The media’s Iran problem
Posted by Guest in Featured Articles, World on 06/ 30th, 2009
Faris Islam writes about how reporting on the current situation in Tehran has been fraught with difficulties.
As events in Iran have dominated headlines throughout the world, a glaring problem has arisen both in the reporting and analysis of the situation by the international media. Problems getting information, combined with other issues when reporting within highly polarised societies such as Iran, have lead to a situation where news coverage on many international news networks shows a heavy tilt in favour of the reformers. Additionally, the role of ‘analysts’ and ‘experts’ has also been cloudy, with wishful thinking, biases, 30-second sound bites and dubious credentials clouding the media sphere.
Much of the problems in reporting come from reporting restrictions within Iran, allowing rumours to obscure reality and protestors to set the agenda for the press. In an attempt to control the flow of information, the ruling regime of the Islamic Republic ordered all journalists visiting to cover the election out of the country, and since then has imposed severe restrictions on the accredited journalists remaining within the country.
Kicked out of the country, or confined to their offices in Tehran, reporting on the situation has been fraught with difficulties. As Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website mentions on the BBC Blog, ‘reporters are not allowed to cover unauthorised gatherings or move around freely in Tehran.’ Nahid Siamdoust of Time Magazine describes the problems this creates, saying how ‘it was becoming impossible to report on events. The only ‘news’ left unblocked was that propagated by state television.’
Indeed, even obtaining photos of protests and events has become enormously difficult, with photos from within Iran coming either from official sources – whether state media or the Mousavi campaign – or from photos posted online by Iranians. The problem with internet content, as Herrmann describes is that there is ‘no filter or editorial process’ in what people can post on sites like Twitter and Facebook. He adds that a majority of posts on sites like Twitter have come from Mousavi sympathisers.
While a majority of Tweets on the issue may favour Mousavi, that is no indicator of the general mood on the streets of Tehran and especially not of the rest of the country. The dialogue online has essentially been one in which the same segment of society – the Twitter and Facebook-using class – controlling the flow of information regarding Iran.
George Friedman of the private intelligence firm Stratfor describes the role of the international media in covering the story, saying how ‘in constantly interviewing English-speaking demonstrators, they failed to note just how many of the demonstrators spoke English and had smartphones’. To summarise, he says ‘the demonstrations primarily consisted of the same type of people demonstrating’.
With so much trouble getting accurate information on events within Iran, scholars and analysts could play a crucial role in clearing the confusion on the ground by providing much-needed perspective on the situation. Unfortunately, analyst and commentators on major international networks – specifically CNN – seem to have abandoned nuance and neutrality in their coverage of the situation. With one commentator saying in the space of two paragraphs both that ‘we really don’t know how this uprising is going to pan out’ and that ‘we are witness to something quite extraordinary, perhaps even a social revolution’ the disconnect between what people hope will happen and what people are seeing happen appears great.
Unfortunately with so much speculation and so many rumors, reliable reporting is suffering. While the international media battle for the best leads and scoops, it seems the Greek dramatist Aeschylus was correct in saying, ‘in war, truth is the first casualty’.