The Heroic Abuser? Christian Media Headlines about Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini

The Power of Presentation: Telling the Abedini Story

Christian journalists used a wide variety of words and phrases to refer to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, from the more direct ‘abuse,’ ‘marital abuse’, and ‘spousal abuse’ to the more ambiguous ‘marital woes’, ‘marriage problems,’ and ‘marital issues’. Breaking Christian News was among those using the softest language, referring only to Naghmeh’s ‘stress’ in pre-release coverage headlines and omitting any direct reference to the abuse post-release, instead making an oblique reference to Naghmeh’s ‘surprise move.’

 

At the Lydia Center, one of our aims is to examine the Christian church’s rhetoric regarding sexuality and gender, marriage, family, and children, including the Church’s speech about and response to intimate partner violence. That rhetoric and response is, in the nature of the case, largely verbal or written, which pulls us regularly into consideration of the power of presentation.

Occasionally, opportunities arise to discuss these matters in the context of widely known families whose stories have been covered by the media. The case of Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini is one such opportunity. Discourse surrounding the Abedinis’ case reveals how we as a community think and talk about spousal abuse, and the fact that Saeed was himself a victim of cruel imprisonment and torture allows us to consider the ethical significance of such discourse. What happens when a persecuted Christian is revealed to be a wife abuser? (N.B. The reader should note that our analysis in what follows reflects the fact that Pastor Abedini pled guilty to a charge of domestic assault, and that he did so before leaving for Iran.)

This is part one in a series examining media headlines about and reader response to Saeed Abedini’s abuse of his wife Naghmeh. In this first part, we focus on the headlines of 15 Christian media outlets, asking such questions as:

  1. What coverage do Christian media outlets give to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, relative to their reports of his imprisonment and release?
  2. What language do Christian media outlets use to identify the abuse?
  3. In what ways is abuse emphasized and/or minimized via discursive strategies?

The Power of Presentation: Telling the Abedini Story

The media are a mighty and recognized influence on minds, actions, and words. Indeed, ‘The entire study of mass communication is based on the premise that the media have significant effects’ (McQuail, 1994: 327). The choices that journalists make when writing headlines reveals their inescapable ideology and prejudice towards an event (see Edelman, 1993). In turn, these choices systematically influence how readers view these events (Price et al., 1995;Scheufele, 1999).

Headlines especially act as snapshots of media bias. MacRitichie and Seedat (2008: 339-34) explain it this way, referencing their study on headlines about traffic accidents:

Headlines are the newspapers’ tools to attract prospective buyers and imprint their individuality on what is otherwise a mass-produced product… Headlines, which provide an indication of how an article may portray an accident, are used to convey the first and sometimes the most significant message to the news reading public…Headlines also draw part of their influence and meaning from what is assumed to be the readers’ shared cultural, political and general knowledge. So, although headlines may sometimes seem deeply ambiguous, the surface differences may be a disguise for articulating deeper meanings and associations.

Of course, media headlines do not occur in a vacuum; media discourse both produces and perpetuates an already-present ideology. Through the production and reproduction of such discourse, communities work together to decide how events should be viewed and how social actors should be regarded. By examining these messages, which often are unconsciously absorbed, Christians can evaluate the extent to which the ideas we encounter are faithful to Christian identity and commitments, and resist the ones which are not.

Our Mode, Methods, and Materials

In order to answer our questions about Christian media headlines, we deploy a variety of tools and materials, including the often illuminating tool of critical discourse analysis (CDA) (see Fairclough, 2012), which is

a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power, abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context (Van Dijk, 2001: 352)

In short, CDA aims to identify ideology in discourse, focusing on how certain social actors are represented, whether they are marginalized, viewed apathetically, or held up as social models. To be sure, CDA is as vulnerable as any other tool to misusing and distorting materials, and conclusions ought ordinarily to be reached with conspicuous modesty. Nevertheless, looking at a text through the lens of CDA effectively sensitizes the reader to the inevitable moral-assessment and evaluative aspects of human speech about anyone and anything. CDA is capable of such usefulness as it involves examination simultaneously at the text level (language forms, cohesion, and text structure and their meaning potential) and at the broader levels of text production and distribution, as well as the social context in which these texts are produced. So when we examine headlines, we consider not only their grammatical-lexical-discursive features but also look for evidence regarding the theology and ideology at work in them. It is, as it were, to ask a version of the great transcendental question: what view of the world and of reality must be seen as true by the author to account for this or that way of speaking? What kind of world does this language presuppose, does it fit? And how does that world match up against the real world disclosed by Scripture and in terms of the Christian confession? How does it square with complex yet real Christian commitments regarding speech?

Using Google SiteSearch, we accessed 129 Christian News Headlines from 15 news outlets between 12 November, 2015 and 2 February, 2016, using the combined search terms ‘wife’ and ‘Saeed Abedini’. After several searches using various related search terms, this combination yielded the most fruit. For comparison, we identified 322 US Newspaper and Wire headlines via the same search phrase, using Nexis, a database of UK and international news sources. In 322 headlines, there were five mentions of the Abedinis’ ‘separation,’ the rest spread fairly evenly between coverage of Saeed’s imprisonment and release and that of the other prisoners.

Christian headlines were grouped into three stages, which arose inductively from the data:

  1.  Abuse goes public:                          12 November – 8 December, 2015
    (after which all outlets ceased referring to the abuse)
  2.  Interim period:                                  9 December, 2015 – 15 January, 2016
    (during which 6 outlets reported on statements Naghmeh Abedini made about the Christian life)
  3.  Saeed is released:                            16 January – present
  4. Abuse back in the spotlight:         18 January – present

Stages 3 and 4 overlapped as various media outlets moved back and forth between reporting on Saeed’s release and the Abedinis’ spousal abuse case. For instance, Charisma News reported on Saeed’s release four times, documented Naghmeh’s hope for ‘a miracle with marriage’, returned to Saeed’s release (two articles), and then published four articles on Naghmeh’s charges and public statements, Franklin Graham’s statement, and Saeed’s response.

Our Findings

1. What kind of coverage do Christian media outlets give to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, relative to their reports of his imprisonment and release?

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