Oluseyi Adegbola, Sherice Gearhart and Janice Cho
This study examines reporting on protests in Iran between late December 2017 and early January 2018 by global news agencies located in the United States (Associated Press [AP]), United Kingdom (Reuters), France (Agence France-Presse [AFP]), China (Xinhua), and Russia (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union [TASS]). A census of reporting on the protests (N = 369) was content analyzed. Results demonstrate that news agencies varied considerably in their portrayal of issues defined as problems, diagnosis of causes, moral evaluations, and treatment recommendations. Reporting by Xinhua differed considerably from Western news agencies and featured a greater proportion of stories recommending maintenance of the status quo in Iran. Calls for political change received more attention in privately owned news agencies based in democratic nations. While the use of sources in news stories was generally similar across agencies, protesters were absent in reporting by state-owned agencies. Results conclude that differences in national interests and/or ownership of global news agencies may explain findings and provide insight into news reporting on foreign protest.
1DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA 2Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA 3Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX, USA
Corresponding author(s): Oluseyi Adegbola, College of Communication, DePaul University, 14E. Jackson Blvd., Suite 1247, Chicago, IL 60604, USA. Email: email@example.com
During a two-week period between late December 2017 and early January 2018, a series of brief, but intense, protests erupted across cities in Iran. While the reasons behind the protests are multifaceted, general motivators include economic uncertainty caused by Iran’s plans to raise taxes on everyday items (e.g., gas, groceries) and reduction in government support for the poor (Eltagouri 2018), as well as concerns about Iran’s involvement in regional politics while citizens suffered (Five things 2018). Although the Iranian government limited access, news of the demonstrations quickly spread across social media outlets (Frenkel 2018) and similar protests appeared in cities across Iran.
News reporting aids audiences in the formation of attitudes and opinions about incidents like this. In the case of foreign affairs, the influence of reporting is powerful because audiences have no direct experience with events, forcing them to depend almost exclusively on media portrayals (Zhang and Meadows 2012). Journalistic reporting also has the potential to promote political responses to foreign events through selective emphasis on certain issues (Hawkins 2011). This is especially true regarding foreign incidents such as the Iranian protests, when media coverage can influence public opinion and policy making (Baum and Potter 2008).
Several factors shape reporting of foreign affairs, including the political system of the country within which media operate and media ownership. For instance, media in democratic and autocratic states are known to differ in their coverage of foreign anti-government protest, resulting in biased coverage that underreports or overreports select aspects (Baum and Zhukov 2015). However, there remains a need to examine reporting of foreign events by international news agencies (i.e., global news services), which provide news content to numerous media outlets to supplement their reporting. Unlike local and national media outlets that often tailor their content to suit the ideological leanings of audiences, news agencies are thought to exhibit the highest standards of objectivity and factuality (Stenvall 2008). The reach and influence of news agencies are also much greater than those of localized news organizations (Welbers et al. 2018), indicating their importance to public opinion on international events.
The current study examines reporting on the Iran protests to examine whether the ownership of news agencies and the political systems in which they operate influence coverage. Based on theoretical assumptions about foreign reporting proposed by Baum and Zhukov (2015), this study investigates reporting bias in news coverage by major global news agencies, including those that are privately owned and headquartered in democratic nations and state-owned agencies located in authoritarian nations. Reporting from the Associated Press (AP) in the United States, Reuters in the United Kingdom, Agence France-Presse (AFP) in France, Xinhua in China, and Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) located in Russia are examined. Results showcase how the reporting produced by news agencies on international incidents may be influenced by ownership and government to project the foreign policy positions of their respective nations.
The Iran Protests
The Iran protests broke out on December 28, 2017, and raged for over 2 weeks. Beginning in the Northeastern city of Mashad, the protests spread across Iran, including the capital, Tehran (Eltagouri 2018). Protesters called for broad change including, but not limited to, economic policy, foreign policy, activities in the Middle East, increased transparency, democratic reform, and/or regime change. Over a thousand protesters were arrested while more than twenty were killed (Baynes 2018). While these protests were not as violent or sustained as previous protests in Iran, they were sufficiently momentous to elicit coverage by international media (Parsi 2018) and admission of the need for change by Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani (Cunningham 2018).
