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The effect of twitter on professional roles in journalism – the 2009 Iran protests

By Michelle Solomon

Originally published by Fesmedia Africa.

The surge in information and news dissemination via micro-blogging has posed interesting questions and dilemmas for ‘professional’ journalists, and indeed may result in the renegotiation of their traditional roles. Discourses of the ‘gatekeeper’ role and the objectivity imperative for professional journalists have been especially affected by the use of Twitter as an informational tool, as was demonstrated by Twitter coverage of the 2009 Iran protests.

While micro-blogging may be useful to journalists and journalism for dissemination of news and access to sources, it has also presented challenges to some aspects of the ‘professional’ journalism model. When a commercial plane was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York in 2009, news of the event was first tweeted by a nearby ferry commuter, Janis Krums. Krums attached a link for a photo (taken with her mobile phone) to the tweet, and the ensuing popularity of the image later caused the website to crash as some 7000 people tried to access it (Briggs 2010: 102). As a result of the Twitter coverage, O’Connor (2009: 2) argues  that the Hudson river emergency plane landing “provided the last evidence – if indeed it was still needed – that emerging social media are not only supplementing but supplanting the legacy mainstream media”. While I believe his assertion that social media as replacing mainstream media to be hyperbolic, I do believe he is correct in stressing its potential effects. I will explore some of these effects through an analysis of Twitter’s use during the 2009 Iranian protests after the national election. Some of the problems raised during the protests include the struggle for accuracy by ‘professional’ journalists versus the real-time immediacy of the Twitter platform and unverified ‘firsthand’ accounts. In this case, the behaviour of ‘professional journalists in response to the dilemmas of social media coverage served to reinforce the ‘gatekeeper’ role. In addition to potential challenges to traditional journalism roles however, Bruns (2010) stresses the dangers of “always-on communication systems” (Hermida 2009: 301) like Twitter in the context of conflict situations, where the safety of dissenters are at risk.

2009 Iranian election protests

2009 Iranian election protests (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last two years, Twitter has increasingly been adopted by news media as a means to send out breaking news, as well as a means of soliciting story ideas and sources. Hermida states that by July 2009 UK national newspapers had 21 official Twitter accounts, with more than a million accumulative twitter users that follow these accounts. In an apparent acknowledgement of the utility of twitter as a news source, mainstream media houses are increasingly taking on ‘Twitter correspondents’, as has Sky News and more recently, CNN. These correspondents are tasked with “scouring Twitter for stories and feeding back, giving Sky News [for example] a presence in the Twittersphere” (Butcher 2009 cited in Hermida 2010: 299).

In line with the ‘gatekeeper’ role of professional journalists, as conceived by White (1950), Janowits (1975) and Soloski (1997), objectivity and, by extension, accuracy, are of fundamental importance to perception of journalists as ‘professionals’. New social networking and information dissemination platforms like Twitter are increasingly challenging these roles however, and I will explore this by assessing some of the issues raised by the Twitter and mainstream journalism coverage of the 2009 Iranian election protests.

The term ‘gatekeeper’ was first applied to journalism by Manning White in the 1950s, after the researcher studied the news selection process of a wire editor for a week. The editor provided White with all the selected and rejected wire copy, as well as a reason attached to every story that was rejected. Some of the reasons for rejection were technical or stylistic, but others were “explicitly political”, according to Schudson (2000: 177). From this, White (1950) concluded that “we see how highly subjective, how based on the “gatekeeper’s” own set of experiences, attitudes and expectations the communication of news really is” (cited in Schudson 2000: 177). White’s study was later challenged by various researchers however, and some found that it was instead the priorities of a wire-service itself that acted as a central news determinant (Ettema et al 1997: 41). Twenty-five years later, Janowits (1975: 618) wrote that the ‘gatekeeping’ role of journalists “rested on his [sic] ability to detect, emphasise, and disseminate that which was important”. Janowits adds that, by the 1960s, the notion of ‘gatekeeping’ was questioned by journalists – most specifically the idea of ‘objectivity’ in reporting the news.

