Media Strategies and Abortion Politics: An Interview with Deana Rohlinger

book coverWhen and why do activist organizations choose particular mass media strategies? Can silence be an effective media tactic? Deana A. Rohlinger, a professor of sociology and a research associate in the Pepper Institute of Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University, takes on these questions and more in her new book, Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America, published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.

deana headshot 1Through a case study of the decades-long abortion debate in the United States, Rohlinger develops a theoretical framework for understanding how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use existing media outlets and produce their own media to create a “brand” that builds their legitimacy in the face of opposition. Rohlinger gives readers an insider’s view of two pro-choice NGOs — Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women — and two pro-life NGOs — the National Right to Life Committee and Concerned Women for America. Using data from organizational documents, media artifacts, and interviews with activists, Rohlinger draws attention to the strategic choices activists make behind the scenes when developing their media strategies, shedding light on the implications of organizations’ media tactics for policy outcomes within and beyond abortion politics.

I had the opportunity to connect with Rohlinger over email and ask her a few questions about her work.

RC: You highlight the ways in which NGOs involved in abortion politics use media to strategically create a “brand” for themselves as a way to build legitimacy, credibility, and visibility within the mass media landscape. Why did you choose to focus on formal organizations? What are the implications of your theoretical framework for activists working in grassroots organizations without formal funding structures?

DR: I chose to study more formal groups for a few reasons. First, I wanted to be able to analyze media strategy over a fairly long period of time. Second, I wanted to include archival documents and newsletters in my research so that I could analyze how activists understood and used media while they were doing it (instead of relying on media coverage and retrospective analysis alone). Finally, I was really interested in exploring the importance of reputation and branding – ideas we associate with the corporate world – to NGOs.

Even though I consciously made the choice to research formal NGOs, I kept grassroots groups in mind the entire time. A central point of the book is that different organizations have different media goals, which means the media they use to spread their ideas or mobilize the public can vary dramatically. This is a central reason I start the book by focusing on the media dilemmas NGOs face. All groups – regardless of structure – have to decide whether or not they want to try to use mass media for their own purposes and how they might do so effectively. Just like a formal NGO, a grassroots group can decide to avoid mainstream media outlets and focus their strategic efforts on sympathetic or organizationally-controlled venues on- and off-line in ways that are quite effective.

RC: Your strategic choice approach has important methodological implications for researchers working at the intersection of media and activism. Instead of only using media artifacts to make claims about activists’ practices, you combine media analysis with data from interviews and organizational documents to shed light on activists’ practices behind the scenes. Can you talk a little bit about your methodological approach and how it intervenes on the existing literature?

DR: When I was in graduate school, there were two observations that stuck with me about the literature on mass media and activism. First, I noticed that the literature often focused on whether a NGO (or analyzed what NGO) got media attention. While this struck me as an important outcome, it also seemed to me that sometimes there were good reasons for organizations to avoid media attention. In the book, I use the example of an extremist who murders an abortion provider. If you are an established NGO with strong political links and a good media profile that opposes legal abortion, you certainly don’t want to be connected publicly with the actions of an extremist. In fact, you might have to go out of your way to avoid media coverage on the topic.

I wanted to include archival documents and newsletters in my research so that I could analyze how activists understood and used media while they were doing it (instead of relying on media coverage and retrospective analysis alone).

Second, I noticed that researchers typically studied how a group used one type of media at a time. Mostly, folks would analyze mainstream media coverage and implicitly link media coverage to political clout. Given the proliferation of outlets in the last 20+ years, this seemed really problematic. The news cycle has speed up considerably and ideas that are published in marginal outlets can crossover into other venues and find larger and larger audiences. Not to mention, depending on a NGO’s media goals, it may not need mainstream venues as all. There are lots of ways to find and mobilize sympathetic audiences in the digital era. NGOs that can do this will soon find they also have political clout.

Analyzing media strategy this way takes a lot of time and data triangulation. The work is still worth doing. I started building my dataset in graduate school (with my M.A. paper and dissertation) and just kept collecting and analyzing until I felt ready to write the book. The hardest part was accepting that I wasn’t going to be able to share the story all at once or immediately. Once I started thinking about my progress as a bunch of baby steps that would lead to the book I really wanted to write, it made the research process much easier.

RC: Your careful attention to activists’ behind-the-scenes strategies and choices makes your book a helpful resource for both academics and activists. But academia and activism are often viewed as two separate spheres. What is your take on the relationship between academia and activism? What do you hope practitioners on either side of the abortion debate might take away from your research?

DR: The relationship between activists and academics is a tricky one. Activists get frustrated with academics because we often study processes or outcomes that they already understand. Academics get annoyed because activists typically don’t understand the “publish or perish” mantra that drives our professional security. Frankly, both sides have a valid point, but we also need each other if we are going to understand how the political world works and how to change it. I think collaborative efforts work best when activists and academics can acknowledge these tensions at the start of a project and figure out how they both can get what they need on the desired timeline.

While I use groups mobilizing for and against legal abortion as cases, I really tried to think beyond the case and write a book that would be helpful for activists (regardless of the cause) and academics interested in activism and media. For activists, I outline the basic media dilemmas they face and the costs associated with different kinds of strategic decisions. For academics, I put strategic decision-making in broader context so that they also can systematically consider how factors such as elite allies affect the dilemmas a NGO faces as well as the decisions they are likely to make. Hopefully, the book provides a useful conversational starting point for scholars to think about how NGOs use a variety of media to affect change.

Rosemary Clark, Ph.D. Student, University of Pennsylvania

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