Protest is a potent driver of social and political change in both democratic and autocratic regimes, however, media representation is key to cultivating support for or opposition to protest. Gamson (1995)contends that media discourses can stimulate sympathy for protesters by articulating their grievances and allocating blame to identifiable actors. Alternatively, reporting can stifle collective action by depicting protest as disruptive or by ignoring it (Klandermans 1992). In doing so, reporting can legitimize or undermine protest, give voice to protesters or obscure their grievances, resulting in increased or diminished chances of success (Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993; McLeod 2007).
Research highlights a generally negative pattern of reporting, which depicts protest in terms of spectacle, focuses on its disruptive aspects, and portrays protesters as deviants while failing to articulate their agenda (Di Cicco 2010; McLeod 2007; Xu 2013). Referred to as the protest paradigm (Chan and Lee 1984), this pattern of coverage reflects mainstream media’s tendency to support the existing order while demonstrating low tolerance for dissent (Lee 2014). Such reporting also relies heavily on official sources while marginalizing protesters’ voices (Di Cicco 2010; Harlow and Johnson 2011). However, there are exceptions to these broad findings. For instance, journalists may be less likely to adhere to this pattern when they strongly identify with protesters’ grievances (Teneboim-Weinblatt 2014) or when ideological leanings of media organizations converge with protesters (Weaver and Scacco 2013).
International media outlets play an important role in reporting foreign events, including protests. Transnational media have the potential to expand the influence and appeal of social movements beyond national borders and can transform them into globally relevant events (Klandermans 1992; Tarrow 2005). Given their reach and influence, global news agencies are central to defining, constructing, and transmitting news content to audiences worldwide.
Global News Agencies
Most news outlets do not have the resources or manpower required to collect, process, and disseminate news about events occurring around the world (Boyd-Barrett 2011). Therefore, news outlets subscribe to global news agencies, also referred to as newswires, for international news content and rely heavily on them to supply reliable and ready to publish information (Bielsa 2008). As a result, news agencies play a vital role in determining which foreign events make the news and how such events are represented.
Global news agencies were established with the goal of gathering and disseminating objective, accurate, and impartial information (Boyd-Barrett 2011). However, this attribute can no longer be assumed due to changes in ownership and other external pressures that can influence how they produce news (Rantanen 2019). Global news agencies may be subject to the political interests of their home nation and the political system within which they operate (Rantanen and Boyd-Barrett 2004). In the case of state-owned news agencies, such as Russia-based TASS and China-based Xinhua, the political ideology of the regime reportedly guides which foreign events are covered and how they are reported (Gehlbach and Sonin 2014).
While autonomous news agencies such as AP or Reuters may have greater latitude regarding what to report and how, their reporting is informed by their held norms of democracy (Boyd-Barrett 2011), which are inevitably shaped by the framework of democracy in which they operate (Gans 2003). Despite being privately owned, some Western news agencies may rely on the state for funding, and thus, may be susceptible to its influence (Rantanen 2019). For instance, the AFP receives substantial subsidies from the French government, leading some to question its claimed independence (Bielsa 2008). Differences between global news agencies showcase how distinct layers of influence, including ownership, autonomy and the political system in which they operate, can shape reporting. Therefore, media treatment of protest is likely to vary depending on the state of media independence and level of democracy in a state (Whitten-Woodring and James 2012). These two tiers of influence intersect and lead to reporting that may be more accommodating or less supportive of protest, especially for state-owned media in autocratic nations.
Although attention has been paid to the three most prominent news agencies (i.e., AP, Reuters, and AFP; Rantanen 2019), other agencies have become increasingly influential. For instance, Xinhua has moved from being a national news agency completely dependent on the Chinese government to a large, global news agency that disseminates news to subscribers worldwide (Hong 2011; Meng 2018). Despite its marketization, Xinhua still receives subsidies from the Chinese government and its reporting is tailored to project China’s foreign policy globally (Xin 2006). Xinhua disseminates news in eight languages including English, and thus, its reach and influence are not limited by language. Similarly, TASS remains influential globally, especially in Europe and among Slavic countries (Watanabe 2017; Williams 2011). TASS functions to project Russia’s power in global politics and distributes news in at least six languages, including English (Sterling 2009). While translation for foreign audiences may lead to differences in meaning (Scammell 2018), news agencies nonetheless reach mass audiences beyond their local or regional sphere of influence.
