Defining Occupy Wall Street: How the Wall Street Journal and Activist Blogs Define The Movement as Legitimate

Defining Occupy Wall Street: How the Wall Street Journal and Activist Blogs Define The Movement as Legitimate

Group 9: Alexa Fiander, Caitlin Rindal, Christine Moloney, and Somin Bach


The media can play a pivotal role in the development of social movements and reforms.  Studying the ways in which different media sources talk about the legitimacy of the Occupy Wall Street Movement (The Movement)provides an interesting lens into how opposing media platforms portray the movement and influence readers.  Specifically, our group compared how the Wall Street Journal, a traditional media source, and 99% activist blogs defined The Movement’s legitimacy.  The comparison between traditional and nontraditional media sources allowed us to analyze discrepancies found in the reporting and portrayal of Occupy Wall Street in relation to legitimacy.  Because the general public is primarily exposed to traditional media sources, any discrepancies found between our discourse genres can have powerful implications about the public’s knowledge and understanding of The Movement.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and activist blogs differed significantly in their portrayal and representation of Occupy Wall Street as a legitimate movement.  Specifically, the WSJ de-legitimized The Movement by depicting protesters as criminals, favoring quotes from non-protesters, and by establishing The Movement as disorganized and leaderless. Contrary to our traditional media source of study, we found that activist blogs used similar discourse strategies as the WSJ; however, they were used in a way to legitimize The Movement and the protesters’ actions.

Our research paper will analyze each pattern noted above using two specific Discourse Analysis methods.  We will begin by discussing Discourse Analysis as whole as well as the methods we selected for the project.  We will then move into the examination of our three patterns chosen, providing examples and analysis for each.


The practice of language construction gives meaning to specific events, circumstances, things, or people (Wodak and Meyer, 2009).  Language use is highly intertwined with identity construction, as one develops and defines whom they are based on certain interactions, symbols and value systems that are often shaped by discourse (Gee, 2005).  The construction or use of discourse itself can provide interesting insight into inequalities, power stratification, or other deeper connotative meanings within the text.  In order to assess and evaluate texts, discourse analysts employ specific tools that facilitate critical analysis of discourse.

Specifically, discourse analysts draw from two broad approaches when evaluating data: Corpus Linguistics and Qualitative Coding (Gill, 2000). The first is generally considered to be more quantitative, as analysts draw on word frequencies, collocation table, concordance lines, etc., that often provide interesting insight into word choice, cotext, context, etc. (Sinclair, 1998). The second approach, qualitative coding, can be used to draw on patterned themes throughout a corpus to highlight interesting observations about how language is used.  Specific tools such as grammar, syntax, semantics, backgrounding, etc., are all examples of qualitative coding (Wodak and Meyer, 2009).

For the analysis of our project, we will employ both corpus linguistics and qualitative coding methods.  In regards to corpus linguistics, we will primarily focus on a lexical analytical strategy for studying word choice.  We will specifically use word frequencies and context as tools to analyze my corpus. These tools will reveal interesting insights into meaning construction, especially in regards to the association words can develop based on the context (Sinclair, 1998).  The second analytical strategy we will use is a qualitative coding method that evaluates the use of certain grammatical strategies that can be used to legitimize or de-legitimize certain people, institutions, and processes of ideas. This tool is highly useful for revealing stratified power relations (Fairclough, 2003).

Our group focused on two contrasting discourse genres: The Wall Street Journal for our traditional news media outlet and activist blogs including ThisBlogThis!, Gothamist, Political Machine, Act Now!, Down With Tyranny, Pacific Free Press, Barefoot and Progressive, and Jobsanger for our non-traditional media outlets.  We selected our articles based on their relevance to The Movement within the date range of September 1st to October 31st, 2011.  We chose our specific media outlets because they are news sources that appear to have a profound impact on their demographic’s view of the legitimacy of The Movement.  Comparing the discourse between our contrasting publications reveals much about the power structure in the United States and how those ideologies are reproduced through certain texts.


