Access Denied: Twitter, Iran and embedding journalists in online culture

You can now watch the event here. 

The Iranian Election was the moment when Twitter “exploded into our consciousness as a really powerful newsgathering tool” Adrian Wells told the Frontline Club earlier this week. Sky’s Foreign Editor was discussing how media organisations cover ‘news black holes’ with Richard Sambrook, Head of Global News at the BBC, and Jean Seaton, professor of Media History at the University of Westminster.

Twitter and Iran

Sky used Cover It Live to feed the tweets of Iranian twitterers directly onto their news website. Commenting on the difficulties of verifying material on Twitter, Wells said Sky spent a lot of time digging and only used the feeds of twitterers who were “relevant”, “topical” and “were there”. He said Sky had to “weed out” inaccurate twitterers and tracked down one Iranian twitterer to Streatham, Southern Iran London. (Which must have been a disappointment).

Of course, the location setting on Twitter is user-controlled and at one point during the protests there was a call for twitterers around the world to confuse the Iranian authorities by changing their location to Tehran. Not ideal for the journalist trying to make sense of what was going on.

Despite Sky’s best efforts and general confidence that they could identify authentic twitterers, Wells admitted that he couldn’t be absolutely sure of who was twittering. He also said he did not know if twitterers had been informed that their accounts were being permanently displayed on Sky’s website during the crisis.

Sky’s use of Twitter was important to their coverage of Iran because foreign correspondent, Tim Marshall was asked to leave the country. Wells said Sky ‘didn’t have many options’ and turned to user generated content and material being published on Twitter.

The BBC encountered similar problems. Richard Sambrook had started the discussion by outlining the background to Jon Leyne’s eviction from Iran. Highlighting Iran’s sensitivity to domestic rather than international media coverage, Sambrook said the Iranian authorities started to fall out with the BBC when Persian TV started broadcasting inside Iran.

He said the authorities also put pressure on news agencies and the Associated Press told the BBC that Persian TV could not use AP material. Reuters, on the other hand, ignored the threats and continued to provide Persian TV with reports.

During the protests, the BBC were receiving between 6 and 8 video clips a minute from Iranians. A journalist from Persian TV in the room noted that journalists at the station spent hours rewinding and playing video to try to verify its authenticity.

Sambrook said there was a number of verification concerns and security issues, while balancing the story was also a problem as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s supporters were less likely to publish online.

(I’d be interested to know if this was a feature of English-language participation rather than ‘online’ per se. Harvard’s study of the Persian blogosphere suggests there are a wealth of blogs that might support Ahmadinejad.)

I did find that some kind of strange balance on Iran could be achieved if you watched different media outlets. I remember the rather bizarre experience of watching the BBC’s live TV pictures from the large pro-Ahmadinejad rally which was organised by the Iranian authorities next to a screen following relevant hashtags on Twitter of a smaller concurrent opposition protest.

At that moment in time, I was witnessing two completely different stories and looking at only one or the other would have provided a very distorted picture. Because of the nature of English language Iranian twittering there was less concern with the pro-Ahmadinejad rally, or if there was it wasn’t positive, while reporting restrictions imposed on the BBC by Iran made it difficult for them to cover the opposition protest on the BBC. Although they did manage it to some extent.

‘Embedding’ in online culture to verify material

Various other underreported areas of the world were identified during the discussion including Africa, Burma, Afghanistan, Gaza, Tibet, North Korea, Sri Lanka and Darfur.* In the context of Iran, Jean Seaton maintained that the fundamental principles of verifying material remained the same as in the past.

This argument has a number of merits, although I think Kate Day’s piece in the Telegraph provides the beginnings of a more practical approach to how social media could be used when trying to report areas that are difficult to access. Unfortunately these ideas were not really discussed at the Club:

“Journalists need to do more to plug into the networks that exist around a subject (or a place) as a routine part of their working life rather than joining the conversation as a big story breaks. In this case, someone with a deep knowledge of the Iranian blogosphere would at least have trusted sources from within these networks to help them make a more sophisticated judgement about the reliability of the content coming from users. They would better understand the method of communication as well as knowing more about the forces at play.

No editor would send a novice to the lobby and expect them to separate the story from the spin on their first day. Equally, journalists need to do more to understand the context and nuances of communities online before they have a hope of separating interesting gems of information from the noise.”

Essentially journalists need to be ’embedded’ in online culture in order to make best use of the material coming out of places that are difficult to access through other means.

Building trust and relationships with sources is what journalists have always done; the information potential of the Web demands that they also do so in the online field, particularly if that process one day helps a journalist to provide a vital window on an underreported story.

*Did I hear anyone mention South America?