Twitter, one of the fastest growing social media platforms of the decade, increasingly has become of central importance in the facilitation of both information and news and in so doing has challenged the aforementioned roles of journalism. Launched in 2006, the privately-owned website has emerged as a major communicative tool and, according to Hermida (2010: 297), this was exemplified during the 2009 Iranian poll, when the US State Department asked Twitter to delay routine maintenance on the site. This was, arguably, both to assist Iranians using the platform to coordinate protests, and in order to open channels for the flow of information from the beleaguered state.  Restrictions on traditional media coverage of the protests led the mainstream media to publish unverified information sourced from social media in an attempt to cover the protests. On Twitter, these tweets were aggregated under the ‘#Iranelections’ hashtag. These apparent eyewitness accounts, cellular phone videos and pictures then became the “de facto source for information” (Stelter 2009, cited in Hermida 2010: 297) on the protests, as the Iranian government made continued attempts to shut down information leaving the country. Newman (2009: 2) cites a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) to support this, and states that a large number of outgoing links on Twitter and 60 percent of all blog links focused on Iran during that time period. He adds that even when the Iranian government attempted to silence the outgoing information by shutting down Facebook the coverage continued via (the somewhat more resilient) Twitter. This resilience, according to Newman (2009), is due to Twitter’s multi-functionality across a varety of applications and digital interfaces, and he describes Twitter more as “a multi-headed hydra”. Where the Iranian government shut down one stream of information, more re-surfaced in its place and the stream of information was almost impossible to stem. Eventually, the Iranian government shut down all internet communication in the country in a bid to stop the flow of information. The effect was limited however, as internet access was only cut for an hour due to the apparent economic loss the country may have experienced if it was down for any longer (Newman 2009: 3).

Newman explains that, as the Iranian government’s attempts to shut down information about the protests from leaving the state, foreign correspondents were increasingly restricted or refused access to the country. The resulting effect of these restriction led mainstream media to become increasingly dependent on the citizen journalism taking place across blogging and micro-blogging platforms, however (Newman 2009: 4).

“Although news outlets acknowledged that they could not independently confirm these accounts, they became a major component of the overall narrative, according to PEJ [Excellence in Journalism], with around one in every twenty mainstream stories about Iran dominated by social media footage or news lines about social media. BBC Persian TV found itself having to rely almost exclusively on user-generated footage, after the authorities threatened to throw out anyone supplying them with footage.”

(Newman 2009: 4)

While social media was crucial to the coverage of the Iranian protests as a source of information, this information also presented several dilemmas for professional journalists making use of these platforms. Newman (2009: 5) cites the propagation of false information on social media networks, which were then repeated and amplified. This process can occur on Twitter when a user marks a tweet carrying false information to the #Iranpprotests hashtag, where it is aggregated to a twitter feed of all the tweets containing the hashtag. Here, twitter users monitoring the twitter stream may ‘retweet’ the false information, and this process will continue regardless of whether the original tweet is deleted by the first sender. Some of the errors identified by Newman emerged on Twitter over the weekend of 12 and 13 June during the Iran protests, and includes information that:

· Three million people were reported to have protested in Tehran. Independent assessments suggested the final numbers were a few hundred thousand;

· Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was under house arrest –he was fact just being watched;

· The president of the election monitoring committee declared the election invalid. This turned out to be wrong. (Newman 2009: 5).

Another dilemma posed by social media generated information, according to Newman, was the lack of “balance” in their coverage, as conversation was “overwhelmingly in favour” of the Iranian opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The BBC Persian service experienced difficulties in finding supporters of the Iranian president Ahmadinejad, despite having received “thousands” of emails for its interactive programmes (Newman 2009: 5). Newman cites Turi Munthe, CEO of the citizen journalism website Demotix, who succinctly explained what he believes to be the root cause of this lack of balance:

All the blogging, the twittering, the Facebook activity … is from a self selecting demographic – media switched on, westernised, reformist. We are getting the social media and user generated sites aiding and abetting the mainstream western media view of this as a massive liberal explosion in Iran. (Newman 2009: 5).

