Shut the Front Door: Disempowerment of protesters by popular culture and mainstream media on Occupy Wall Street

Photographer: Unknown

Shut the Front Door: Disempowerment of protesters by popular culture and mainstream media on Occupy Wall Street 

Group 8: Sarah Carson, Dayna Feller, and Tracy Tsujii (Gregory Burrell and Grace Shih)


Topical focus: As part of the generation that is mass consuming media information and news, we found it to be vital that we examine both mainstream media news  (local and national) and popular culture television shows because they have become our major source of knowledge about current events. Based on how stories are portrayed and delivered to audiences on an enormous level, happenings within our societies can either be taken seriously by spectators or tossed in the wind like the weather report. It is important to take a critical look at what news and entertainment sources are showing us and how they want us to feel about them.

Thesis: Although conducted in different ways, both mass media reportings from CNN and comical coverage from South Park, Saturday Night Live (SNL), and the Colbert Report dismissed the seriousness of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and kept it from gaining proper momentum by disempowering protesters and subjecting them to the portrayals of being an ‘out-group’. However, our more local news from The Seattle Times helped to elevate the protesters by giving them a voice and not scorning their demands.

Outline: In this analysis, we examine articles and transcripts from our sources and display evidence of how humor and “othering” take away the validity of the Occupy Wall Street movement while using quotes from participants gives empowerment to participants.


Since each group member was assigned a specific news source, we have collaborated our works and will display excerpts from each piece while explaining their correlation.  

 Discourse analysis is the name given to a variety of different approaches to the study of texts (Gill, 2000).  There are many different methods used in discourse analysis and we can use these methods to get a deeper understanding and meaning of a text.  The purpose of discourse analysis is to show how discourse in its first sense (language in use) also functions as discourse in its second sense (a form of social practice that constructs the objects of which it purports to speak) (Cameron, 2001).  It can show that how something is written/ spoken can construct the purpose or stance of the article. Describing discourse as a social practice implies a dialectical relationship between a particular discursive event and the situation(s), institution(s) and social structure(s) which frame it: the discursive event is shaped by them but it also shapes them (Wodak, 2009).  Through use of corpus linguistics analysis- coding, word frequencies and collocation- and study of social actors, we were able to analyze our variety of texts and identify ideas or patterns of how Occupy Wall Street was being talked about.

Our group chose to focus on news from CNN and The Seattle Times, while looking at the popular television shows such as South Park, Saturday Night Live, and the Colbert Report. As young adults, we are the targets of both news channels and popular culture television shows, which display and project content aimed at influencing our views on the world. CNN gives us a worldly perspective, while The Seattle Times keeps it close to home, but the entertainment from South Park, SNL, and the Colbert Report clue us in on how our social worlds are and/or should experience Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

Our corpus consists of the transcripts of three popular culture television shows: South Park, Saturday Night Live, and The Colbert Report, and articles from CNN and The Seattle Times. Since each analysis was done separately we have displayed the quantitative data respectively:

South Park, SNL, and the Colbert Report:

Data Set Description: One transcript from each show

Word Count: 6292

Type/Token Ratio: 1493/6292

Validation: This is a valid set of data because even though it seems like our corpus is on the small end, this is a relatively new movement and there were not very many popular culture television shows that covered this topic.  We do believe that the range of shows we have selected is a good representation of shows made about the Occupy Movement and it is a good variety to analyze.


Data Set Description: 30 articles from CNN

Date Range: October to November of 2011

Word Count: 23,971

Type/Token Ratio: 0.1603187 or 16%,

Validation: Given the selection of 30 texts in the allotted time frame for conducting this research and the broad audience needed to be reached by CNN, very little lexical variation is to be expected. Having been given a longer period of time or larger resources, one could conduct a much deeper analysis with a larger corpus.

The Seattle Times:

Data Set Description: 30 articles from The Seattle Times

Date Range: October  to November of 2011

Word Count: 18,022

Type/Token Ratio: .17634%

Validation: Since the Occupy Movement only started on September 17, 2011, it is understandable that there is not a cornucopia of news articles, especially since Occupy Seattle did not hit until September 26. Furthermore, the given time frame for conducting this research was limited so using a smaller corpus allowed for a deeper, more detailed analysis.


One of major patterns we noticed in analyzing the television transcripts was in how the television shows spoke about the movement.  Jokes were constantly made about the Occupy Movement, giving it a much less serious feel.  The constant jabs and sarcasm undermines the movement and makes it seem as if it’s nothing that should be taken seriously.  For example, on Saturday Night Live, character Mayor Michael Bloomberg states:

“Now, even though we have gone to great lengths to make them feel welcome, there have, regrettably, been some clashes between the protestors and law enforcement. Several demonstrators have even been pepper-sprayed. Although these were isolated incidents, on behalf of the city I would like to apologize and to make one thing absolutely clear: All pepper spray used was made from 100% pure cayenne extract, without any added oil or trans fats and was completely salt-free.”


