Sunday, March 13, 2011

'Image Politics' and image events

“Making Waves” brought to mind two current organizations that love to produce “image events”: PETA and the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas.

While PETA stages fairly frequent (perhaps 3-4 a year) protests/ “image events” in Lincoln, they rarely get news coverage. The protests often consist of women in stages of undress or supporters in chicken costumes protesting outside a restaurant, or other places of interest to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). However, in September, the Journal Star did run a photo of two PETA activists dressed in condom costumes dancing at 14th and O streets urging the spaying/neutering of pets. That picture stirred a debate in the newsroom about how to treat these sorts of image events -- the ones that we know are created specifically to draw attention and based on their frequency and blatant political message are relatively not newsworthy. The condom event was different from the organization’s usual sexualized (meaning, naked women) protests, and the message supporting spaying/neutering is more mainstream than its usual platforms. It also happened on one of the busiest intersections in the city. And while I don’t think we got a lot of reader protests about running the photo and indulging such a politicized image event, it did stir a newsroom debate. A result of this coverage, in my opinion, is that PETA will have to outdo itself to get attention from our photographers any time soon, because usually we observe this guide: Organizations like PETA thrive on image events. If we don’t pay attention to them -- and unless they’re exceptionally newsworthy and cause other types of news (counterprotests, car accidents, fights, etc.), we shouldn’t -- then they cease to be news and we won’t be exploited to promote their causes.

The Westboro church is at once a similar but different example. I’m assuming we’re all familiar with the church/hate group’s controversial protests of funerals, play productions and more to promote its, as Wikipedia diplomatically puts it, “extreme stance against homosexuality.” The church, like PETA, also uses image events to draw attention to its beliefs and causes, and generally, news organizations do their best to ignore it -- except when the church is the subject of a Supreme Court ruling or shows up in your town to protest a funeral or play.

The Journal Star newsroom receives a fax from Westboro whenever members will protest a funeral in the area. The press releases are full of violent, anti-gay rhetoric supporting the group’s belief that God celebrates these deaths because of U.S. tolerance for gay rights and many unrelated, illogical statements. When the church protested at the funeral for Robert Butler Jr., the shooter at Millard South High School who was from Lincoln, we mentioned the protesters in one paragraph in the news story of Butler’s funeral. This decision also was met with debate in the newsroom: Some feel to mention the protest only indulges an organization constantly seeking attention for its image events, while others felt it impossible to ignore these visible protests in a news story.

In any case, both of these organizations have perfected the art of the image event, even if they can’t control the press they receive for their works. I think Westboro also exemplifies an idea from the reading: That sometimes image events -- especially by radical groups -- help create identity among those in the dominant culture. Counterprotests against Westboro often crop up at the funerals they protest, including the Patriot Guard motorcycle group, personifying the idea that while we may differ in our beliefs on war, gay rights and other huge issues, the Westboro protests offer us a way to unite against their extremism.

And both organizations take to heart a quote on page 6 of “Image Politics”: “Smart and creative communication of the message is as important as the message itself.”

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