NYT: Iran coverage bends journalism rules

29 06 2009

CNN IranAcknowledging that it’s a bitter pill to swallow, the New York Times notes that the traditional media’s embrace of feeds from Iran via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs “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.

The newspaper admits that in publishing this material first and asking questions later, the news media violates one of the first rules of journalism: “Know the source.” Often, the nature of the content relayed by tradtional media — as well as its context, and timing — are so vague as to add little understanding to what is going on. So far, there appears to be little mischief or deceit among the anonymous transmittals from Iran. The unusual circumstances in Iran, though, seem to have opened a few eyes among traditional media.

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.

I’ve got to admit I’ve been queasy about the use of so much unsupported and unverifiable information, particularly the highly emotional imagery. There is danger of inflaming a reaction that could lead, again, to rash intervention and unwise foreign entanglements. I’ve railed at broadcasters’ running and rerunning footage about which they know practically nothing, other than that it contains blood and violence. I suspect journalists and politicians of projecting their own agendas onto these vague images.

Still, I come back to thinking that some information is better than none. It’s better for us to have a glimpse, however obscure, into something obviously massive and possibly historic. Maybe later on we can know and understand what we are seeing today — if the media and audience attention span allow.

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