After stating that demonstrators have been pepper sprayed, instead of explaining why or what was done wrong, a joke is cracked instead.  By doing this, it draws attention away from the fact that many instances of pepper spraying and police brutality have occurred because of the Occupy Movement.  It makes the whole situation seem less serious and concerning. Another example of this joking manner can be seen in analyzing the South Park episode and how they talk about the Occupy Movement. Here are a just a few examples of how the word occupy was used:

“I’m reporting from the middle of a protest where two fourth grade students are fed up, and have decided to occupy Red Robin. Occupy Red Robin has been going on for several hours now”

Occupy Red Robin Clip

“The 89%ers movement continues to grow as more and more Americans occupy Red Robin”

The use of the word occupy in the South Park episode was depicted  in a jokingly manner the majority of the time.   Over half of the time, the word occupy was followed by Red Robin.  This takes the idea of the Occupy Movement and turns it into just the physical act of being in a location (in this case Red Robin).   By using the word occupy in this fashion, in a way, it almost dismisses the movement as being a big problem.

Another technique that can be seen in our corpus is in the reporting from CNN where the use of semantic prosody produces power relations between the police and protesters as a means of aggressive dominance through certain word associations of police actions. When speaking about how situations unfolded between protesters and police, aggressive adjectives and verbs were often used. Take for example the following excerpts in the collocation lines for police:

Line Left Key Right
28 he Brooklyn Bridge … after multiple warnings by police were given to protesters to stay on the pedestria
121 strators have addressed various issues, including police brutality, union busting and the economy.  LOAD-D
264 trations have addressed various issues, including police brutality, union busting and the economy, the gro
437 eks, demonstrations have addressed issues such as police brutality, union busting and the economy, the gro
565 untries to deny protesters the status of martyrs. Police crackdowns on orderly protests became rare, altho
570 eared heavy-handed. The incident, together with a police officer using pepper spray against female protest
646 arty movement, there were few confrontations with police . But violent rhetoric was often caught on camera
748 dnesday evening, as some protesters scuffled with police , resulting in the arrest of 23 people for various
754 e said five people were detained after charging a police line.  The majority of Wednesday’s protests, howe
766 t Codes (48278-48420) Police Aggression Saturday, police arrested hundreds as they marched across a roadwa
1438 protest tactic,” he told CNN.  Meanwhile, Seattle police arrested six men and one woman who refused orders
1555 KPTV.  “This tonight was, ICodes (101601-101708) Police Aggression think, an unnecessary confrontation th
1673 llowed a crackdown on protesters October 25, when police fired tear gas, and Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen
2271 U.S.  LENGTH: 927 words  DATELINE: San Francisco   Police in riot gear moved intCodes (140478-140752) Polic

The choice of analyzing ‘police’ as the lexical item is key in looking at this certain power relationship, making it a prime candidate that may facilitate the process of uncovering a certain type of ideology in the corpus sample (Adolphs, 2006). The bolded words highlight some of the words that create this negative connotation about the relationship between police and protesters. The use of explicit force with protesters gives police the upper hand and since the reports do not confront the issue, readers are left to accept this as the ‘norm’. These negative, forceful words being used around ‘police’ also paint this image and thus, the meaning of daunting power that appears threatening and harmful. This power is further enforced with the violent actions taken against protesters from police actors and the violent words used to describe protesters’ actions as displayed in the following chart

line Left Key Right
10 AM EST  Police: Hundreds of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protesters arrested  BYLINE: By the CNN Wire Staff  SECTION:
22 odes (214-402) Police Police arrested hundreds of protesters who occupied an iconic New York bridge during dem
26 ing the roadway, authorities said late Saturday.   Protesters banged drums and chanted, “the whole world is wat
30 e Department.  Browne said authorities had warned protesters they would be arrested if they occupied the roadw
36 n-bound lanes were open during the incident.  The protesters are rallying against what they say are social ine
90 ork protesters.  Video: Police arrest hundreds of protesters in NYC  The lack of coherent message has not stop
113 r being given tickets.  The confrontation came as protesters along the road banged drums and chanted, “The who
166 Wall Street’ protests  On Saturday, more than 700 protesters were arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. A
748 t turned violent later Wednesday evening, as some protesters scuffled with police, resulting in the arrest of
750 howed police officers wielding batons and forcing protesters to the ground as the officers made arrests. Other
1086 ay Kelly said an investigation is under way after protesters claimed officers used excessive force when corral
1673 807) Police Aggression ke followed a crackdown on protesters October 25, when police fired tear gas, and Iraq
1673 ured skull after being struck in the head by what protesters say was a tear-gas canister.  Occupy groups in ot
1735 arged onCodes (110994-111214) Police Aggression e protesters with aggravated assault and obstruction after the
1769 34) Police Aggression ralia, dragged away several protesters Saturday after they refused to comply with an ord
1785 ities will not charge a motorist who struck three protesters Friday night during a demonstration in Washington
1913 staged a good, old-fashioned sit-in,” she said.   Protesters arrested Sunday were released the same day, accor
2007  November 13, 2011 Sunday 10:28 PM EST   Protesters arrested, challenged as police confront Occupy ac
2109 past several days,” KCBS said.  Also Saturday, 27 protesters were arrested in St. Louis after defying an exist
2201 Codes (135476-135657) Police Aggression d evicted protesters from the Occupy Wall Street site. This comes on t
2318 ers who had been given trespassing citations. The protesters had been demonstrating at the state Capitol groun
2336 Monday, but added it could be dismantled later.   Protesters are meanwhile looking for a private space from wh