The mainstream medias’ reaction to these dilemmas was largely pragmatic. While the mainstream media could not compete with social media like Twitter in terms of speed, they made attempt to convert unverified reports from such platforms into verified “objective” stories. According to Newman, the mainstream media all felt “uncomfortable” running unverified reports and made every attempt to find corroboration before publication or broadcast (2009: 6). The executive of CNN’s iReport, Lila King, apparently said reporters tried to “triangulate the details” of social media reported events by corroborating stories. Additionally, where CNN “couldn’t be sure about the facts, but felt the pictures had the ring of truth, they labelled the pictures accordingly” (2009: 6). These mechanisms employed by CNN are clear “strategic rituals” for objectivity, as described by Tuchman, in that, where the social media sourced information is false or biased, CNN reporters (and their broadcasts) may claim objectivity in the reporting. CNN also set up a mechanism where, were they to repeat false information propagated by the social media, they could shift blame to those digital sources, as explained by Soloski (1997: 143). Newman adds that CNN received almost 6000 Iran-related submissions in total, but approved just over 200 for use on air. These actions employed by CNN in sifting through the information aggregated on social media platforms serves to reinforce the notion of the “gatekeeper” role of journalists. Keen, author of the critical book Cult of the Amateur, explained the lesson of the Iranian protests was that “Twitter is a great real-time tool for distributing opinion, but it is no replacement for curated media coverage of the crisis” (cited in Newman 2009: 8). And while Twitter may not directly challenge traditional roles of professional journalists, it does pose challenges for those working in the mainstream media. This was noted by the then Head of Communities for Reuters, Mark Jones, of the Iran protests:

Our job now is packaging raw feeds from many sources and filtering it to provide audience big enough to make a difference. It is all becoming much more complex, for journalists who need to monitor a huge number of sources, and more complex for consumers too. (cited in Newman 2009: 8-9)

While “always-on communication systems” (Hermida 2009: 301) like Twitter were useful in the dissemination of information about the protests as they happened, it must be noted that it also had a more sinister effect. Bruns (2010) highlights this in a response to Hermida (2009). Hermida describes several key events during the Iran protests that exemplify the importance of Twitter as a dissemination tool, such as the US department request to delay routine maintenance of the Twitter servers and the shooting of Iranian teenager Neda Soltan by the country’s government forces. Bruns explains that this case study selected by Hermida “complicates” his vision for always-on communication systems:

Twitter’s perceived ‘success’ during Iran’s 2009 election now looks rather different when other factors are considered such as: …Iran’s clerics who used Soltan’s death as propaganda; claims that Iran’s intelligence services used Twitter to track down and to kill protestors; the ‘black box’ case of what the US State Department and others actually did during the crisis; the history of neo-conservative interest in a Twitter-like platform for strategic information operations; and the Iranian diaspora’s incitement of Tehran student protests via satellite broadcasts.  (Bruns 2010: 4)

In this case, while Twitter was a crucial platform in disseminating information about the government’s abuse of protestors during the 2009 election protests, it ironically also aided the government in suppressing information by allowing them to locate and arrest or kill dissidents.

The effect of micro-blogging and social media on the traditionally conceived roles of professional journalists is still being investigated by media and social theorists the world over, especially with the advent of Twitter as an information dissemination tool in the last two years. At present, despite the assertions of some researchers, Twitter does not appear to challenge the foundational journalism discourses of gatekeeping and objectivity, but it may yet evolve to do so. Instead, social media and micro-blogging platforms like Twitter act in a symbiotic relationship with these roles by providing mainstream professional media with access to sources and raw information on the ground, as illustrated by coverage of the 2009 Iran protests.


Iran Elections

Iran Elections (Photo credit: bioxid)


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