Citizen journalism, mainstream media and Iran

July 2, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

The recent election in Iran was one of the more dramatic stories this year, with powerful images of protests and street-fighting dominating television and online coverage.

Because traditional news organizations were essentially shut down by the authorities, it fell to citizen journalists — many of whom were among the protesters — to provide the images that the world would see, using such social media as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

This has raised a number of ethics, standards and legal questions for mainstream journalists. My colleague John Clarke, Reuters Global Television Editor, found himself in the middle of the issue as images became available and clients demanded coverage of the election’s aftermath. John discusses the issues raised, the lessons learned and the opportunities for the future below. As always, his opinions are his own.

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Protests following the controversial Iranian election have put citizen journalism even more firmly in the spotlight. With traditional news gathering organizations effectively shut down by authorities, text, video and stills being produced and posted on social websites by the protesters themselves became the main way that much information was getting out of the country. This dramatic coverage — regardless of (and perhaps even enhanced by) its shaky nature — was accessed by Reuters (and other news organizations) and distributed to clients and viewers around the world.

Citizen journalism isn’t new. We have long accessed amateur footage of stories around the world, from plane crashes to wars to natural disasters. However, the internet and mobile devices have resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount of content available and the speed of delivery, the ability to deliver outside of normal controls, more uncertainty over origin, ownership and verification, and the viral nature in which it can all spread around the globe.

At Reuters, we have used video from social networking websites for several years. We put in place strict rules about how such material can be accessed and used, with only senior editors authorized to approve running this material.

Verification is a major issue. Video or photos might not be what they purport to be, either because of sloppy information from the person posting it, or deliberate deceit, either to create mischief or for political or other reasons.

Another important consideration is that copyright still applies to the internet. The person posting material might hold copyright, or worse, they might not hold copyright. The material could originate from a private individual, a company or another news organization. Wherever possible, we have sought to find and seek permission from the originator of the material, as we would do for any third-party material accessed in any other way. This can apply to hard news and lighter material, including funny visual postings that have gone viral and have become stories in their own right.

When the Iran story broke, even when we were able to operate, we still accessed internet-posted amateur video. But such footage became even more important when our operations were hampered by authorities –- the sheer number of mini-cams and mobile phones taking visual images meant there would be good material we would want, even if we were able to operate freely ourselves.

Early on, we set up a 24-hour monitoring of Twitter and various social networking sites. We made a call early on that we would relax our rules on clearance –- protesters posting video and pictures on social networks wanted to get them to the world, and we were another conduit for that. Other news organizations followed a similar rationale.

Throughout the Iran story, however, we were extremely careful about what we wrote and said about material accessed from social networking sites, certainly not taking at face value what (little) information usually comes with such posts.

We have been clear when we are unable to verify content or location or date, and have also clearly stated that we’ve accessed it from a social networking site. Our subscribers (and their viewers) are also intelligent enough to know that no-one can 100 percent verify this type of material and are similarly circumspect, and the shaky, low-resolution quality of much of this material is an immediate signal to clients and viewers that it was shot by an amateur.

This approach does not, of course, absolve us of all responsibility. There have been many videos and photos we haven’t used because they have not rung true for one reason or another.

Iran was also a special case in that citizen journalism was not only a way to get video and photographs, but it was a very important part of the story itself. We didn’t just get video from citizen journalists, we did several stories, like the one below, about the importance of citizen journalism in Iran, which put our use of it in its proper context, too.

Iran was in many respects the culmination of trends in the way citizens have been using the web for the past few years –- a confluence of the proliferation of mobile recording devices, internet delivery and social networking sites that allow almost instantaneous interactions between users and an exchange of information and ideas.

How social networking intersects with traditional news organizations is also an evolutionary process.

It will not be good enough for traditional news companies to simply take from citizen journalists –- it needs to be a two-way exchange of content, information and ideas, with mainstream news companies contributing via blogs, chatrooms and other social networking sites, whether in the general news area or in specialist forums such as those for the financial community.

Verification, copyright and quality will always be significant issues — even more so as millions of people around the world have the ability to distribute and exchange content. The combination of citizen journalism, and the standards of news organizations of companies such as Reuters, has the ability to produce a richer flow of information around the world.

Provided we clearly flag the origin of material and put the relevant context around it, our subscribers, our viewers and our readers –- who are already immersed in social networking as consumers and contributors themselves –- are smart enough to evaluate this content, without challenging our core journalistic values.

– John Clarke, Global Editor, Television

4 comments

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Maybe the manufacturers of the next generation of camera and video phones could be prevailed upon to program in a soft “News” button. When activated, the media would be tagged with meta data such as GPS and time stamps as it’s acquired. The stamps would not link back to a specific phone and therefore not compromise the photographer’s identity. At the same time, the stamps would offer some credible evidence the footage or photos were acquired where and when they are believed to have be taken.

Why is it that so-called “citizen journalism” is being promoted and supported in Iran, whilst it is outlawed or marginalised in the US and UK?

“Citizen journalism” is simply people doing it for themselves because, whether we are in Iran, or the US, or the UK, our experiences, stories and opinions are almost always edited out of the government and corporate press and media of our own countries. Instead we are expected to always swallow whatever establishment lies and propaganda these media throw at us. “Citizen journalism” should be encouraged and promoted here, too. If it isn’t the mainstream media may well find itself by-passed and redundant, now that there are alternatives to it.

Posted by farnaby | Report as abusive

It will not be good enough for traditional news companies to simply take from citizen journalists.

Why has it not similarly been called for in Afghanistan?
They just had an electoral fraud over there and nobody seemed to care like they did in Iran..
Is that because Karzai’s is actually OUR corrupt government?

Posted by brian | Report as abusive