The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ media blackout myth: Plenty of stories, none of them big

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The demonstration. (Matthew Wolfe)
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News interest in the demonstrators presently camping out in a park in the Financial District appears to have increased after a high-ranking police officer was caught on camera apparently pepper-spraying a pair of protesters Sunday.

But that hasn't quite dispersed the general aura of discontent with "mainstream media" on Twitter and Facebook suggesting that the press is ignoring the demonstrations.

The idea that there is a media blackout has gained appeal on the left with support from Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann, who said on the Sept. 21 edition of his primetime show on Current TV: "The majority of the media is ignoring the public uprising."

In fact, an (admittedly unscientific) survey of news organizations suggests the protest, despite lacking any clear goal or purpose (that's by design), has been making headlines since it began on Sept. 17.

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A Nexis query for "Occupy Wall Street" yielded 428 results as of press time, including 248 items that appeared on blogs, 71 in newspapers, 63 on the wires, 31 in "web-based publications," 18 as news transcripts, nine as "aggregate news sources," one in the industry trade press and one in a legal news publication. Google News has indexed more than 2,000 articles between Sept. 17 and today.

"The impact of the struggling economy has been, I would say, our most important story," said Mike Oreskes, the Associated Press' senior managing editor for U.S. news. "These protests are obviously one slice of that story, and we have followed them steadily." The A.P. has published 30 photos, a half-dozen or so stories and at least one video report since Sept. 17.

A spokeswoman for The New York Times pointed us to four* articles from the print edition, one letter-to-the-editor, one photo slideshow and 10 City Room blog posts—the first of which was published on Sept. 17—about the Occupy Wall Street events.

"We have covered it in print and online with both stories and video," said Ashley Huston, a spokesperson for The Wall Street Journal. "A couple of different angles include a look at a rarely used mask statute the NYPD used to arrest protestors as well as Monday’s story on Brookfield Properties’ dilemma of hosting protestors."

As for TV outlets, CNN first picked up the story Sept. 17 via one of its CNNMoney.com reporters, who has appeared on the air multiple times to discuss her reporting, according to a network spokeswoman. The spokeswoman told Capital: "Across CNN U.S., it’s been on 'Newsroom,' 'The Situation Room' and 'Piers Morgan Tonight,' and it’s also been across programs on CNN International."

Fox News has been all over the story as well, having covered it on-air at least seven times between Saturday and Tuesday, a spokeswoman said, plus additional dispatches on FoxNews.com and a visit to Zuccotti Park on Friday by "Red Eye" producer Bill Schulz. (It should be noted that "Red Eye" is not exactly a news program, and this visit was arguably as much a skit as a report.)

Is it top news? No.

"Based on our data, the story thus far hasn’t seemed to gain any real traction in the mainstream media," said Mark Jurkowitz of PEW's Project for Excellence in Journalism, whose weekly news index tracks coverage trends.

That data, however, is based on a sample of 50 U.S. news outlets; the sample only counts front-page newspaper articles and focuses on the prime-time hours for TV. Which is to say that Occupy Wall Street has not made PEJ's index buzz the way stories like the state of the economy, the presidential race or natural disasters tend to do.

"If this had really become a major story, it would have shown up more prominently in our sample," said Jurkowitz.

But should it have?

As NPR's executive news director, Dick Meyer, told his ombudsman when asked to comment on the network's perceived lack of coverage: "The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective."

As for the spike that followed the pepper spray video? In a piece on this website, Matthew Wolfe recorded one protester saying last week, "I figure, worst comes to worst, someone's going to get beaten and then it's going on the news. They can give 'em bad publicity, but they'll still get the name out. That's their Phase One, getting their name out."

Phase One, accomplished.

Occupy Wall Street's press contact hasn't yet responded to a request for comment.

*We added one more print article to the Times tally.