News Framing and Bias
Framing is “the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connections among them to promote a particular interpretation” (Entman 2007: 164). The framing process involves selective representation, which influence how audiences think about, interpret, and judge issues (Entman 2007; Iyengar 1991). The media use frames to control understanding and attitudes by selectively displaying information and elevating some meanings over others (Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007). For this reason, journalists can appear to follow the guidelines of objective reporting while framing news in ways that may be misleading (Entman 1993).
Framing is central to the concept of bias, which is defined as “any deviation from the mirror image of reality” (Hahn et al. 2016: 2). The media, through the selection and presentation of content, should not only be seen as depicting reality, but as a constructor of reality (Gitlin 2003). While bias inevitably results from this selection process, and is inextricable from reporting (Entman 2007), it has the potential to empower certain actors and their narratives relative to others (Eberl et al. 2017; Gentzkow et al. 2015). The resulting media content can alter audiences’ understanding by favoring one party or outcome over the other (Eberl et al. 2017; Entman 2007).
Framing foreign protest
Although limited research has examined reporting of foreign protest by news agencies specifically, existing research on coverage of foreign conflicts more broadly can shed light on how ideological positions, ownership, interests, and biases may shape reporting of protest. Western and non-Western news agencies tend to take different postures in reporting foreign conflict. For instance, in reporting on North Korea’s nuclear tests, the AP was found to depict the nation as a rogue state and equated its actions to acts of terrorism while Xinhua tended to legitimize the nation and portray negotiation as the path to peace (Dai and Hyun 2010). Baum and Zhukov (2015) found that coverage of protests in Libya by foreign news outlets varied as a function of political context. Specifically, reporting of the Libyan revolution by media in democratic states was found to feature revisionist bias (i.e., pro-revolution) while coverage by news media in non-democratic regimes were pro status quo (i.e., anti-revolution).
Watanabe (2017) found that coverage of the Ukrainian crisis by a Russian-owned news agency was heavily skewed to reflect events favoring Russian interests and narratives. In coverage of the Iraq war, TASS and Xinhua were heavily antiwar in line with their respective governments, a trend that is attributed to nationalistic bias (Horvit 2006). Similarly, studies have found that Western news agencies use different framing devices to attribute responsibility in line with the foreign policy positions of their respective countries (Camaj 2010; Lee and Wang 2016). Reporting bias informed by foreign policy positions is assumed to be less pronounced for independent Western news agencies (Camaj 2010; Horvit 2006).
For state-owned news agencies, reporting may serve as an instrument to project their nation’s power and support states with which they share good diplomatic relations (Cottle 2008; Herkenrath and Knoll 2011). Given the tendency for ownership and ideology to shape reporting of foreign conflicts broadly, such findings may also apply to foreign protest. These considerations may influence how much attention is given to foreign protest, the representation of key actors, the attribution of blame for unrest, and ultimately, the extent to which bias is introduced in reporting.
Entman (2007) suggests that to investigate media bias, we must examine news patterns that are capable of leading audiences to different conclusions. In order to analyze the framing of media content, Matthes and Kohring (2008) propose the use of Entman’s (1993) definition based on clearly defined frame elements according to their functions, which include problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and treatment recommendation. In problem identification, frames identify what constitutes a problem within any given situation. As such, problem identification refers to the process through which issues come to be viewed as problematic, or the central issue being investigated (Matthes and Kohring 2008). Furthermore, frames diagnose the causes of such problems, that is, agents and forces to whom causal responsibility may be attributed. Frames also promote evaluations of issues as positive, neutral, or negative, and in doing so, make recommendations regarding what actions need to be taken (Matthes and Kohring 2008). By identifying certain issues as problems, frames promote certain responses and guide audiences to consider specific solutions (Entman 1993). Therefore, the current study examines the Iran protests considering what issues were defined as problems, diagnoses of causes, moral evaluations, and treatment recommendations.
The Iran protests have been attributed to several issues. Problematic issues that led to protest include economic hardship, unemployment, and desire for political reform (Arian 2018; Parsi 2018). Protest were also concerned with Iran’s foreign policy, manifested in its involvement in Syria and funding of terrorist groups such as Hamas (United States Institute of Peace 2018). Political corruption as well as human rights abuses by the regime have also been cited as causative issues (Arian 2018). Additional intensifiers include social media use and U.S. interference in Iranian affairs, which have also been claimed to incite the protests (Frenkel 2018). To examine differences in problem definition identified in reporting, the following research question is posed:
Research Question 1 (RQ1): Do problem definitions vary across news agency reporting?