Pattern 1: Depiction of Crime/illegal behavior of protesters: WSJ focused heavily on arrests/criminal behavior of protesters. BLOGS: referred to the movement as peaceful, with very few arrests.

One way the WSJ authors reproduced images of The Movement being illegitimate was through the portrayal of protesters as criminals.  The authors frequently used language to refer to the activists’ social deviance and illegal behavior.  Even though many of the authors may not have been outwardly implying that the protesters were criminals, the word choice, specifically in regards to the lexical forms of ‘arrest,’ and ‘illegal’ were commonly used throughout the corpus.  We specifically used the corpus linguistic tools word frequencies and key word in context to evaluate the significance and meaning of the words ‘arrest’ and ‘illegal.’  First, our group noticed that the lexical forms of arrest (including arrested and arrests) occurred 53 times in the corpus.  The KWIC excerpts also revealed that the lemmas of arrest were generally referring to protesters and their socially deviant behaviors.  The second example that supports our pattern of WSJ portraying the protester’s behaviors as criminals is the use and frequency of the word ‘illegal.’  The word frequency table below shows that ‘illegal’ showed up 8 times in my corpus.  See below for word frequency/ KWIC tables for both ‘arrest’ and ‘illegal.’

On the contrary, blogs turned the story around by portraying protesters as victims of illegal police practices such as the infamous pepper spray incident or arresting activists without warrant. Unlike WSJ, the blogs did not have to imply negative descriptions but used the fact that it was unrestricted to fully criticize the police. When the blog posts were put through the collocation word analysis tool, the lexical forms of “arrest” and “protesters” were commonly juxtaposed together throughout the corpus. “Arrest,” and other lexical forms of “arrest” (see above), occurred 5 times in the corpus. The KWIC excerpts showed that protesters were arrested either wrongfully or in large numbers. This amplified the effect of “illegal” police behaviors towards protesters, especially when numbers (i.e. “dozens” “hundreds”) were added to emphasize how protesters were affected by this. Also, the KWIC excerpts revealed that police were enforcing “wrongful” arrests and civil rights violations.

Words take on meaning in relation to how they are used, their context, and the frequency of their use.  Word frequency lists and KWIC tables are especially important tools for providing a general picture of a text or selection of texts (Adolphs, 2006).  Therefore, in light of the Adolphs reading, the use and frequency of the word ‘arrest,’ ‘illegal,’ and ‘protesters’ give powerful revelations regarding the WSJ and blogs’ portrayal of what it means to be an Occupy Wall Street protester.  Significant usage of a word or similar words, especially if they are used in a consistent context, can greatly shape and affect the ways audiences understand a person, event, idea, etc. (Adophs, 2006).  Both the words ‘illegal’ and ‘arrest’ are commonly used in the WSJ corpus to reference the protesters’ criminal activity, creating a pattern of portraying activists as criminals, thus delegitimizing The Movement.  Furthermore, references of illegal/criminal activity were almost non-existent in the corpus for actors other than protesters, which enhanced the association of activists being synonymous or connected to criminals. Meanwhile, using words ‘arrest’ and ‘protesters’ together effectively helped portray protesters as victims of police force. Interesting references to history also created the effect of legitimizing the victimization of the protesters.

WSJ: Word Frequency for ‘Arrest’ and ‘Illegal’ (+lemmas)
Word: Count:
Arrest 3
Arrests 13
Arrested 15
Illegal 8
Blogs: Word Frequency for ‘Arrest’ and ‘Protester’ (+lemmas)
Word: Count:
Arrest 5
Arrests 18
Arrested 35
Protester 3
Protesters 104

WSJ: Selection of KWIC Examples for ‘Arrest’ and ‘Illegal’ (+lemmas)

