The symbolic power of women in protest coverage
As she raises up a picture of Mahsa Amini, a determined and proud woman fixes her gaze on us. She is one of many protesters in the background mirroring her.
Photo used by CBC News in its coverage of the Iranian protests.
The coverage of the recent protests in Iran has featured imagery of strong, determined women taking to the streets after the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini. Visuals like these have become an icon of citizen unrest, and shape the way we understand the protests rocking Iran since September 2022.
We often hear that a picture is worth a thousand words. And indeed, visuals carry a particular power: they can evoke emotions without the need for words. While we frequently come across these images on our social media feeds, traditional news media remain important. Magazine covers in particular capture and condense larger societal issues into symbolically-rich visuals. In the context of protest communication, we wanted to know whether and how such visuals convey the idea of protests and the image of the protester. This question is even more important as existing scholarship has shown that news coverage tends to delegitimize protests by shifting attention on their spectacular elements rather than the political issues at their core. Focusing on two well-known news magazines – Der Spiegel (Germany) and Time (US), we conducted a study to analyze the visual representation of protesters between 2010 and 2020. Using insights from the protest paradigm, patterns often identified in news coverage that (de-)legitimize protest, we performed a qualitative content analysis on a sample of 47 relevant covers.
What did we find?
Magazine covers framed protests in two interwoven ways: on the one hand, the protesting citizen appeared as a strong political agent, commanding attention with their determination and commitment to the cause. On the other hand, the protesting citizen could also threaten the stability of democracies.
More worrisome, however, was finding that collective protest is increasingly portrayed through an individualistic lens, replacing street protest imagery with studio photographs of select protest icons. This was surprising to us against wider discussions about the disappearance of traditional leaders in collective contentious action.
Last, but not least, we noticed the increased presence of female protester as a visual narrative for talking about protests. Images of both unknown female protesters and famous female protest leaders (Greta Thunberg, for example) were used to convey citizen power in contemporary contentious collective action.
What does this mean?
News visuals can delegitimize or lend credibility to the protest cause – and this is often informed by the ideological resonance of the news outlet with the protest cause. The selection of cover visuals is intertwined with moral evaluations of protest as a form of civic engagement. Particularly in the context of non-Western and non-democratic political systems, news magazines enthusiastically lend their support to contentious collective action. In local protests, however, the news outlet’s ideological orientation shapes its visual representation of the protesters.
The rise of the female protester, however, remains an interesting and potentially empowering visual narrative, challenging traditional stereotypes of women as politically “passive” and “powerless”. This narrative is no longer limited to feminist movements, as exemplified by recent coverage of civil disobedience drawing attention to the climate change crisis. Further research should pay attention to whether the female protester can undermine the protest paradigm and improve the news coverage of protests.
Alexandra Schwinges is a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam researching the role of journalism in the age of Big Tech. This study was conducted as part of an academic research internship with Dr. Delia Dumitrica, Associate Professor in Political Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research focuses on citizen activism and new media.