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Eric Stoner talks how to overcome challenges activists and independent journalists face

(Collegian file photo)

Eric Stoner, the Co-founder and Editor of the online news publication Waging Nonviolence, knows about the challenges of so-called “movement journalism,” and the struggle in reporting and spreading activism stories.

Stoner came to the University of Massachusetts on Thursday, where he spoke to eight people in the Integrated Science Building about identifying and overcoming those challenges.

This workshop was part of the University of Massachusetts’ Resistance Studies Initiative and was introduced by Stellan Vinthagen, the Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Resistance.

Stoner started his talk by explaining his background. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked in private intelligence in Washington D.C. It wasn’t until he took a class with journalist and peace activist Colman McCarthy that he became interested in activism and journalism.

“It showed me the power of good storytelling and journalism and sparked my interest in that,” Stoner said, describing it as a conversion experience that put his life on a different track.

He then became involved in the anti-war movement prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and started writing about it for his local newspaper before beginning a career writing for other newspapers and magazines. In 2009, he created Waging Nonviolence to cover social movements and the daily twists and turns of nonviolent resistance.

He first discussed the issues with mainstream media, stating that corporate nature is at the core of the problem. He also touched upon the “top down” approach to covering social change, the narrow range of debate, and the bias toward violence.

He also criticized the direction of resources and reporters and the lack of beats for following social and political movements.

“I think they don’t see [activists’] meetings or their decisions as really being how change happens or [as] being impactful…It reflects their innate bias on how change happens and a misunderstanding of that,” Stoner said.

Stoner then explained strategies social and political activist groups use to win coverage from the mainstream media, which include building relationships and trust with journalists, developing talking points and press releases and producing original photos and videos. He also emphasized using creativity and humor.

He showed a video of a holographic protest in Spain from 2015. Protesters were not allowed to rally in front of Congress, so they took videos of themselves marching and protesting. This received coverage from news stations all over the world.

He also gave an example of how humor can be used, showing a video from the activist group The Yes Men are Revolting.

“Their ammo is to often impersonate government officials or corporate executives and in some official capacity at conferences and events give ridiculous speeches that either take the official logic to some extreme absurd end,” Stoner said. “Or they propose some policy shift on their behalf that we would all like to see, which then forces the government or the corporation to then deny the good news or change the policy.”

Stoner then touched upon why more “movement journalism” is needed. He said struggles needed to be covered before they explode, and need to highlight the movement’s organization and planning before a “trigger event” happens. He continued by saying that international struggles needed to be covered as well.

“These stories can help us build connections across borders and give us some sense of hope when we see all these movements popping off around the world,” he said.

He ended his presentation with some guidelines for “movement media,” including: focus on how to do real reporting, prioritize voices on the frontline, be aware and reduce assumed knowledge and how important it is to not be afraid to ask tough questions or be critical.

“Publishing glorified press releases or movement propaganda normally isn’t engaging, in the first place, but also isn’t going to spread a message very far,” he said.

Stoner discussed one solution to these issues: to train a new generation of journalists. At Waging Nonviolence, he explained they work with writers to produce quality content, despite writers’ experience with more traditional forms of journalism.

“This way we can make the accuracy and sophistication of writing on this topic kind of better across the media landscape in a subtle way,” Stoner said.

After about an hour and a half, Stoner started a question-and-answer session, when audience members asked questions about how to cover movements over time, training journalists and the demographics of Waging Nonviolence.

Afterward, economics freshman Jonathan Blum said he thought Stoner’s workshop was fascinating.

“It was interesting to hear an editor’s viewpoint on how to get the best coverage for activism and social movements,” Blum said.

Blum is a member of Center of Education Policy and Advocacy on campus and has been to other so-called “Resistance” events. He learned that to propel a movement and spread a message, they “really need to grab the people’s attention and get the media’s attention and bring people on board and really go from there.”

Annie Fortnow, a social justice fellow at UMass Hillel, came to the event to learn more about the social justice culture on campus. She thought “it was cool to hear from a progressive news source about working with non-violent campaigns.”

Fortnow learned, “Don’t be afraid to go to the media if you’re doing activism and want your voice to be heard.”

 

Abigail Charpentier can be reached at acharpentier@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @abigailcharp.

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