Iran General NewsJournalism rules are bent in news coverage from Iran

Journalism rules are bent in news coverage from Iran


ImageNew York Times: “Check the source” may be the first rule of journalism. But in the coverage of the protests in Iran this month, some news organizations have adopted a different stance: publish first, ask questions later. If you still don’t know the answer, ask your readers.

The New York Times

Published: June 28, 2009

Image“Check the source” may be the first rule of journalism. But in the coverage of the protests in Iran this month, some news organizations have adopted a different stance: publish first, ask questions later. If you still don’t know the answer, ask your readers.

CNN showed scores of videos submitted by Iranians, most of them presumably from protesters who took to the streets to oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election on June 12. The Web sites of The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian newspaper in London and others published minute-by-minute blogs with a mix of unverified videos, anonymous Twitter messages and traditional accounts from Tehran.

The blogs tend to run on a separate track with more traditional reporting from the news organizations, intersecting when user videos and information can be confirmed. The combination amounts to the biggest embrace yet of a collaborative new style of news gathering — one that combines the contributions of ordinary citizens with the reports and analysis of journalists.

Many mainstream media sources, which have in the past been critical of the undifferentiated sources of information on the Web, had little choice but to throw open their doors in this case. As the protests against Mr. Ahmadinejad grew, the government sharply curtailed the foreign press. As visas expired, many journalists packed up, and the ones who stayed were barred from reporting on the streets.

In a news vacuum, amateur videos and eyewitness accounts became the de facto source for information. In fact, the symbol of the protests, the image of a young woman named Neda bleeding to death on a Tehran street, was filmed by two people holding camera phones.

“It’s incredible, the volume of stuff coming out” from Iran, said Matthew Weaver, who sounded exhausted Thursday evening after blogging for more than 10 days for The Guardian newspaper’s Web site.

When rallies and conflicts occur “first the tweets come, then the pictures, then the YouTube videos, then the wires,” he said. “It’s extraordinary.”

Most important, he said, what people are saying “at one point in the day is then confirmed by more conventional sources four or five hours later.”

CNN encourages viewers to upload pictures and observations to, its Web site for citizen journalism. Every upload is posted automatically on, but each is studied before being shown on television.

In the vetting process, CNN contacts the person who posted the material, asks questions about the content and tries to confirm its veracity. Lila King, the executive in charge of iReport, said the staff members try to “triangulate the details” of an event by corroborating stories with multiple iReport contributors in a given area. Farsi speakers at CNN sometimes listened intently to the sound from the protest videos, discerning the accents of Iranian cities and transcribing the chants and screams.

Because the videos and images are not taken by a CNN employee, the network cannot completely vouch for their authenticity. But without professionals at the scene — CNN’s remaining correspondent was pulled out last week after the government imposed prohibitive restrictions — they provide the all-important pictures to tell the story.

In an indication of how difficult the process can be, CNN had received 5,200 Iran-related submissions and had approved about 180 of them for use on television.

Iran is now the third biggest traffic driver to, behind the United States and Canada. One month ago, Iran ranked No. 63 on the list of countries. Ms. King called Iran a “watershed moment” for citizen dispatches, and for the first time an iReport producer sits at the main CNN newsgathering desk.

Bill Mitchell, a senior leader at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists, said the extent of user involvement shown in the Iran coverage seems to be a new way of thinking about journalism.

“Instead of limiting ourselves to full-blown articles to be written by a journalist (professional or otherwise), the idea is to look closely at stories as they unfold and ask: is there a piece of this story I’m in a particularly good position to enhance or advance?” he said in an e-mail message.

“And it’s not just a question for journalists,” he added.

Nico Pitney, the senior news editor at The Huffington Post, started to aggregate Iran news on June 13, the day after the election. By the middle of last week, the blog — with several updates an hour during the day — had received more than 100,000 comments and five million page views.

Mr. Pitney said blogs like his produce a synthesis of professional reporting and reliable amateur material. Essentially, the news tips that reporters have always relied upon are now being aired in public.

In a recognition of the Web’s role in covering the protests, Mr. Pitney was invited by the White House to ask a question at a presidential press conference last week. He forwarded to President Obama an e-mailed question from an Iranian. “We’ve been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran,” the president said.

Even anonymous Internet users develop a reputation over time, said Robert Mackey, the editor of a blog called The Lede for The New York Times’s Web site, who tracked the election and protest for almost two weeks. Although there have been some erroneous claims on sites like Twitter, in general “there seems to be very little mischief-making,” Mr. Mackey said. “People generally want to help solve the puzzle.”

Readers repeatedly drew Mr. Mackey’s attention to tweets and photos of protests in the comments thread of the blog. Some even shared their memories of the geography of Tehran in an attempt to verify scenes in videos.

Over time, the impromptu Iranian reporters have honed their skills. Some put the date of a skirmish in the file descriptions they send. Others film street signs and landmarks. But the user uploads can sometimes be misleading. Last Wednesday, Mr. Mackey put a call out to readers to determine whether a video was actually new. A commenter pointed to a two-day-old YouTube version.

Cases like this show why the publication of tweets and Flickr photos can be awkward. Echoing others, Mr. Weaver of The Guardian’s blog said his manner of reporting had made some of his colleagues uncomfortable; he recalled one colleague who remarked, “Twitter? I won’t touch it. It’s all garbage.”

On a couple of occasions, The Guardian’s blog featured video clips that were later discovered to be days old. Mr. Weaver said readers of live blogs are “a bit more forgiving” of those incidents, in part because bloggers are transparent about what they do and do not know.

Television anchors were frequently put in the same position while covering Iran. Last Wednesday, the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith showed a YouTube video of police officials beating and dragging people.

“We do not know when or where this video was from,” Mr. Smith told viewers. “We do not even know if it was staged, although we have no reason to believe that.” All he knew for sure was that it was “recently uploaded to YouTube.” For news organizations that face reporting constraints, that has become a good enough starting point.

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