The Iranian government is a major actor in the series of protests and has been blamed for creating the conditions that led to the protests (Eltagouri 2018; Gast et al. 2018). From this perspective, the economic, political, and social problems that sparked the protests were directly or indirectly caused by the Iranian government’s mismanagement of resources, overconcentration of power with the clerics, and political corruption, among other issues. The U.S. government was also examined as a causal agent, with the Iranian government claiming that disaffected citizens were emboldened or incited to violence by the United States (Nichols et al. 2018). U.S. allies, such as Israel, United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia are also noted as potential causal agents (Coker 2018). In addition, demonstrators are notable key actors, particularly in view of clashes with government forces (Amnesty International 2018). Protests were also attributed to Iranian dissidents and opposition groups said to have incited dissent from exile. To examine differences in framing causal attribution in reporting, the following research question is posed:
Research Question 2 (RQ2): Do causal diagnoses vary across news agency reporting?
Moral evaluation refers to the dominant assessment of the protests as a positive or negative development. With the onset of demonstrations, several notable individuals, such as U.S. President Donald Trump, made statements formally or informally validating the protests and contending that protesters were fighting for a just cause (O’Connor 2018). Conversely, others especially within the Iranian government viewed the event as a negative and disruptive occurrence, while others were more cautious in their approach to the issue. Given the United States’ strained relationship with Iran, previous U.S. support for anti-government protest in Iran (O’Connor 2018), differences in regime type in which global news agencies are located, and variations in ownership of global news agencies, the following hypothesis is posed:
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Independently owned news agencies (AP, AFP, Reuters) will evaluate the protests differently than state-owned news agencies (TASS, Xinhua).
Although the Iran protests were about several interrelated issues, it was ultimately a call for social, economic, and political change. While certain analysts expressed optimism that the protests could usher in the change desired by protesters (e.g., Esfandiary 2018; Nichols et al. 2018), some thought otherwise (e.g., Secor 2018; Tabatabai 2018). Moreover, scholars remain divided as to whether the protests represent a clear call for Western-style democratic governance, desire for social change through improved living conditions, or a combination. Therefore, treatment recommendation should be examined broadly in terms of calls for political change or maintenance of the status quo that manifest in reporting. Given the differences in regime type, media freedom, and the strained relationship between Iran and the United States, the following hypothesis is posed:
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Independently owned news agencies (AP, AFP, Reuters) will emphasize calls for political change more than state-owned news agencies (TASS, Xinhua).
Sourcing constitutes a mechanism through which media organizations frame the news (Page et al. 1987). Sources can be used to frame issues and infuse reports with bias and influence how issues are interpreted and understood by audiences. Mainstream media reporting of foreign affairs overwhelmingly relies on authoritative, official, and government sources, which then set the tone and dominant media narratives (Van leuven et al. 2015). This is more pronounced in international incidents because key actors and sources are more likely to hold nationalistic views (Bennett 2009; Wolfsfeld 2001). This, in turn, inhibits neutrality, especially when reporters’ countries of origin have a stake in the event being reported. Furthermore, studies have found that sourcing is used strategically to give voice to powerful sources (Harlow and Johnson 2011). By so doing, the media permit the voicing of select narratives while muting others. Thus, bias is not limited to content and may manifest in the attention or lack of attention to key actors (Eberl et al. 2017). Given the relevance of sourcing to story framing, and potential implications for the introduction of bias, the following research question is posed:
Research Question 3 (RQ3): Do news agencies rely on different sources in reporting the protests?
Content analysis was used to examine framing of the Iran protests. All news produced by agencies about the Iran protests between December 28, 2017 and January 13, 2018 were collected and analyzed, reflecting the onset and termination of demonstrations. News agencies from democratic nations, including the United States (AP), United Kingdom (Reuters), and AFP (France), were selected due to their status as the largest global news agencies in terms of revenue and subscribers, and thus influence (Boyd-Barrett 2013). Agencies operating on the other side of the political spectrum, including China (Xinhua) and Russia (TASS), were also included due to their influence as disseminators of information to media outlets and audiences globally. Unlike their Western counterparts, China operates an autocratic regime while Russia operates a hybrid system referred to as electoral authoritarianism (Bogaards 2009). Moreover, these five nations are permanent members of the UN security council which has far-reaching powers to act in the interest on international peace and global security.
