Fight for Equality: Student Protest in Occupy Wall Street Movement

Fight for Equality: Student Protest in Occupy Wall Street Movement

Group 23: Kelly McNemee, Ryan Jorgensen, Anna Nikolova, Stanley Sha, Jason Quan

Topical Focus

 Our topical focus is to critically analyze how student protests in the Occupy Wall Street movement are portrayed by national journalism. Today, college serves as crucial pathway for individuals who wish to become an expert in desired field of study as well as for those who wish to obtain a respectable career. However, as financial crisis unfolded in the year of 2007, the cost of higher education increased sharply as colleges raised its tuition due to continuous cuts in federal funding. In exchange, burden on students was at large with poor and middle-income families were left with little alternative to pay for high tuition. Furthermore, students without enough earnings or savings to afford higher education became severely indebted with financial loans. With frustration and fear towards their inability to pursue higher education, students became primary participants in the Occupy Wall Street Movement as to demonstrate this unequal and unfair opportunity provided by the society.

 In reflection to this dilemma, our project is focused to examine this Occupy Wall Street Movement through the perspective of student protesters and examine how they are being portrayed by the chosen media. This involves in examining the “image” of student protesters being portrayed in this social movement. Furthermore, we are interested in examining how the media reflects upon the issue of such unfair and unequal burden among social classes to obtain higher education in the United States. As students ourselves, examining this subject would give us insight to how our peers, and interests, are positioned in social discourse. This is important because national media is very influential in society, as it represents and creates positions of power.

Thesis Statement:

 Mainstream journalists from the New York Times reproduce the classification of students through generalization, low competence, and low priority. This pattern will be examined throughout the period of five months. (November 2011 – March 2012)


 The following Research paper will explore the New York Times and the way that journalist’s represent students and the arising cost of higher education. The first section will be the methods we used to support our thesis, and following that will be the patterns we used and analyzed in our corpus.


 This paper implements both corpus linguistics and qualitative coding to analyze the patterns. We used concordance lines with “student(s)” as the node to analyze collocates. The purpose of this is to gain a better understanding of how the chosen word in the discourse is used by interpreting its meaning through the words that surround it and give it context rather than the definition of the word that can be derived from the dictionary (“Concordance overview”). Using electronic analysis was important because it uncovers descriptions of individual words that stand for greater ideologies (Adolphs, 2006). We used paradigmatic analysis which is the use of words with in the movement concerning the students and syntagmatic analysis where we examined the sentence structure around “student(s)” and concordance lines (Adolphs, 2006). We also read through the excerpts created in our coding rounds to search for reoccurring patterns of importance. We used the combination of these techniques to narrow down the areas of interest and then allow for a detailed analysis of the patterns (Baker, 2008) and also to look at omission (Huckin, 2002).

 For instance, we looked at how social actors were represented within the texts. Specifically, we looked at how excluding the representation of social actors in the text can say a lot about the language. The two types of exclusion are: “suppression” which means that the text purposely does not mention anything about the actor and “back-grounding” which means that the primary actor involved (students) are sometimes mentioned in the text, but have to be inferred by the reader to make a connection between what is happening and the people involved (Fairclough, 2003). Looking at this can help us answer why people are left unnamed or questions left unanswered.

Another strategy that shows us how we should interpret a text is noticing when something is being legitimized. For instance, one particular strategy for legitimation that is prevalent to students in the 99% movement would be rationalization. This looks at how institutions are used to rationalize action because society believes there is a certain amount of validity and credibility behind its claims. (Fairclough, 2003).

Discourse Genre:

 Accordingly, our discourse genre will be to identify and analyze the portrayal of students in the occupy movement through examination of mainstream journal The New York Times. It is important for us to use this national media because the cost of higher education is a national issue, so we believe the widely distributed forms of discourse genre are most relevant to its portray in society. We do not believe that a local newspaper has the resources to cover all these issues with the same details and timeliness. The coverage on this topic is influential on our views of acceptable distribution and the underlying power that is attached. It is our goal to fully utilize the theory and practice of discourse analysis to understand the significance found in the media attention to this topic.


