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About Media and Civil Resistance


The need for dedicated and incisive coverage of resistance worldwide has grown significantly in recent decades, and has become more urgent in recent years following the Arab Spring. Civil resistance is now happening more than ever before in documented history, and its power to shape national and global events is undeniable. 

Yet much of this growth in civil resistance has been under-covered in the media. Long preceding the arrival of the internet in the mid-1990s, broadcast and then print media in Global North countries began to emphasize coverage of wars and violent crime (locally) in the 1970s. This gave rise to the disparaging phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Unfortunately the phrase was often accurate in describing particular media outlets.

Concurrently, nonviolent movements arose and were often successful during this period, such as in the Philippines in 1986, Eastern Europe in 1989, and in South Africa from the mid-1980s until the change of government there in the early 1990s. But while significant, these came to public attention as if they were anomalous success stories. Moreover, the incidence of civil resistance movements has accelerated dramatically since 2000, while the incidence of violent uprisings and wars has not abated. The impulse to treat violent conflict as more newsworthy has been ingrained for decades, and remains ingrained in the habits of mainstream and political media.

The rate of success of nonviolent movements and campaigns is more than twice as high as that of violent resistance, as the research of Drs. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan has shown. Once journalists learn this, they tend to become more interested in reporting on nonviolent movements. Indeed, this counter-narrative itself is newsworthy.

Among the many mistaken memes in reporting on nonviolent movements are:

  • That “nonviolence” is typically used for moral reasons, rather than being a reflexive type of political or social action that is known to be effective. Indeed, the choice to use nonviolent action in a struggle can be, and often is a strategic one, taken by people who may or may not hold an ethical stance condemning violence in and of itself. In fact, the belief of pacifism or ethical nonviolence is not a prerequisite for the successful use of nonviolent action. Indeed many movements throughout history and today have chosen civil resistance for its strategic advantages over violence. 

  • That nonviolent struggles are mostly protests, implicitly framed as petitionary in their content (i.e. asking/demanding that injustices cease). In fact, most nonviolent struggles are, consciously or unconsciously, intended to challenge the legitimacy of oppression or challenge governments for allowing such practices, and to bring pressure to bear on decision-makers to force them to change. Furthermore, successful movements often go beyond protest, sequencing different nonviolent actions that build off one another and escalate pressure.

  • That violent repression against a nonviolent movement means that the movement has failed. Many movements throughout history have survived violent repression and successfully won against those who carried out repression against them. Many movements have also caused repression to have the opposite effect of what the oppressor intended, and mobilization actually increases (this is referred to as backfire).