Reuters operates bureaus in 90+ countries and disseminates news in several languages to thousands of outlets. The AP and AFP operate bureaus in over 100 and 150 countries, respectively. Together, they supply the most international news to audiences worldwide. TASS is equally large with nearly seventy foreign bureaus; however, it is state-owned and frequently used as an instrument of Russian official views (Watanabe 2017). Similarly, Xinhua is state-owned and acts as a mouthpiece of the government. Xinhua is among the largest news agencies globally with 150+ foreign bureaus, hundreds of news reports, and thousands of photographs published daily from 190 countries (Hong 2011).
News from each agency were obtained from the Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe using the search terms “Iran” AND “protest” OR “demonstration” to retrieve all reports on the Iran protests (AP: 118, TASS: 34, Reuters: 60, AFP: 176, Xinhua: 72). The final sample (N = 369) was produced after unrelated stories and mere mentions of the protest as it waned were removed (AP: 75, TASS: 34, Reuters: 52, AFP: 140, Xinhua: 68).
Preliminary assessment of intercoder reliability was conducted using 20 independently coded stories and revealed low Krippendorff’s alpha scores for moral evaluation (.75) and treatment recommendation(.79). Areas of disagreement were discussed and new subcategories to reflect story content, identification of problematic definitions, and clarification of boundaries between coding categories were implemented. A separate 10 percent of the sample was randomly selected and independently coded. Krippendorff’s alpha values improved for problem definition (.91), causal diagnosis (.80), moral evaluation (.89), treatment recommendation (.91), and sources (.96), which were deemed acceptable (Neuendorf 2002).
Coding categories were adapted a priori from Entman’s (1993) analysis of frame elements. Subcategories emerged from the existing literature on the Iran protests and as well as from preliminary coding. Each news story served as a unit of analysis and the categories of problem definition, causal diagnosis, moral identification, treatment recommendation, and source were coded for.
Coders analyzed news for problems defined using nine categories including (1) economic hardship, seen in reports on poverty and/or suffering due to economic decline; (2) unemployment, identified in stories displaying employment concerns; (3) regime change, seen in calls for the overthrow of the Iranian government; (4) foreign policy, included stories on Iran’s foreign activities; (5) corruption, seen in stories suggesting governmental mismanagement of Iran’s wealth; (6) human rights abuses, identified in stories about the repression of individuals; (7) social media, seen in stories discussing the role of social media in inciting protest; (8) U.S. interference, seen in reports alleging U.S. meddling in Iran’s affairs; and (9) other, which designated any additional problem definitions.
Coders analyzed news reports for causal agents identified using five categories including (1) protesters, seen in stories identifying demonstrators as independent actors causing unrest; (2) U.S. government, identified in reports attributing the protests to provocative actions of the United States; (3) Iranian government, seen in stories highlighting activities of the Iranian government that led to discontent; and (4) other, used to designate any additional cause, including other nations.
Referring to the dominant assessment of, coders determined whether the protests were presented as either: (1) positive, seen in stories portraying protesters as courageous revolutionaries, showing sympathy to their cause, and/or treating the protests as a positive development; (2) negative, identified in stories portraying protesters as rebels, emphasizing their negative acts, and/or representing protest as deviant behavior; and (3) neutral, was assigned to stories featuring both positive and negative aspects equally.
This refers to proposals for action in response to the protests. Coders determined whether stories recommended: (1) political change, seen in stories that suggested resolution aligning with protest demands; (2) status quo, identified in reports recommending maintenance of existing conditions; or (3) none, seen when no treatment recommendation was offered.
Any attributable statements regarding the protests provided in news stories were coded as sources. These include (1) U.S. government, identified as U.S.-based political leaders; (2) Iranian government, identified as Iran-based political leaders; (3) other states, seen in sources representing outside governments; (4) international organizations, demonstrated by representatives of non-governmental groups (e.g., United Nations); and (5) protesters, including activists, anti- and pro-government protesters and others used as sources of information.