Officers arrested 85 protestors over the weekend after they marched
Checked for outstanding arrest warrants then released
But also for resisting arrest, obstructing government administration and in one instance for assault of a police officer
Dozens of demonstrators who have vowed to “occupy” Wall Street were arrested Saturday on the seventh day of the social media-fueled protest
There were approximately 80 arrests Mainly for disorderly conduct

BLOGS: Selection of KWIC Examples for ‘Arrest’ and ‘Protester’ (+lemmas)
Accusations of wrongful arrest and civil rights violations
Over 1,000 protesters have been Arrested . I stand with the protesters…
Hundreds Arrested Across country
Largest mass Arrests In U.S. history
The event quickly turned into one of the largest arrests Of non-violent protesters in recent history.

Pattern 2: Quoting discrepancies

Not only did the WSJ lack quotes from protestors, but it also rarely gave adequate attribution or titles to those activists who were allowed to speak in the texts.  In contrast, however, non-protesters, who consequently often had opposing opinions to The Movement, were often given significant credit and background information before or after their quote.  This discrepancy between accreditation can have a great effect on how the readers view the legitimacy of a person, process, or idea.  One article from October 3rd, titled “Potluck Amid the Protest” reveals the contrasting representation for both protesters and non-protesters.

Non-protester: “ ‘You assemble a large mass and there is going to be some sort of party atmosphere,’ said Andrew Krucoff, a 40-year-old Internet entrepreneur who runs the website Young Manhattanite.  [He was] partaking in a potluck Shabbat dinner and toasting the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashana at Zuccotti Park.  They sipped apple juice and ate challah, fruit, hummus and potato chips. There was even a brief prayer service.”

Protester: “The setting also attracted singles. ‘I’m here to protest the wars we’re in,’ said Yvonne Gougelet, a theater actress hanging out with the Shabbat crowd. ‘It’s a lot of work; we’re all educating one another. But I’m not going to lie: I’ve also been looking for a really hot guy with a beard to offer him a shower.’

In contrast to the WSJ articles, the activist blog articles had a greater amount of quotes from protesters than those from non-protesters.  In fact in the articles that were collected, there was just one quote from a non-protestor. When presenting those people giving the quotes, there was more detail about them and their backgrounds, especially those who held some position of authority than those of non-protesters. These differences can be seen in the September 18th article from Act Now! titled “#OccupyWallStreet: Searching for Hope in America” and in the September 17th article from Gothamist titled “Anonymous’s Occuptation Of Wall Street Begins At Noon,” respectively.

Protester: Matthew is a 40-year-old father of two who says he is attending the protest because he had no other recourse. “My home has been seized, I’m unemployed, there’s no job prospects on the horizon. I have two children and I don’t see a future for them. This is the only way I see to effect change,” he says.

Non-protester: Mayor Bloomberg told his eponymous news organization, “People have a right to protest, and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it. As long as they do it where other people’s rights are respected, this is the place where people can speak their minds.”

The contrasting quotes above show the significant difference between the accreditation protesters and non-protesters receive when being quoted in both the WSJ and blogs.  Using the Discourse Analysis tool for Legitimation, it becomes obvious that the publications that we analyzed used specific grammatical relations to establish legitimacy for certain social actors, while delegitimizing others.

The first WSJ quote primarily used moral evaluation to give accreditation to Andrew Krucoff, the entrepreneur and active member of the Jewish community.  Moral evaluation refers to the authorization or legitimacy given based on moral values or association with a system of moral values, such as being a member of the Jewish community (Fairclough, 2003).  Krucoff was also given a rather lengthy background paragraph that portrayed him as intelligent and civilized member of society who “sipped on apple juice and ate challah […].” Gougelet’s quote, however, received a significantly less descriptive and detailed accreditation.  As a result, she lost credibility, and her statement appeared less legitimate.  According to the excerpt, Gougelet was a “theater actress hanging out with the Shabbat crowd.” The author could have easily added legitimacy to Gougelet’s statement by using authorization (tied to institutional status) or rationalization (tied to institutional practices) grammatical strategies, such as listing her education or known roles in plays (Fairclough, 2003). The WSJ often uses these specific grammatical strategies to legitimize or delegitimize certain social actors.

