Thursday, July 30, 2009

The rise of Iran's citizen journalists
Digital Planet
Dave Lee
BBC World Service
30 July 2009

It has been 40 days since Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman, was killed during an anti-government protest in Tehran.

Within hours, graphic scenes showing her final seconds of life dominated newspapers and bulletins over the world.

Yet this moment wasn't recorded by a professional journalist working for a big news organisation. Instead, a regular bystander captured the powerful footage and uploaded it online.

The clip of Agha-Soltan's death is just one of hundreds of pieces of citizen journalism to come from Iran in the past few months.

With journalists forced to stay in their hotel rooms, or even leave the country, these amateur recordings quickly became the only means of getting uncensored news out of Tehran.

No entry

With no correspondents allowed on the ground, the BBC, like almost all major news organisations, is forced to rely on the honesty of citizen journalists to provide details from the protests.

Inevitably, with valuable information comes deceptive mis-information and programme makers have to make difficult decisions about how to harness social networks.

We look at what's going on on Twitter, and then we follow it up in order to verify
Azi Khatiri

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"On Twitter you see people tweeting on various protests that have happened," Dr Azi Khatiri, an interactive producer for the BBC's Persian TV service, said.

"But, as a news organisation we have to make sure what we report is accurate and correct.

"We look at what's going on on Twitter, and then we follow it up in order to verify," she told the organisation's Digital Planet programme.

"We have various contacts inside of Iran that we call up so they can tell us that, for example, a protest has actually happened."

Flood of information

Since the disputed election results, BBC Persian has been inundated with content sent in by viewers.

Far from being a hindrance, Khatiri says the great flood of information helped the team decipher content and identify reliable information.
Protest in Iran
Protests have continued since the 12 June presidential election

"We literally get hundreds on days that massive protests happen inside Iran," said Dr Khatiri .

"When somebody tells us that something has happened, and then we get 10 or 20 pieces of film coming in from mobile phone footage, it shows the same thing: it actually did happen."

However, Bill Thompson, a technology journalist, said the move to citizen journalism didn't necessarily spell the end of the professional.

"Anybody can now have access to these sources," he said.

"But of course there's no validation or verification of the stuff coming out. The role of the journalist is not just to be the person who gets the information, but the person who puts it in context and makes sense of it."

"When it comes to complex political situations, where people's lives are at risk, the mainstream news organisations come into their own because they have done this before. We know how to check something, we know how to get the balance right," he added.

He said that he was also concerned that citizen journalism was only representing the young, web-savvy community of Iran, and that the older generation, with perhaps different views, are being drowned out.

However Dr Khatiri is adamant this isn't the case.

"A lot of the older generation have also been out in the street.

"This is not just the one-sided, young and youthful and funky sort of a protest. You would think, 'OK, do people in the provinces really give a damn? Is it really their cause as well?' I say that yes, it is."

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