RQ1 asked whether problem definition varies across news agencies. Cross-tabs analysis indicated that problem definition varied significantly,, χ²(32, N = 856) = 109.04, p < .001. A z-test of proportion revealed that economic hardship was the top problem definition reported across news agencies (AP: 21.8 percent; AFP: 25.4 percent; Reuters: 18.5 percent; TASS: 33.9 percent; and, Xinhua: 31.9 percent). As seen in the subscripts identifying significant differences between newswires, agencies varied in their presentation of human rights, calls for regime change, and U.S. interference in Iranian affairs as the problem. With respect to human rights abuses, each privately owned news agency (i.e., Reuters, AFP, and AP) featured a significantly greater proportion of stories (15.6 percent, 13 percent, and 10.2 percent, respectively) than did Xinhua (1.1 percent). Yet, TASS (6.8 percent) did not differ from the others. Concerning calls for regime change, AP featured a significantly greater proportion of stories (11.7 percent) compared to Xinhua (1.1 percent). However, the difference between Reuters (10.4 percent), AFP (7.7 percent), and TASS (5.1 percent), and the other news agencies, did not attain statistical significance. Concerning discussions about U.S. interference in Iranian affairs, the state-owned news agencies, including Xinhua (27.7 percent) and TASS (22 percent), were found to present this problem definition more frequently than did AP (11.7 percent), AFP (8.3 percent), and Reuters (1.5 percent). All other issues were found to be similarly presented across news agencies (see Table 1).
RQ2 asked whether news agencies varied in their diagnosis of causes of the Iran protests. Cross-tabs analysis revealed that the causal diagnosis varied significantly,, χ²(12, N = 390) = 46.99, p < .001. A z-test of proportion revealed that, although each news agency reported on the Iranian government’s responsibility for protests, this was seen in a significantly higher proportion of stories appearing in AP, Reuters, and AFP (43.4 percent, 33.9 percent, and 32.9 percent, respectively) compared to Xinhua (10.7 percent), while TASS did not differ from the others (31.8 percent). State-owned news agencies, TASS and Xinhua, featured a significantly greater proportion of stories blaming the United States for the protests (36.4 and 28 percent, respectively) than did AFP (12.7 percent). However, the difference between AP (26.3 percent), Reuters (20.3 percent), and other news agencies was not statistically significant. The portrayal of the attribution of responsibility to other factors was somewhat uniform concerning the role of activists. The only exception was TASS, which did not feature protestors in any reports. Furthermore, blame was attributed to other nations, outside of the United States or Iran, more frequently in Xinhua compared to other news agencies (see Table 2).
H1 predicted that independently owned news agencies (i.e., AP, AFP, Reuters) would demonstrate significantly different evaluations of the protests than state-owned news agencies (TASS, Xinhua). Cross-tabs analysis indicated that news agencies produced stories that varied significantly in their moral evaluation of the protests, χ²(8, N = 418) = 31.34, p < .001. As seen in Table 3, a z-test of proportion revealed that AFP featured a significantly greater proportion of stories featuring positive evaluations of the Iranian protests (37.4 percent) than did Xinhua (18.1 percent), while all other news agencies were somewhat similar in reporting. Concerning negative evaluations, Xinhua was found to feature a significantly greater proportion of negative evaluations (37.5 percent) compared to Reuters (12.5 percent) and AP (18.8 percent). However, differences in negatively evaluating the protests across Xinhua, AFP, and TASS were not statistically significant. Neutral evaluations appeared prominently across all news agencies (AP: 45.9 percent, TASS: 58.8 percent, Xinhua: 44.4 percent, and Reuters: 53.6 percent, except AFP (29.2 percent). Therefore, H1 was partially supported.
H2 predicted that independently owned news agencies (i.e., AP, AFP, Reuters) would emphasize calls for political change as a treatment recommendations in response to protests more than state-owned news agencies (i.e., TASS, Xinhua). Cross-tabs analysis indicated that news agencies varied significantly in treatment recommendations, χ²(8, N = 362) = 85.34, p < .001. A z-test of proportions revealed that reporting by Reuters and AFP featured a significantly greater proportion of stories featuring calls for social and political change in line with protester demands (36.5 percent and 36.6 percent, respectively) than did Xinhua (13.4 percent) or TASS (5.9 percent). Although a greater proportion of stories in AP (26.7 percent) mentioned calls for political change compared to the state-owned news agencies, the difference was not statistically significant (see Table 4). A significantly greater proportion of calls to maintain the status quo were featured in reporting by Xinhua (23.9 percent), while all other agencies tended to avoid this approach. However, reporting across news agencies made no recommendations on how to respond to protests (AP: 72 percent, TASS: 94.1 percent, Xinhua: 62.7 percent, Reuters: 63.5 percent, and AFP: 63.4 percent). Thus, H2 was partially confirmed.
