The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism

234 pages

June, 2011

ISBN: 9780814741375



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Sarah Sobieraj is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tufts University.

All books by Sarah Sobieraj

There is an elaborate and often invisible carnival that emerges alongside presidential campaigns as innumerable activist groups attempt to press their issues into mainstream political discourse. Sarah Sobieraj’s fascinating ethnographic portrait of fifty diverse organizations over the course of two campaign cycles reveals that while most activist groups equate political success with media success and channel their energies accordingly, their efforts fail to generate news coverage and come with deleterious consequences. Sobieraj shows that activists’ impact on public political debates is minimal, and carefully unravels the ways in which their all-consuming media work and unrelenting public relations approach undermine their ability to communicate with pedestrians, comes at the expense of other political activities, and perhaps most perniciously, damages the groups themselves.

Weaving together fieldwork, news analysis, and in-depth interviews with activists and journalists, Soundbitten illuminates the relationship between news and activist organizations. This captivating portrait of activism in the United States lays bare the challenges faced by outsiders struggling to be heard in a mass media dominated public sphere that proves exclusionary and shows that media-centrism is not only ineffective, but also damaging to group life. Soundbitten reveals why media-centered activism so often fails, what activist groups lose in the process, and why we should all be concerned.


  • "Soundbitten is an astute, engagingly written study of the dynamics and costs of media obsession by activist groups. Sarah Sobieraj busts the cliches of both movement organizations and sociologists with aplomb."

    —Todd Gitlin, Columbia University

  • "Sarah Sobieraj's Soundbitten is important, insightful, and disturbing.  With gripping detail, she shows how activist groups try to get some of  the spotlight that surrounds political conventions, and use mass media to project an image of themselves and their concerns. It's an uphill struggle, and media are far more willing to cover colorful events than cogent arguments.  What's worse, in trying to cultivate the spotlight, organizations undermine their own capacity to promote meaningful political debate. Seeking legitimation from mainstream media, Sobieraj shows, seems like the unavoidable—and almost impossible— struggle for activists."

    —David S. Meyer, University of California, Irvine

  • "Drawing on her extensive participant observation of social-movement organizations during several presidential campaigns, Sarah Sobieraj demonstrates how the pervasive mediatization of politics has jeopardized the ability of dissenting groups to engage in public discourse and so has altered the very fabric of both social movements and the civil society that the news media claim to inform."

    —Gaye Tuchman, author of Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality

  • Soundbitten is a well-written and engaging book that both you and your students will enjoy. Sobieraj’s writing is accessible and the book is rife with interesting examples and colorful pictures that make the events outside of the conventions come alive... In short, Sobieraj outlines new avenues for research on civil society and the public sphere and we ignore her findings at our own peril.”

    —Deana A. Rohlinger, Contemporary Sociology

  • “Beyond its utility for activists, Soundbitten is essential for scholars of social movements and activism and would be a great read for an undergraduate or graduate social movements or political communication course. Additionally, this book is a valuable read for those interested in public relations—practitioners and scholars alike—because it gives such detailed insights into the complex relationships between groups seeking media attention and the journalists reporting on them.”

    —Michael P. Boyle, Political Science Quarterly

  • "Soundbitten is a compelling book whose insightful analysis is well supported by rich empirical data. It is a welcome contribution to the literature on politics, media, and activism."

    —Katrina Kimport, American Journal of Sociology

  • "Sarah Sobieraj's book is an important contribution but not only to literature on social movements and media, but also to activists in the field trying to affect change."

    —Erin Evans, Mobilization