Whether or not you agree with the Occupy protesters recently rousted from Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, still camping out at Baltimore's Inner Harbor and making their presence known in other cities across America, the movement has made one thing clear: The mainstream media still matter.
The demonstrators have used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to publicize their activities. Anyone interested has been able to get up-to-the-minute news on the movement and watch live streaming of protest sites. But to reach a mass audience, the protesters need the traditional media.
Although newspapers, magazines and television news stations have lost much of their revenue and audience in recent years, they still provide most of the news — and, to a large extent, they still set the agenda for public debate. Blogs and social media compete with the mainstream media for the public's attention and are an integral part of today's news world, but they often are geared toward niche markets, not the mass audience.
News might start in the blogosphere, but unless the mainstream media take notice, it is likely to remain on the back roads of the Internet highway.
The Occupy protest is evidence of this. Protesters started a website to announce their grievances and rally support for their Occupy Wall Street encampment in June. They set up their tents in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 17. But it wasn't until after Oct. 1, when more than 700 protesters were arrested after they blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, that the mainstream media began to notice.
The amount of news space devoted to the protest movement increased from 2 percent in late September to 10 percent in mid-October, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which surveys 52 news outlets each week to produce a weekly study of news coverage.
As the journalists caught on to the story, so did the public. A Pew poll in October found that 17 percent of respondents followed news coverage of the protests very closely; an additional 25 percent said they followed the coverage fairly closely.
Of course, awareness doesn't mean support. The American public is about evenly divided in its opinion of the protesters, with about 40 percent of respondents saying they support the movement and 35 percent opposing it, according to a Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll.
But more important than attitudes toward the protesters is that the national discourse has changed. In addition to the debate over how to reduce the nation's debt, whether or not to increase taxes or cut spending and what to do about jobs, now there is also is talk about income disparity and economic fairness.
A recent Washington Post survey finds that 6 in 10 Americans believe the wealth gap is larger than it has been in the past. The view is shared by those supporting the Occupy movement and those supporting the tea party, although naturally the two disagree sharply over how to fix the problem.
In the 1960s, civil rights activists and Vietnam War protesters relied upon a few media outlets, especially network television, to deliver their message. They staged demonstrations they knew would make the evening news.
Today, tea party activists and Occupy protesters can disseminate their views directly through social media. They can organize spontaneous demonstrations by using Twitter and Facebook. But those channels go only so far. In order to take their message to the masses, political and social movements still need the mass media.
All news is fleeting. The scandal at Penn State, the allegations against Herman Cain and Rick Perry's recent "oops" have lately competed with the Occupy movement for front-page attention. It's too soon to know whether the movement will gain strength and evolve, as the tea party did, or fade out as its encampments are disassembled and winter approaches. But as events this fall have shown, the success of the movement depends not only on having a compelling message but also on attracting the interest of the messenger.
Liz Atwood, formerly an editor at the Baltimore Sun, is an assistant professor of journalism at Hood College in Frederick. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.