Splashed across the front page of the local newspaper here on Tuesday was the story of a 24-year-old Occupy protester named Keith Cuesta. He was not in New York, where some have been living in a park near Wall Street for nearly four weeks, but about 1,000 miles away in Tampa, where a small group of self-described “99 percenters” have decided to camp out in solidarity.
Mr. Cuesta told the newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times, that he had never participated in a protest before. The reporter, John Barry, said he was drawn to Mr. Cuesta because the young man had “finally found something he cared enough about to sleep on a sidewalk.”
As the Occupy Wall Street message of representing 99 percent of Americans has spread across the country, news media coverage of the Occupy movement has spread, too, to the front pages of newspapers and the tops of television newscasts. Coverage of the movement last week was, for the first time, quantitatively equivalent to early coverage of the Tea Party movement in early 2009, according to data released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.
The data confirms an anecdotal sense that the movement, which slowly gained speed last month, entered the nation’s collective consciousness for the first time last week, when President Obama was asked about it at a news conference and when national television news programs were first anchored from the Wall Street protest site.
In the first full week of October, according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the protests occupied 7 percent of the nation’s collective news coverage, up from 2 percent in the last week of September. Before then, the coverage was so modest as to be undetectable by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which surveys 52 news outlets each week to produce a weekly study of news coverage.
The study released Wednesday showed that cable news and radio, which had initially ignored the protests almost entirely, started to give the protests significant coverage last week, often with a heavy dose of positive or negative opinion attached.
Some protesters have assailed news media outlets for scoffing at their leaderless nature and lack of agreed-upon goals, but some have also carefully courted attention from those outlets.
“They insist on their story being told, even as they’re arguing about just what the story should be,” the media critic James Rainey wrote in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times. Mr. Rainey suggested that reporters resist the urge to make instant judgments about what the protests represent: “Sometimes the most courageous story is the one that says: I haven’t seen this before. I’m not sure what it means. I don’t have a clue where it is going.”
The protests are beginning to show up in polling data. In a Pew poll conducted from Oct. 6 to 9, 17 percent of respondents said they followed news coverage of the protests very closely last week; an additional 25 percent said they followed the coverage fairly closely. The state of the United States economy remained a much more closely followed story, as it has been for years. The poll had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Michael Dimock, an associate director of the Pew Research Center, said the polling found a generational gap in attention toward the protests. When those polled were asked which story they followed the most closely last week, 11 percent of those ages 18 to 29 cited the protests, while 3 percent of those ages 65 and older did the same.
“Even so, it’s not a top story among young people,” Mr. Dimock noted. The death of Steve Jobs last week was a top story.
It was the mass arrests of protesters in New York that initially led to much of the protest coverage last month. But now the grievances and experiences of protesters are getting plentiful coverage. “Protesters Fan Out” read a headline in the newspaper Florida Today on Wednesday. “Wall Street Protesters Target Fancy N.Y. Homes” read another in The Palm Beach Post.
The spike in news media coverage is significant because, among other reasons, it may lend legitimacy to the movement and spur more people to seek out protest information on Facebook and other Web sites.
On those sites, organizers are sharing information about a swarm of protests that will take place on Saturday in cities across the country. In central Florida, for instance, hundreds of people have electronically signed up on Facebook for weekend events in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Sarasota, Orlando, and other locales.