The quote from the blog Act Now! gives Matthew credibility by revealing his background information, as well as, his reasons for being active in The Movement. Although only having his first name cited lessens the power we see this protester having, the background information that we are given portrays him as credible because he has legitimate reasons for participating in The Movement. This can be attributed to the method of moral evaluation mentioned above. Protesters were given much more background information as to why the specifically joined in/supported The Movement. Mayor Bloomberg’s quote, for example, simply listed his name, and consequently his occupation, which depends solely on authorization by tying him to the governmental institution that he works for (Fairclough, 2003). This gives him credibility because of the power associated with government institutions making his statement legitimate. The lack of background information gives the impression that his statement appears less legitimate than those of protesters because readers are able to relate to them through that personal information.

By not giving protesters adequate or fair representation, the WSJ is significantly exacerbating stratified power relations between activists and non-activists, as legitimacy is not fairly allocated to both sides. Blogs give protesters adequate and fair representation while limiting the information given about non-protesters in order to allow readers to focus on the legitimacy of the movement. This creates a more equal allocation of legitimation to both sides, but is not perfect.

Pattern 3: Portrayal of the movement’s purpose

The third pattern observed throughout these articles about The Movement was the different portrayals of The Movement’s purpose. More specifically WSJ dismisses The Movement as disorganized and leaderless while the blogs attempts to surface the true purpose behind The Movement.  In our qualitative coding of the corpus, we observed over ten instances where the critiques of The Movement deemed it as leaderless and therefore illegitimate.  This clearly indicates the high level of intolerance for a group which clearly lacks the traditional form people are accustomed to in the United States.  As a result, WSJ is deeming this nontraditional structure as unacceptable and illegitimate.  Some examples of this particular code include describing The Movement as having “no clear-cut goals” and having “few signs demonstrators were coalescing around a set of demands.”  The protesters were merely “a leaderless, unpredictable group” with “no one [who] could offer me a coherent explanation of why they hated Wall Street.”  One article blatantly stated, “The Occupy Wall Street Movement needs to sit down, focus and come up with a list of demands that might conceivably be met.”  While the articles argued that the “huge numbers of confused and directionless young people” had “merely a vague idea to end injustice,” they “asked how long a leaderless movement could last.”  If the protesters’ “demands are free-floating, [and] hazy,” how can a solution be found?  If they don’t “seem to have a coherent or identifiable agenda,” how can they change the system?

All in all, WSJ has made their position on the subject very clear: a leaderless and illegitimate social movement will fail.  In our capitalist society, WSJ and other publications like it, maintain control of its subjects’ ideology through a hegemonic culture where certain values are seen as common sense and therefore create a culture of consensus where people only seek to maintain the status quo.  According to Peter Ives in Language and Hegemony in Gramsci, this idea of hegemony was outlined by Italian writer, politician, political philosopher, and linguist Antonio Gramsci (2004).  The hegemonic ideal is outlined by WSJ and the people follow it, accepting it as common sense.  In the field of Discourse Analysis texts are considered socially constitutive.  In other words, texts serve to organize society.  This implies that because WSJ is held in high regard by much of society, they in turn have the power to institute, establish, or enact their own agenda.  This power is manifested through WSJ articles, where their texts serve as a method to organize society.

Bloggers, on the other hand, portrayed The Movement with a specific purpose and focused on group collaboration rather than having a leader. All of the blog articles in the corpus referred to the reasons why the movement was occurring, which mainly pointed to issues with relations between wealth and power. In the thirty three excerpts identified during the open coding process that dealt with reasons behind the movement and therefore legitimate, all thirty three illustrated the negative effects of power being given to the wealthy: corporations in this case. The bloggers are clearly portraying that the movement is legitimate through the exposure of the power stratification between corporations and citizens as stated in one article that “what unites them all is the opposition to the principle that has come to dominate not only our economic lives but our entire lives: profit over and above all else”. Some examples of this include “the influence of big money in politics” and describing our current government as not by the people, for the people, but “a government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations. And it is killing this country.” Many power relations spoken of in the corpus followed the same theme of corporations influencing American politics through their wealth making their voices louder than those of citizens. This pattern is demonstrated through one article stating that “they didn’t just funnel more money and power to the corporations — they actually let corporate executives write all of the laws relating to the economy and economic regulations.”