 Our data was collected searching through the online data bases available to us such as LexisNexis and the archive of the New York Times. We searched key words such as, “occupy wall street,” “occupy movement,” and “protests”. The time frame for our group was November 2011 to March 2012. Our corpus consisted of 136,815 words and a type/token ratio of 9.09% (12,443/136,815). This created a valid data set because there were a large number of texts from a current and relevant time frame. Also the texts were written by a number of different authors lessening the chance of a dominant personal view to skew our research patterns. 


First Pattern (November): “Grouping Students as Social Groups, Instead of Individuals”

Another pattern is how students are represented as merely objects in the media, rather than actual people within the movement. In various articles, the word “Student(s)” is used more as an object with nothing really connected to it. There is a generic usage to it. In a few instances, the students are actually specified to individuals and they are described in a little more detail. They are used to be more of a represented group rather than a active group, they are not specific people doing things, but a group thrown in certain areas to provide a variety when some of the authors are showing a large number of different groups of people that are participating.

Some examples are: “Union workers, students, unemployed people and local residents joined the crowds in many cities, adding to a core of Occupy protesters.” Where they are just a group put in with a couple other group to show a variety of people in the movement, or “There seems to be little on the specific descriptions on the students or even acknowledging them as individuals or separate people. It seems that institutions or people associated with the institutions get to be recognized and get their input included in the article, while the students do not really.

An example is, “Mark Lake, a Morgan Stanley spokesman, said in a statement…” This is an excerpt from an article where there was input from both sides, but this statement was highlighted. Other instances have quotes from the student, included with a description of that participant. In an article by Norman Fairclough, he talks about authorization and legitimization, saying this “Legitimization by reference to the authority of tradition, custom, law, and of persons in whom some kind of institutional authority is vested.” (Fairclough, 2003, Representations)

This quote should begin to show how through authorization and more specifically legitimization there is an establishment of authority to the persons of focus. In this the focus, when being used is mainly put to the person talking and is the link to an institution, in the earlier examples, the spokesperson for the university.

Second Pattern (December): “Middle-Class Students are Portrayed as Having More Priority than Low-Income Students”
Middle-class students are portrayed as a class of citizens that hold more priority on the government’s agenda than low-income students that lack exposure in media. We can see this through the attention and severity that a mainstream publication exposes on an issue when “1/5th of American children live in poverty” (Ladd & Fiske, 2012). The voices of the Occupy Movement are not heard because there is a lack of exposure in mainstream publications like the New York Times to the problems of the least wealthy class. There is an article by Jennifer Medina that was published in December 2011 that discusses how the University of California, Berkeley, is now setting a new precedent for public universities to give more aid to middle-class students. She states that:

“For the most part, public colleges have focused on merit scholarships to lure top students and aid for the poorest families to ensure access, but many now worry that approach has left out a wide group of families” (Medina, 2011).

When the phrase “left out” in the excerpt is collocated with the lexical bundle, a “wide group of families”, we can say that meaning is established through categorization of an in group that has already captured the media’s attention versus the out-group, which includes the wide range of families that are a part of the middle class (Sinclair, 1998). However, we know that “1/5th of America’s children are living in poverty” so it is more critical that attention shifts to families of the lowest income so the gap between rich and poor do not keep widening. As this gap grows, the number of middle-class students will follow.

Finally, a second example of the pattern is shown when the text states:

“Although there are only a few anecdotal reports of middle-class students actually dropping out because of rising college costs, the issue has become a rallying cry of Occupy protesters around the country” (Medina, 2011).

Based on the word choice used here, we can see that the journalist does not fully believe in the benevolence of Occupy protesters. Using words such as “although” before a statement like “the issue has become a rallying cry …around the country” shows a sense of disbelief from the author regarding the protests. Furthermore, the real issue lies in the protests by the low income students, a small portion of the 99% population that is shoved aside by the New York Times to address the needs of a class that society is persuaded to see as having more potential.