RQ3 asked whether sources quoted in reporting varied across news agencies. Cross-tabs analysis indicated that news agencies varied in their use of sources,, χ²(16, N = 449) = 34.30, p < .001. A z-test of proportion indicates that news agencies were similar in their reliance on U.S. government sources, Iranian government sources, international non-governmental organizations, or protesters (see Table 5). Results further revealed that TASS and Xinhua relied on a significantly higher proportion of government sources from other nations (45.2 percent and 33.9 percent, respectively) than did AFP (16.3 percent), although the state-owned news agencies were similar to AP and Reuters (25.8 percent and 28.8 percent, respectively) in this regard.
With calls to increase systematic research investigating how news outlets report on foreign protests (Baum and Zhukov 2015), the current study examined variations in reporting about the Iran protests across global news agencies. Results suggest that reporting differed in the definition of problems, attribution of causal responsibility, moral evaluation of the protests, and recommendations for resolving the issues that led to protests. However, results also indicate that there are areas of commonality in reporting. Overall, despite efforts to produce objective news, reporting appears to remain influenced by ownership and the political systems that house international news agencies.
Regarding the articulation of problems leading to protests, the most telling differences were seen in reporting emphasizing or de-emphasizing U.S. interference, regime change, and human rights abuses by the Iranian government. Specifically, state-owned news agencies, were similar in their lack of emphasis on calls for regime change and human rights abuses, while emphasizing U.S. interference in Iranian affairs as problematic. These findings demonstrate that the press in non-democratic regimes underreport atrocities committed against pro-democracy protesters in authoritarian states (Baum and Zhukov 2015). This type of reporting could downplay foreign protest while legitimizing similar regimes abroad (Dai and Hyun 2010). Such subtle differences in framing may reflect reporting bias that is likely informed by media ownership and norms of democracy espoused by journalists in democratic nations (Horvit 2006). Moreover, the emphasis on U.S. interference in Iran’s affairs by TASS and Xinhua may be informed by the fact that Russia and China boast better diplomatic relations with Iran than Western nations.
With respect to attribution of causal responsibility, news agencies tended to blame the Iranian government and authorities for the unrest more than any other causal agent. The exception was Xinhua, which demonstrated a tendency to blame the United States and its allies for causing the protests. This finding is consistent with research indicating that media are often used as a tool for diplomacy, and that blame allocation is a strategy used to delegitimize enemies abroad (Walker and Orttung 2014). Except for TASS, which completely omitted the mention of protestors, all news agencies produced reporting linking protesters to acts of violence and destruction against the government. This pattern of reporting is consistent with research highlighting media’s tendency to either ignore protesters or depict them as deviants (Lee 2014; McLeod 2007).
Surprisingly, moral evaluation was largely neutral across agencies and did not display an assessment of the Iran protests as either a positive or negative development. This may be indicative of efforts to maintain objective treatment of the relevant issues while refraining from making value judgments. The exception to this pattern of reporting was AFP, whose reporting featured a greater proportion of stories evaluating the protests positively. AFP’s overt support for the protests may reflect the fact that it is subsidized by a prodemocracy French government (Bielsa 2008), but may also reflect a culture of acceptance for dissent in France (Murphy 2011). Moreover, other Western news agencies were also more positive than negative in their evaluation of the protests, a finding that reflects their prodemocracy posture. On the contrary, both China and Russia have strict bans on protest, which is reflected in coverage by Xinhua and TASS.
Reporting by news agencies was generally devoid of recommendations for treating the protests as either a genuine call for democratic governance or as a disruption to be ignored. The Western-based news agencies featured more stories highlighting the need for political change in Iran and few stories calling for a maintenance of the status quo. Conversely, a considerable portion of stories by Xinhua were pro-status quo. This supports Baum and Zhukov’s (2015) finding regarding the status quo and revisionist bias in coverage of protests by media in autocratic and democratic regimes, respectively. China operates an autocratic political system like Iran, as such, this pattern of reporting is likely a self-preservation instinct informed by the need to legitimize similar autocratic systems abroad.
