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ANALYSIS: Iran Election Coverage Sparks TV News Revolution

Expelled journalists turn to social network sources; amateur video of woman’s death becoming symbol of story 6/22/2009 06:34:57 PM Eastern

As foreign journalists have been systematically expelled from Iran, television news is increasingly looking like a web page, with “unverified” YouTube video and grainy cell phone snippets supplanting traditional news footage.
 
“It is a real revolution in cyber space and real revolution in the way information is being shared,” says Iranian-American author Reza Aslan. Aslan is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of How to Win A Cosmic War. He has his own network of sources in the country and has been a frequent commentator on broadcast and cable news in the wake of Iran’s contested presidential election June 12.
 
“I have sources on the ground. I have a pool of people on Twitter,” Aslan told B&C in an interview. “Rather than watch the television tell me what’s on Twitter and Facebook, I just watch Twitter and Facebook. A great deal of the stuff that news coverage has been showing is stuff that either I or my various partners is feeding to the news media from the resources that we have. The news is about 12 to 15 hours behind me.”
 
News organizations across the board are directing resources to the task of vetting sources on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as well as their tip lines for authenticity and angles. It all adds up to a story that’s being covered like none before it.
 
CNN has received almost 4,000 submissions to its user-generated-content site iReport since the rallies began two weeks ago with 1,600 last weekend alone. Of the total videos posted on iReport.com, 131 have been vetted and given the “Appeared on CNN” seal of approval.
 
Most vetting is done via e-mail, according to Michael Toppo, senior director, production and operations for CNN.com.
 
“It can be very time-consuming,” says Toppo, “especially if you’re trying to reach someone in Iran. But the purpose isn’t to rush [video] to air. Obviously we would love to get things up in a quick manner. But it’s very important to verify it and be right and make sure we can feel good about putting that On CNN stamp on it.”
 
The Iranian authorities began expelling journalists last week by revoking press credentials or simply not renewing expired credentials. (Related: News Orgs Battle to Document Iranian Rallies) CBS News’ Elizabeth Palmer is among the only foreign journalists still in Iran. Her report from Monday’s rallies ran on the Early Show.
 
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Kahmenei has inveighed against the western media for fomenting protests, but the regime has reserved pointed scorn for the BBC. Jon Leyne, the BBC’s resident Tehran correspondent, was ordered to leave the country on Sunday.
 
According to the Tehran Times, Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance said in a statement Sunday, “In view of the function and performance of BBC in distorting and changing realities on Iran’s elections, Jon Leyne, the permanent correspondent of the network was expelled.”
 
Jon Williams, World News editor for BBC News, characterized the expulsion of Leyne as “disappointing,” but having a permanent bureau in Tehran, “means we’re more exposed than others.”
 
The BBC launched a Persian television service last February, but it has been consistently blocked in Iran. The BBC has operated a Persian language radio service since the 1940s.
 
“While we regret the decision to ask Jon to leave,” adds Williams, “our presence in Tehran means we have a long standing relationship with the Iranian authorities, which I hope and believe will endure. While Jon has been expelled, our bureau remains open, and the BBC continues to report from Iran.”
 
The cell phone video of the shooting death on Saturday (June 20) of a young Iranian woman identified as Neda Soltan has dominated television news for two days. The video was first posted on Facebook. There are now several versions of it on YouTube, one with the words of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire superimposed.
 
By Saturday, Soltan had become a trending topic on message service Twitter (#neda) and the image of her bloody face had been rendered in the style of Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster.
 
Broadcast and cable news networks have repeatedly shown the video of Soltan bleeding to death in the streets of Tehran. Anchors have warned viewers about the graphic nature of the video; Soltan's eyes roll back in her head and blood streams from her nose and mouth. Several news organizations have cut away before she begins to bleed from the nose and mouth.
 
Despite the regime’s ban on protests, Iranians again took to the streets on Monday; many of them carried posters with Soltan’s image. “She has become a symbol,” Aslan says. “People have been chanting her name out in the streets. No one is backing down.”
 
Despite the violent crackdown by state-sponsored militias, Iranians continued to document the unrest in their country.
 
Says Aslan: “It just shows that in this day and age there’s no such thing as a media blackout.”

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