Third Pattern (January):“Students are Portrayed as Having Low Competence”
When journalists discussed what students are protesting income inequality and rising tuition costs were dominant in the corpus. They claim that students have sided with the greater movement in bringing income inequality to national awareness. We reviewed this more carefully by retrieving the original texts where we found the occurring theme to more closely examine it (Kelle, 2000). We found that the articles branded income inequality as inseparable from the movement, yet they directly divided this from student quotes. Students were spoken about nearly three times more often than students were allowed to speak out in my excerpts of the New York Times for the month of January. However, when students spoke out, the journalists did not quote them specifically discussing financial inequality. Instead, students talked about how they organized their Occupy movements on campus and sometimes about greater underlying issues such as politics and the future. For Example, an article written by Cara Buckley on January 22, 2012 called

“The New Student Activism” states:

Mirroring the broader movement, students have taken aim at widening income disparities and the cozy symbiosis between Washington and Wall Street.

Later in the same article a student, Marina Keegan (a senior at Yale) is quoted:

”I’m not sure it would’ve happened if Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t have started. Definitely people are starting to think more critically about their choices after graduation and how they affect not just themselves, but the world.”

As the reader we cannot know if Marina talked to the press about financial inequality or any specifics about these “choices” students make. However, if she did the media chose to exclude it from the article. A freshman from Harvard, Gabriel Bayard, was quoted:

”With [Occupy Harvard] 2.0, we can focus on specific actions and protests instead of using energy toward sustaining an unpopular occupation.”

Again, this is just a general statement without any mention of inequality. The corpus also quotes Angus Johnson, a historian at the City University of New York who says:

”What you have with the Occupy movement is a criticism of global capitalism and the American financial system, but also a critique of policing on campus, tuition policy, the way universities are run.”

As a professor, he is portrayed as qualified enough to be speaking about these issues specifically. Omission is very important because it is sometimes reflective of greater ideologies (Huckin, 2002). Quotes from students about inequality and tuition could be intentionally omitted in order to portray students as not yet capable of discussing the complex issues of economic inequality and its causes. This argument is also supported by describing students as “mirroring the broader movement,” implying students are simple minded and their campus movements are a case of monkey see, monkey do. Low creativity and low intelligence are translated to characterize low competence (Abdollahi & Fiske). Therefore readers, and society, are positioned to see students as having low competence.

Fourth Pattern: (February): “The Voice of Students Are Silenced”

As the discourse analysis was being conducted, it was interesting to observe that the actual representations of student protesters were in fact not in line with my initial expectations. That is, rather than being portrayed as “heroic” figures with positive images, the significance of student protesters were often dimmed and were considerably insignificant compared to other actors in the article.

For example, the article titled 2-Year College, Squeezed, Sets 2-Tier Tution, examines the role of community colleges to offer courses with different prices to resolves issues of overload of students in a class. In this issue, students who could pay the added money were able to secure a seat in a particular class. Interestingly, this unfair strategy to collect money by the community college neglected in including a “voice” of students. That is, the article did not include any quote made by students to express their opinion on the matter. (Despite the fact that image on the top of article shows student demonstrators protesting the issue with a sign that reads, “Education is a right, not just for the rich”) Instead, all the quotes in the article were formed by the representatives of community colleges with their opinion leaning toward supporting or neutral on the new strategy. Furthermore, the quotes by the faculty were enforced with legitimization strategy with their full names and occupations were purposely added to earn credibility in the argument.

Interestingly, other articles also followed similar pattern with silenced voice of the student protesters. For instance, another article titled Occupy Movement Regroups, Preparing for Its Next Phase includes a phrase, “The group included a mix of ages and races, with graduate students, teachers, older labor veterans and some full-time activists.” In the article, there are various quotes made by political figures, writers, and other social actors with their opinion in the movement however, the quote by students are nowhere to be found. Additionally, the student protesters in Wall Street Movement were often found clustered with other social groups (i.e., teachers, labor veterans, and full-time activists in this case) or were categorized simply as “protesters.”

