June 13, 2009: Another Journalistic Shift (Again) From Iran
As history developed second after second on Twitter’s river of information about events in post-election Iran, it was clear that June 13, 2009 was another journalistic game-changer.
Not since 1979, when American hostages were the focus of the world for 444 days, had events changed reporting so dramatically. We have come a long way from the creation of “Nightline” on ABC, which was born amid the tensions of the hostage drama. The ground breaking 30 minute news show on events is now ancient media. Yesterday, along with the cries for change and protest emanating from the streets of Tehran, we witnessed severe international media frustration and another backlash…Hundreds of thousands asked why CNN was only reporting for brief snipets on what was clearly history in the making? Why was Christiane Amanpour given so little air time? Why was MSNBC in a coma? How can we know what is happening…now?
The networks failed their responsibilities in reporting this crucial day. CNN’s use of I-Reports was not enough for a trusted news organization. MSNBC was completely irrelevant for too long a period of time. Americans interested in story depth had to go to the BBC for understanding if they wanted a traditional reporting source.
The Iranian election turmoil is a media shifting event. At least for awhile, Cable News Network viewers in America wanted to know about the struggle of Mousavi, not the tired and frustrating debate about health care. The documentaries of MSNBC were simply not relevant.
If you wanted to know about what was happening on the ground, social media was just about the only way to keep informed on Saturday. Reports from Twiterizens, with their digital cameras, were cascading second after second from the troubled country, and it was social media 2.0 that was the eyewitness to turmoil. No longer paramount in reporting news, cable news lost information hungry minds who instead focused, for hours, on Internet portals You Tube, Flickr, Facebook and yes, Twitter. Others soon entered the electronic front line, such as GlobalVoicesOnline.org, Twitpic and even Wikipedia. There were some new media absentees, to be sure. Oddly, no one was using UStreamtv or Justin.tv to broadcast reports about the rushing events.
The reporting from the Iranian street was instant, surprisingly accurate (based upon cumulative reports), and graphic. It was transmitted courtesy average Iranian citizens and professional journalists (who had no air time), in the thick of things, and it made Twitter the singular focus of the world. Angry protesters, not all young, were moving down avenues. Police were using severe force in response. Deaths were being reported. Streets were illuminated by the fury of threatening fires. Communication blackouts were looming. Cameras were being confiscated. Arrests of opposition leaders were rumored. Was it true? Twitter reports were verified by links to fresh video on You Tube. Still pictures were being posted on blogs and other sites with a fury. Collectively, one could see that what might be dubious accounts from unknown sources were indeed telling an accurate story.
It was clear that the new media had moved into a new dimension. Rather than relying on the traditional gate keepers of the great news networks, those who sought information became enmeshed in a new era of journalism…”social news media 2.0.” All one had to do was link to #iranelection” on Twitter and the reader was an eyewitness to a key geopolitical event.
Those who regularly use Twitter were themselves astonished. Writing the next day, one observer commented, “Short story: Election went bad. Iran went to hell. Media went to bed.” Another shouted, “I am so sick of vital news being ignored!” Still another vented, “This is why I love the Internet. 400 Channels + on TV not one talking about the Iranian elections.” The anger was not confined to America. One June 14 post on Twitter complained, “Kinda pissed the #IranElection riots is not making Australian news at all.” As the street fires and protests continued, a new protest broke out. It could be found as a trending topic, again on Twitter, entitled #CNNFail. Said one frustrated viewer, “Please mark all your #IranElection tweets with an extra #CNNFail tag to force CNN cover Iran’s incidents.” Perhaps the most telling comment appeared as SharedEmergencywas preparing this article…”BREAKING NEWS FROM CNN: ZZZZzzzzz ZZZZzzzzz ZZZZzzzz ZZZZZzzzzz.”
Citizen journalist videos from the Iranian street were transmitted to a world wide audience with all deliberate speed on YouTube.
Clearly Twitter was being used for more than just alerting others to a new chapter in Iran. Social media was an instrument to rally opponents of the government. One Twitter post on June 14 read, “Stay united, stay together, march and be as one! Freedom is your choice, not a vote!” Indeed, there were appropriate, and needed, calls for verification of sources to be sure of their credibility, since anyone with an agenda can post a Tweet at no expense. In journalism, credibility is everything. The messages need to be filtered and the stories checked out, a point which clearly makes social media news reporting vulnerable.
That Twitter was being used in a political event, and needed to be carefully understood, is not news. It was the immediacy and inherent risk of citizen journalists reporting the story that took events to a new level and which took on an air of needed trustworthiness. One writer exclaimed, ” Twitter @Change_for_Iran – He’s currently giving a clandestine minute by minute update of what is happening at one University in Iran, though I believe he’s risking his life doing so.” Another warned, “Rumors tell that 30.000 of IRGC anti-riot forces are ready in Sarallah Military Base in Tehran. #IranElection #CNNFail.”
What went on behind the scenes at the news networks on June 13 will ultimately be the subject of chronicles posted on new media. By June 14, CNN was promising better coverage. What develops with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be clear in the weeks and months ahead. But what is abundantly evident today is that new media demands are surpassing the old masters of technology, in a newsworthy and critical fashion. Along with this new role, citizen news gatherers need to adhere to a strict code of credibility standards if their new soap box is to be taken seriously, and the cable networks need to take heed and avoid any more Iranian “Pearl Harbors.”
Improperly covered events are bad news for the world. As journalism struggles for a new footing, how Iran was covered is a red flag for established news organizations.