These two tables help us draw the conclusion that the relationship between police and protesters is not one of peace and tolerance but one of aggression and violence. The following table displays how when analyzing the word ‘police,’ two of the words most associated were aggression and arrested, which furthers my original conclusion.

Word Count L5 L4 L3 L2 L1 Node R1 R2 R3 R4 R5
aggression 28 0 0 0 1 1 police 20 0 1 2 3
arrested 23 0 1 2 1 1 police 11 1 0 4 2

A final way in which our corpus displays these patterns is in The Seattle Times, which shows bias support of the 99% movement and reproduced power relations in their news stories by those that they chose as sources. When covering news on the Occupy Movement, there are multiple times when protesters are able to have the floor and speak for themselves. While running a collocation of the word “protest,” the word “said” and “protest” co-occurred near each other 27 times. In addition, the word “protesters” appeared within these 30 articles a total of 136 times. One example of such inclusion of protesters as sources include:

“Liam Wright, 24, of Seattle, said protesters received word about 10 p.m. there might be arrests. ‘So we called people to defend the occupation,’ he said, ‘but the cops never showed up.’”

The use of the word “protesters” and the representation of protesters as sources in the news articles set up a pattern of inclusion of people who are protesting in the Occupy Movement. Since The Seattle Times is a more liberal newspaper, reproducing power relations of protesters could be a subtle way of producing the ideological viewpoints of liberals. According to Wodak and Meyer, ideology is the representations of the world, which contribute to establishing and maintaining relations of power (Wodak, 2009). Since liberals are for the people and the protesters claim to be “the people” or “the 99%,” then including and representing protesters in a more liberal newspaper is expected.

By using these different methods of analysis catered to each type of discourse genre, we were pointed towards the concept of ideology of power relations and how, by employing such strategies in discourse, the media has a way of selecting, creating, and establishing power relations in the social realm (Fairclough, Mulderring, & Wodak, 2009).


Throughout our research, it was easy for us to see that although conducted in different ways, both mass media reportings from CNN and comical coverage from South Park, SNL, and the Colbert Report dismissed the seriousness of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and kept it from gaining proper momentum while disempowering protesters and subjecting them to the portrayals of being an ‘out-group’. However, our more local news from Seattle Times helped to elevate the protesters by giving them a voice and not belittling their demands.

Our key findings of popular culture’s comical dismissal and CNN’s bug crushing semantics disempowered the Occupy Wall Street protesters which in turn takes away the critical element of the movement’s purpose. It was refreshing, however, to know that our beloved Seattle stayed true to it’s liberal roots and gave it’s occupiers a voice to chant it’s feelings to the world.

A social phenomenon that was disturbing to realize at the end of this research was that those who run mainstream news and profit-driven popular culture have created a discourse surrounding Occupy that make the public not take it seriously. We, ourselves, did not think much of this movement until we were asked to study it in depth in this class project. Knowing that we were subjected to and had succumb to what could be an over arching goal of those considered the “1%”, was quite chilling. It has made us critical thinkers of how and where we get our information while questioning what or whose agenda is behind what is being projected.


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

Cameron, D. (2001). Excerpts from Working with spoken discourse (pp. 123-129, 137-140). London: Sage Publications.

Fairclough, N., Mulderring, J., & Wodak, R. (2009). Critical Discourse Analysis. In V. Dijk (Ed.), Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction (pp. 357-378). London: Sage Publications.

Gill, Rosalind. “Discourse Analysis.” Chapter 10 in Qualitative Researching with Text, Image, and Sound. Eds. Martin Bauer & George Gaskell. London : SAGE, 2000. 172-    190.

Wodak, R, and Meyer, M. (2009). Critical discourse analysis: History, agenda, theory and methodology (pp. 1-33). In Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: Sage.


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