For anybody tapped into digital media and social network platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, WordPress, and so on – SOPA and PIPA were impossible to ignore. The twin pieces of legislation were introduced in May and October of 2011, respectively, and sought to limit piracy and copyright infringement online. Specifically, the bills would hold websites legally responsible for the content uploaded by their users. If websites were found to be hosting copyrighted material, the Department of Justice would have the ability to prohibit advertisers from doing business with the sites, stop search engines from linking to the sites, and require internet service providers to block the sites entirely.
Unsurprisingly, the digital media platforms – the sites SOPA and PIPA would most likely affect – exploded in protest. Fight for the Future, an online advocacy group, organized American Censorship Day on November 16 in protest of the legislation. Later, they coordinated a day of digital action on January 18, called the largest online protest in history: 115,000 websites blacked out their homepages or logos, 10 million individuals signed online petitions, 3 million tweets mentioned SOPA and PIPA, and the hacktivist network Anonymous brought down the websites of the FBI and Department of Justice, among others. In all, an estimated 162 people saw some form of online activism on that day alone.
But, throughout all the cyber uproar, the traditional media were largely absent. In the months between October 26, when SOPA was introduced to the House of Representatives, and January 12, the six largest TV news networks devoted only two segments to the legislation and protests. On the night of January 18, only three segments covered the protests, totaling less than five minutes. Newspapers did not do much to fill these gaps in coverage: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post ran a total of only 31 stories on the topic between October 26 and January 19.
Was the traditional media’s lack of coverage of their digital counterparts (competitors?) an anomaly? Other issues that have provoked widespread online debate – such as the Susan G. Komen scandal and the Trayvon Martin tragedy – have received significantly more coverage in the traditional media. A study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for the Excellence of Journalism, for example, found that 18% of nightly news coverage was devoted to the Martin case in the two weeks following the shooting.
As more of our political and social debates move online, we should question the role of traditional media in our national discourse. Nearly half of Americans have a Facebook account, and traffic to news sites from social networks has increased by more than 50% in the last two years. Often, twitter trends often dictates what becomes news. While many critics have alleged that digital media companies like Google and Wikipedia used citizens as “corporate pawns” to further their corporate interests in the SOPA/PIPA protests, media watchers cannot deny that online news often emerges more organically, from a more grassroots level, and with more agency on the part of citizens.
But does that mean that traditional media – including newspapers, television, and radio – no longer have the responsibility to curate and explain current events to the public? Traditional media approaches news from above, relying on professional journalists to decide what information our citizens require to maintain a vibrant, healthy democracy. When 22.5 million Americans tune into the evening news each night, I think that role of traditional media in our news culture remains central. What has changed, however, is traditional media’s interactions with new media.
Cable broadcasts and newspapers may not have sparked the online protests over SOPA and PIPA, but when that topic dominated digital discourse for weeks, they did have a responsibility to cover and analyze it. The result, I believe, would be a mingling of bottom up and top down, bringing issues of concern to citizens to light, but ensuring they remain contextualized and analyzed by professionals.