On 13 June 2022, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) hosted a group of experts for a panel titled “Representation of Iranians in the Western Media.” The panel consisted of Yahya R. Kamalipour, professor of communications at North Carolina A&T State University, USA; Negar Mortazavi, Iranian-American journalist and political analyst; and Assal Rad, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council. The event was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar.
Kamrava opened the discussion by asking the panelists if there had been a change in the Western media’s coverage of Iran and Iranians. Kamalipour began by stating that prior to the 1979 revolution, Iran’s image in the Western media, particularly in the United States, was not as negative as it was after the revolution. He recalled that, while negative attitudes toward Iran were less severe than they are now, Iran was viewed as an exotic place. He believes that the 1979 revolution, particularly the hostage crisis, was a watershed moment in Iran’s image in Western media, contributing to what he refers to as “a war of images.” According to Kamalipour, the hostage crisis harmed not only Iran as a country, but also Iranian people both at home and abroad. Following the hostage crisis, Iran was in the national and international news, as well as popular culture, with Hollywood producing numerous films depicting Iran negatively. This negative perception of Iran was exacerbated when George W. Bush referred to Iran as “an axis of evil” in 2002, and Donald Trump called Iran “the world’s number one terrorist state” in 2016.
Rad then commented on the relationship between Iran’s negative portrayal in media coverage and public policy. Building on Kamalipour’s assessment, Rad further stated that the seizure of the American embassy in November 1979 contributed significantly to Iran’s negative image in the West. She further remarked that the image of Iran as constructed in political discourse and through various media has a direct impact on policies. There are times when US policies harm American national interests as well as global security. According to Rad, “this happens because of an ideological bent through which it is very easy to have an anti-Iran attitude in this climate.” Furthermore, the negative portrayal of Iran is then used to justify specific policies. When it comes to Iran, both Democrats and Republicans in the United States have similar viewpoints.
Mortazavi continued the discussion by addressing the impact of Iran’s statements and actions on the country’s negative image. Statements from Iranian officials frequently make headlines; however, comments made by American officials about Iranians do not receive the same attention. The lack of access to Iran as a result of Iranian officials’ policies, as well as a lack of incentives and resources, with many Western and international media outlets lacking reporters or bureaus in Iran, all contribute to this image. According to Mortazavi, few media outlets have staff who are familiar with the context and language in order to cover Iran. “The media coverage has been influenced by the politics of countries that are essentially Iran’s foes or rivals.” The media’s focus on specific issues, primarily security, foreign policy, and the nuclear program, has had a dehumanizing effect.
Regarding whether Iran can respond to negative images through public diplomacy and portray a different message, Kamalipour stated that while communication channels, such as social media, are available within Iran, the issue is messaging. “What happens in Iran, and what the national and international media reports on in Iran, is critical.” These media outlets, including Iranian media based in the United States, frequently send the wrong message, and contribute to the distorted image of Iran. He emphasized that the negative portrayal of Iran and its people affects all Iranians, no matter where they live. Mortazavi added that the diaspora media often conflates the government with the people and the country, leading to broad generalizations about the entire population. She claimed that “in the case of Iran, the counter or complementary narrative is either weak or non-existent.”
In response to how Iranian women are portrayed in the Western media, Rad pointed to a “savior complex,” in which Muslim women, in Iran and elsewhere, are assumed to be helpless and in need of being saved. Despite their significant contribution and involvement in multiple spheres within Iranian society, women are often portrayed as weak and passive. “Women are not passively waiting to be rescued; instead, they are actively participating in the political changes in their own country.” Rad argued that the coverage is also selective, giving voice to those who agree with US officials’ political views. Mortazavi, on the other hand, claimed that the dehumanization of Muslims, which is a byproduct of post-colonial discourse, plays out differently depending on whether the US is dealing with enemies or allies.
Kamalipour commented on Iranian coverage of the US, contending that it is far from balanced and similar to that of the US, focusing on the negatives. Mortazavi agreed with Kamalipour and remarked that “Iranian media is not monolithic, but the overall narrative mirrors that of US coverage of Iran.” She also mentioned that Iranian journalists have limited access to the United States and must work mostly from afar. “The understanding is deeper, but the country’s politics also influences and impacts the coverage.”
Lastly, Kamalipour stated that educating and informing people about Iran is critical in addressing the problem of a skewed and biased image of the country. He emphasized the positive role that diaspora media outlets can play in reducing tension and division and better portraying Iran as a country and people. Rad agreed, adding that it is critical to have conversations about representation while also emphasizing the difficulty of doing so given that people are accustomed to such narratives. “These are the very conversations that we need to have in order to grow as a community and as a society at large because they force us to reconsider the status quo.”
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