Mir Hossein Mousavi supporters demonstrate in Tehran on Monday. (Photo: Getty Images)
If the international consensus about last week's election results in Iran is that they were a) indeed fraudulent, or b) a coup attempt, and the pro-democracy elements in that country emerge victorious, it will mostly be in spite - not because - of mainstream media coverage of the events. Since 2002, there have emerged a series of democracy movements in Iran, spearheaded primarily - though not exclusively - by university students and women. These people are for the most part technologically and strategically savvy, especially when compared to the hardliners and mullahs that make up the ancient regime in Iran. They have studied the nonviolent struggles in Chile, South Africa and Serbia. They understand the dynamics of civil resistance and the power of simply withdrawing individual complicity in oppression. These are the people whose "tweets" and Facebook "status updates" the world is getting live via digital media from inside the country (despite the regime's attempts to shut down all electronic communications). They are citizen journalists in the most genuine sense of the term. And yet, for most reporters and producers in American mainstream media, they might as well not exist.
The gap between the mainstream media's frames on the story emerging from Iran and the news being instantaneously communicated in bits and pieces from inside the country is surreal. And here's why we should care. A media "frame" helps form the cognitive structure around our perceptions of reality. It determines what parts of a news story we find most significant, and it helps us draw subconscious - but often deeply embedded - conclusions about the meaning behind the events in a story. Because media tend to be so obsessed with violence, the context and significance underlying the series of events like the ones unfolding in Iran often are misinterpreted. Because the wrong (or less interesting) but often more sensational elements of the story are emphasized while others are downplayed, erroneous or incomplete conclusions emerge. And often these conclusions have the consequence of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Iranian pro-democracy activists, say, catch a glimpse of a CNN streaming headline that says something to the effect of "Ahmadinejad Victorious in Iranian Elections" or that refer to Mousavi as "the defeated challenger," they may conclude that the regime's attempt at (what is appearing more and more obviously to be) a coup has succeeded. This will in turn dampen their enthusiasm and morale, which may cause some in the movement to give up their resistance, and worse, may cause others to turn to violent means - a last, desperate resort - to fight back.
Although occasionally media frames are consciously manufactured (witness virtually anything on the Fox News channel), conventional wisdom suggests that the major culprit is the inability or unwillingness of reporters to engage in serious investigative or assiduous on-the-ground reporting. For example, when in doubt - where information is sparse or of questionable veracity, and official (government) forces are being challenged by nongovernmental forces, media tend to default to the perspective of the officials, regardless of regime type or ideology (W. Lance Bennett calls this the "authority-disorder" bias). This can be extraordinarily frustrating for members of a nonviolent pro-democracy struggle, who, in addition to everything else, find themselves in the midst of an uprising having to try to unspin erroneous media coverage coming from all directions.
Other types of media bias that help shape public perceptions of civil resistance - and all of which are being used to report the story from Iran - are fragmentation, dramatization and euphemism.
The fragmentation bias involves covering the story in isolated, seemingly unrelated pieces. At its worst, a story is completely removed of its larger historical or political context. As they are being reported now by most mainstream media, stories from Iran are fragmented. They suggest pandemonium, isolated acts of extremist political violence and a regime struggling to "normalize" the situation. When taken together (and especially with the corresponding photographs), these smaller stories paint a picture of a country in chaos, prone to violent theocratic extremism and awash in repression. While each of these taken out of context may have some veracity, the reality is much richer and more potentially encouraging. The Green Revolution is not just a series of ad hoc protests against a political theft, it is a story of widespread resistance to ongoing oppression. It is not the repression and violence that is most interesting about the news coming from Iran, it is that people continue to resist despite the repression.
Stories coming from Iran in the last few days are also characterized by what Bennett calls the dramatization bias. Dramatization of a story occurs when the news is encapsulated in short, sensationalistic bits intended to provoke an emotional response on the part of the news consumer, but in the absence of serious analysis of the policy issues, institutional interplay or larger social setting. Dramatization, which thrives on confusion and skepticism, tends to produce conclusions that bend toward the cynical. For example, a dramatization bias might cover a massive protest against rigged votes as a "spontaneous mass uprising," suggesting that it is not part of a larger, systematic strategy and leading the media audience to conclude it's a one-off - just a temporary and reflexive response to immediate political events. This kind of conclusion could create the global perception that there is nothing - no movement or struggle - with which to demonstrate solidarity.
Cynthia Boaz, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science at Sonoma State University, where she specializes in nonviolent movements and quality of democracy. She is vice president of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and is on the board of directors of Project Censored/Media Freedom Foundation.