These reflections certainly do not promote positive images to the student protesters but rather, the opposite. The lack of students’ voice and their categorization as “protesters” promote a sense of out-group to the audience of articles. These observations show that our thesis is not true, and many instances, student protesters as a social group were not gaining enough coverage as they may have deserved. This is lack of coverage for student protest is significant to acknowledge, as “with less visibility, the movement has received less attention for the news media, taking away a national platform.” (Moynihan, 2012) That is, with little visibility, student protesters’ as a social group obtain limited power and weak position in the occupy movement.

Fifth Pattern (March): “Anonymity of Student Protesters”

After analyzing the corpus, we have found that New York Times Journalist are effectively anonymizing students with the presentation of statistical data and seemingly not representing students. We state this because as reader’s numbers and statistics rarely position the reader as the group being represented. Therefore with no in depth description or personal accounts readers merely pass off the certain articles as just another conflict in the United States.
Granted, when speaking about issues it is usually acceptable to leave out the participants being spoken about. Yet at what point do the represented group get lost or become irrelevant in the discussion of an issue.

Below is except that clearly states student plans for occupy movement, but these statistics seem to convey one message, which is equal right to education:

“While all actions will begin at college and university campuses, some have incorporated symbolic efforts like marching to the department of education, assembling in front of administration buildings, creating “tiny-tent” cities, holding teach-ins, re-occupying evicted Occupy campgrounds and collaborating with students, parents and teachers of all education levels at neighboring Occupy demonstrations. Fifty-nine colleges and universities have registered as of today. All registered institutions have at least 100 participants attending this call to action. Among the registered schools are Temple University with 700 participants, California State University – Long Beach with 500 participants, Ohio State University with 400”. These students are not tomorrow’s leaders. They are today’s and on March 1 they will demand change not just be pontificated from podiums to generate cheap votes, or made slogans, but that change actually take place now”.

 The only participant in the article is the journalist, speaking about what will be happening when they protest the cost of higher education. No other voices are present and the only real representation is of the number of participants at each public university. There seems to be a lack of representations with no student’s commentary or interpretation of issue. (Adolphs 2006).The statistics and presentation seem to dilute the overall meaning of students and their representation in the occupy movement. Since each group of student are protesting for their unique cause why does the journalist leave this essential part out.


Mainstream journalists from the New York Times reproduce the classification of students through generalization, low competence, and low priority. This pattern became more evident throughout the period of five months, through November 2011 until March 2012. As each member of our group analyzed our corresponding month, we started seeing an alarming pattern. Students were not being quoted speaking about income inequality, and journalists leveraged this to portray them as having low competence. That is, the voices and opinions of students were being completely left out. Student’s representations were being overly generalized and often clustered together with other social activist groups. Furthermore, the students were often a topic of being spoken about in the New York Times, however students themselves were rarely speaking for themselves. This paper helped us understand the social phenomenon after finally realizing that the voices and opinions of students were being left out. Since the media is such a big part of the interpretations of everyday people having this type of representation in such a nationally read newspaper like the New York Times truly gives students injustice. The paper has the ability to illustrate the true representation of student’s protesters and what they are standing up for.


Adolphs, S. (2006). Electronic Text Analysis, Language, and Ideology. Introducing Electronic Text Analysis (pp. 80-96). London ; New York : Routledge.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Meaning relations between sentences and clauses. (pp. 87-104). In Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Representations of social events. (pp. 134-155). In Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social researc. London: Routledge.

Polanyi, L. Van Den Berg, M. Ahn, D. (2003) Journal of Logic, Language, and Information , Vol. 12, No. 3, Special Issue on Discourse and Information Structure, pp. 337-350

Huckin, T. (2002). Critical Discourse Analysis and the Discourse of Condescension. In E. Barton
and G. Stygall (ed). Discourse Studies in Composition.

Kelle, U.(2000). Computer-Assisted Analysis: Coding and Indexing. In Martin Bauer & George Gaskell (ed). Qualitative Researching with Text, Image, and Sound (pp. 282-298). London: SAGE.

Moynihan, N. (2012) Occupy Wall Street, Times Topics. The New York Times, 2 May 2012.


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