talking, and coverage is no problem.

Andrew Butcher, a former journalist and ex-News Corp spinner now turned PR consultant, says the march’s goal was unrealistic and negative. “They probably got more balanced coverage than they deserved given the main newsworthiness was arguably the extremist views of too many of the participants,” he said.

“In order to get more coverage, the march needed a reasoned and rational focus — not just the intemperate and frankly scary hatred of Tony Abbott that was displayed on so many of the posters,” he said. And the unrealistic goal — to overturn a democratically elected government — didn’t help. For the mainstream media, Butcher says, these things hardly make great reading.

Large numbers — Melbourne’s protest reportedly attracted 30,000 people — in themselves aren’t newsworthy. Ralph says “multiples more” went to the Grand Prix, shuffled around art galleries or went for lazy drives in the country. “The protest numbers are inconsequential,” he told Crikey. “One person saying something compelling is more powerful than a million at some Festival of Mediocrity that communicates nothing of consequence.”

Ultimately, Ralph says, protests are “passe”. Instead, he says, activists would get more response if they ran for Parliament, wrote letters to the media, or found new facts and exposed scandal.

Wake says there are two ways to guarantee your protest gets covered: interesting signage, and violence. She suggests the former and discourages the latter.

Peter Fray

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