AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Amateur Content’s Star Turn   

The MSM’s ample use of unverified citizen material from Iran raises serious questions.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

During the post-election turmoil in Iran, the June 16 edition of "The Daily Show" opened by taking a shot at professional news organizations — in particular CNN — that were turning clumsily to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites in lieu of verifiable information about what was taking place in Tehran. Host Jon Stewart especially enjoyed the anchors' disclaimers that "we're relaxing our usual vetting process a bit" and "we cannot verify readily some of this material that we're going to show you."

"And that is different from what you normally do..how?" Stewart quipped.

With their theatrical graphics and tone of perpetual urgency, the cable networks make an easy target. But they were not alone in struggling to determine how to cover a fast-developing story responsibly with scraps of professional reporting and a fire hose of compelling but unverified amateur content.

The situation in Iran was a perfect setup for spotlighting the strengths of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, particularly when the professional media are hobbled. As protests and violence erupted following the June 13 declaration of victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government mounted a full-force effort to block images and news reports from getting out. There were numerous reports of news offices being raided and equipment confiscated, journalists arrested and beaten, broadcast signals jammed and Internet access blocked. On June 16, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance banned foreign journalists from leaving their offices to cover the story. Four days later, foreign journalists were ordered not to report on the demonstrations at all without permission from Iranian authorities.

That left private individuals, risking arrest and serious physical harm, to provide the world with images and updates. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's New Media Index, the top two news-related videos on YouTube from June 13 through 19 were amateur footage of protests in Tehran. The most iconic and wrenching image of the entire ordeal was a shaky video clip of the death of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, who was reportedly shot by security forces during one of the protests. There's no doubt citizen media played a critical role in the world's understanding of the events that transpired there.

Of course, we're talking about the Internet, where gems of information are often caked in mud. Some of that mud consists of useless chatter and pontification. Some of it is misinformation or disinformation. In a June 15 post on trueslant.com, freelance journalist Joshua Kucera cataloged some of the many rumors that ricocheted around the Internet in the early days of the protests — losing candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi had been put under house arrest (he hadn't); 3 million people had taken to the streets that first Monday after the election (newspaper reports put the number in the hundreds of thousands). The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan described the Twitter reports of millions of people on the streets as "more about the mood than hard facts."

This was certainly not the first time professional media have had to report on events to which they did not have direct access, and the world's top news organizations know how to locate or employ credible sources inside a volatile foreign country. They also know how to benefit from social media and crowdsourcing without compromising the integrity of their reporting. Most, if not all, major news organizations solicit user content and have rules for segregating it from professionally reported news.

The Iran protest story was different because amateur content took center stage. Many news organizations — particularly broadcasters, who rely on photos and video — were forced to use unverified user content or nothing at all. In a situation as opaque and politically charged as this one, that choice raises some questions.

What if, as some suggested, Agha-Soltan's death had been staged in order to further incite rebellion against Iranian authorities? Such a hoax probably would have come to light quickly, but according to CNN.com, the cable network aired a pixelated version of the video before the young woman's identity or the circumstances of her death had been verified. It's one thing to show an unverified photo of a giant hailstone or a Fourth of July parade, but what about an image that could incite violence?

So far, the use of amateur information in this and other major stories has been overwhelmingly rewarding. The reporting is richer and more nuanced as a result of audience contributions. But it's hard to shake the feeling that an anvil might be hovering overhead. Have traditional media avoided a damaging and embarrassing snafu involving amateur content because they're lucky or disciplined, or because the bad guys are still waging war on the streets instead of the Internet? Or have audiences become more tolerant of heat-of-the-moment missteps in exchange for faster, more transparent reporting?

Using case studies like this one, maybe we can figure that out — before the metaphorical anvil drops.