Protesters have attempted to make it very clear what they are hoping will change with their actions. One article, in fact, actually lists several demands that they have included in the overall “one demand” statement which has been adopted as a general term rather than describing literally “one” demand. Through the recurring theme of wealth and power we can see that they are strongly related using the Discourse Analysis tool of semantic reversal: deriving the meaning of a word or idea from its cotext (Sinclair, 1998). Specifically, semantic preference shows that a trend towards collocation with words that are associated with negativity and power gives the same semantic features of those words to the words or ideas in question (Adolphs, 2006). The bloggers use this to show that the movement is legitimate through the negative effect and overuse of power by corporations. Their focus is on revealing that there is a significant separation in the power among corporations and citizens simply based on wealth, taking away citizens’ voices, which is the root of the problem in which the quality of life of Americans is deteriorating.

By condemning the protesters as leaderless criminals, WSJ produces the institutionalized power relations through its discourse; this is known as functionalist structuralism. By establishing the hegemonic ideologies through discourse and specifying the protesters as powerless and leaderless criminals, WSJ succeeds in delegitimizing The Movement in the eyes of its mainstream, traditional readers and therefore the majority of middle to upper class Americans. What readers may realize by reading the blog articles, though, is that they work to expose those power relations that the WSJ reinforces in their wording. Some even say that this difference in presentation is because it is “a problem that the corporate-owned mainstream media is not going to cover. They won’t cover it because they are owned and controlled by those same corporations, and they are part of the problem.”


In conclusion, WSJ succeeded in de-legitimizing The Movement by establishing it as disorganized and leaderless while portraying protesters as criminals and failing to properly represent the protesters through their choice of quotations. In contrast, the blogs succeeded in legitimizing The Movement by portraying the activists as victims, properly representing the activists through quotations and by successfully communicating the purpose behind The Movement.  It is clear that there is a very strong distinction between the two genres of discourse.  In this paper, we used methods of corpus linguistics and qualitative coding to support our claim.

The findings support the idea that an established institution like WSJ uses its power and affluence to establish the hegemonic idea that The Movement is illegitimate. In a capitalist society, where society is ruled by corporations and large companies that oversee the vast majority of mainstream media, it is certainly easy for the majority of the public to be susceptible to their influence. It is difficult to imagine a world where major newspapers, like WSJ, are not controlled by the wealthy and affluent. If we lived in a society where the gaps between the classes weren’t so vast, where the rich just keep getting richer and the poor are just getting poorer, then maybe these hegemonic ideals would not be so strictly ingrained in our media.

On the other hand, the world seems to be changing.  The wealthy and the affluent are not the only people with a voice.  The concepts of blogging and social media sites give voices to those who made have never been heard otherwise.  Previously marginalized groups are realizing that if they speak, someone just might listen.  This is precisely what The Occupy Wall Street Movement proves.  Even though large mainstream media sources, like WSJ, continuously refuse to support a movement that completely condemns all that makes them a successful and important corporation in this capitalist society, there may come a time where all that ceases to matter and regular people like you and I create the hegemonic ideologies in our own society on our own terms.  Who will have the power to establish these ideologies?  Right now we are at a tipping point, but unfortunately we will certainly still see the powerful enforcement of hegemonic ideologies through the media for many years to come.  However, this may be a glimpse into a future with a world of change. The Occupy Wall Street Movement declares that we are not alone, we are not silent, and together we have a voice.


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