Taken together, these findings suggest that framing of the Iran protests differed broadly across Western and non-Western news agencies with state control of media appearing to exert considerable influence on the state-owned, non-Western news agencies. The pattern of findings reported here are particularly valuable considering how they reflect the positions advocated by member countries of the UN security council. These reflect the ability of media organizations, especially global news agencies, to project the power and foreign policy positions of their respective nations (Gilboa 2002). By extension, these findings highlight how global news agencies may legitimize the activities of political actors (e.g., imposition of sanctions, military intervention) to global audiences. These findings reinforce existing perceptions that news organizations in the global north feature greater freedom and autonomy while those in the global south may operate under more restrictive conditions. However, results must be interpreted with caution as the agencies examined also feature a mix of private and state ownership. Moreover, there are salient differences in reporting patterns even among similar Western and non-Western news agencies, suggesting a more nuanced explanation.
Despite patterns of reporting that differed across Western and non-Western news agencies, there were notable departures in their coverage that reflect the dual influences of media ownership/independence and political environment on reporting. For instance, reporting by AFP was most similar to other Western news agencies in defining problems and positively evaluating the protests. However, reporting was also similar to the non-Western news agencies by highlighting negative aspects of the protests. Moreover, although reporting by TASS was similar to Xinhua in its definition of problems and lack of emphasis on protesters as sources, the majority of reporting by TASS made no recommendations while Xinhua was pro-status quo.
Unlike AP and Reuters, reporting by AFP is shaped by an additional layer of political influence given its reliance on state funding. Despite being state controlled, TASS may have a slightly higher level of autonomy relative to Xinhua, which is both state-owned and operates within a more authoritarian system (Bogaards 2009). This is not to suggest that newswires such as AP and Reuters are invulnerable to outside influences, but that less dependence on the state may expand opportunities for unconstrained media expression.
It is particularly noteworthy that although demonstrations were portrayed more positively than negatively across the AP, AFP, and Reuters, the voices and perspectives of protesters were nearly nonexistent even among these agencies. Moreover, protesters were completely nonexistent in reporting by TASS and Xinhua. These findings demonstrate that media norms of reporting dissent, as articulated in research on the protest paradigm, are more nuanced than previously assumed. In this case, the protest paradigm appears to be evident in reporting by TASS and Xinhua, which ignored protesters as sources and evaluated the protests negatively. Despite the limited use of protesters as sources by Western news agencies, their positive portrayals may reflect the tendency for Western journalists to support challenges to the status quo in autocratic states (Baum and Zhukov 2015). Indeed, these findings suggest that for Western journalists who view democracy as the norm, reporting of anti-government protest in autocratic nations may be less likely to employ a delegitimizing approach.
The reliance on Iranian official sources across all news agencies, despite the portrayal of Iran’s government as a key causal actor, is particularly notable because it essentially led to reporting that prioritized their voice and emphasized their power to audiences (Harlow and Johnson 2011). This aligns with existing research indicating that media reporting, particularly foreign affairs coverage, privileges elite voices, and narratives (Bennett 2009; Van Leuven et al., 2015). While state-owned news agencies lacking autonomy may disproportionately rely on official sources in support of similar regimes abroad (Boyd-Barrett 2013; Rantanen and Boyd-Barrett 2004), Western agencies have scaled down the number of field agents and bureaus operated in other countries due to financial constraints (Boyd-Barrett 2010). Both of these trends could also contribute to the limited voices from the field.
The explicit focus on reporting by global news agencies does not consider the extent to which each story was utilized by subsequent media outlets nor whether it was used as-is or modified. Therefore, neither the impact of news dissemination on audiences nor the reach of the stories, which now compete with a variety of outlets, can be determined. Furthermore, these findings cannot be used to draw conclusions about the effects bias in reporting may have on audiences. Yet, findings provide evidence of reporting bias or systematic differences in coverage patterns of the Iran protests. Perhaps most important, the current study expands on Baum and Zhukov’s (2015) postulations by examining bias in reporting within a less examined context (i.e., global news agencies).
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Oluseyi Adegbola https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6243-1963
Sherice Gearhart https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1504-4594
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Oluseyi Adegbola is an assistant professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University. His research looks at how issues including conflict and politics are represented in media reporting, and how consumption of news content shapes public opinion and political behavior.
Sherice Gearhart is an associate professor in the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University. Her research deals with understanding how audiences respond to and perceive media messages, especially the role of new media in the public opinion process. She examines this at both societal and individual levels to understand motivations, perceptions, and outcomes of exposure in a diverse media environment.
Janice Cho is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her research interests include social media, advertising, and intergenerational brand influence.
Reporting Bias in Coverage of Iran Protests by Global News Agencies
Author: Oluseyi Adegbola, Sherice Gearhart, Janice Cho
Publisher: SAGE Publications