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Reporting on Post-Election Iran; Death of Michael Jackson

Aired July 18, 2009 - 10:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: In print, on air, and on the web, this is INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney.

Coming up, informing Iran, the challenges for stations broadcasting into the country post election. How the story changed. Foreign journalists faced tough reporting restrictions in the wake of the ballot. And the media and Michael Jackson, a news phenomenon expanding the life and death of the King of Pop.

It was an election with plenty of news interests, but it was the aftermath of Iran's June 12th vote when the story really gained momentum. As protestors took the streets, the Iranian authorities imposed restrictions on reporters. Our Farsi language broadcasters covered the story presented some difficulties, too, as we found out.


: Three, two, one.

SWEENEY: From a studio in London, the news team prepares to go air at the BBC's Persian television service.


The TV service has been on air since January, broadcasting eight hours a day to Persian speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere around the globe.

Lately, like most news outlets, it's been following the fallout from Iran's disputed presidential election on June 12th.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The big challenge for us is that we're not able to report on the ground in Iran in Farsi. We can't send our own reporters into report the news in Farsi, although the BBC does have a BBC News English language bureau in Tehran.

But for us, there have been tens of thousands of news gatherers on the ground with mobile phones, with stills, cameras. And we've relied on that. We haven't thrown open the channels. So the two of them, we put context and analysis around it, but it's meant that we have been able to rely on the information from them on days when we weren't getting it from any other source.

SWEENEY: BBC's Persian Television estimates it has an audience of up to 8 million people. It says it and other Farsi language services have proved to be an invaluable source for people inside Iran trying to get information about the country's political situation.

Pula Kardusi (ph) presents BBC Persian Television's interactive program and says the station would not have been able to cover the elections and its aftermath without that citizen journalist component.

PULA KARDUSI: There came a point when instead of an interactive program, which only discusses peoples' opinions and talks to people, and gets the view from the citizens' point of view, we became a news gathering source of a hub for the rest of the BBC without even realizing in the first week, because we were inundated with e-mails and messages from people inside Iran, eyewitnesses with user generated material that they sent for us.

SWEENEY: Across the Atlantic, the Washington, D.C. based Voice of America expanded its programming in the wake of the elections. Satara Dikashish (ph) is among the broadcasters on VOA's Persian News Network.

SATARA DIKASHISH: You need to remind herself constantly that it's not something personal.

SWEENEY: Iranian-Americans staffer Vafra Mostagim (ph) says he knows first hand what it's like not to get the real story inside Iran.

VAFRA MOSTAGIM: We don't make a decision for them, we just provide the information for them. So they're not getting it from their media. That's why they're tuning to VOA.

SWEENEY: In the post election crisis, VOA says traffic to its website expanded 200 percent with an avalanche of videos and pictures.

MOSTAGIM: It is an incredible (INAUDIBLE). And then right now, our challenge is to just keep up with it in making sure we're putting the best of on air.

SWEENEY: Like the BBC Persian service, which is funded by the British government, Voice of America is financially backed by the U.S. taxpayer. VOA's charter calls for presenting U.S. policies clearly and effectively.

Though VOA executive editor Steve Reddish (ph), a long time journalist and former CNN producer, says VOA strives to present all sides.

STEVE REDDISH: There's always a danger in any operation in showing any kind of bias. That's something that we're vigilant about all the time.

SWEENEY: Inside Iran, viewers saw a different side of the story in the days after the election. The government run IRNN sent its reporter on a fact finding mission around Tehran. Her interviewees without exception offering reassuring reaction about the situation.

At one point, Iranian officials accuse the Western media of stoking up trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've had accusations of bias from the government in Iran, but also from opposition people who say we should be taking one side or another. Well, the BBC doesn't take sides. And nor indeed does CNN, I'm sure. But we have to be able to give the context. And we're not giving commentary or bias, but we are giving the context. So that we are putting both sides of the argument.

SWEENEY: With so many Iranians working here, it must be emotionally challenging for them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many of them have got close friends and family back in Iran. Many of them live there until a year ago. And they've all managed to put their opinions and their views on the coat peg when they come into work and behave completely professionally. It's been a learning experience for everybody here. And I think they've come through better journalists, but they were very strong journalists to start with.

SWEENEY: Amira Zeemi (ph) is head of planning and production with BBC Persian Television and coordinated the station's coverage of the Iranian elections.

AMIRA ZEEMI: From a professional point of view, it's very exciting to working on a bigger story. From a personal point of view, yes, it is my country. I've born there, I'm grown up on there. And I've worked in the - as a journalist. So I am (INAUDIBLE) to work on Iranian bigger stories and not to get involved personally, because even before I joined the BBC, I was a journalist in Iran working in the media and covering all sorts of stories.

SWEENEY: As international journalists were subject to strict guidelines in the weeks after the election, limiting what they could report, news services also had to change how they reported the story.

At the interactive desk in London, Puna Gardusy (ph) says it's become dangerous for people inside Iran to share their views.

PUNA GARDUSY: Most of the people are calling from overseas now. Most of the people from Iran are just sending us their numbers. And we're calling them. It's become a security situation as well. More and more people are not feeling comfortable enough to come on air with their true names or with their true faces because we used to have web cam participants in the show as well.

SWEENEY: Challenging times for journalists and news organizations to report a story. Increasingly, user generated content is proving a crucial component of news coverage when the journalists themselves are unable to report first hand.


SWEENEY: A glimpse on how stations broadcasting into Iran are covering the post election fallout. When we come back, on the ground reporting and a closer look at the difficulties for foreign journalists covering the story.


SWEENEY: Now to Alco Sultan (ph). The 26 year old woman became a symbol of Iran's resistance to the government's official election results. Her controversial death was captured on amateur video. Within hours of being posted online, it was picked up by news outlets around the world.

Arguably, it was an iconic example, where user generated content illustrated events in Iran. The reliance in citizen journalism came after dozens of foreign journalists left the country when reporting restrictions were imposed. International editor with Channel 4 News Lindsay Hilsom (ph) was one of them. I spoke to her and Baka Moun (ph), an Iran expert and author of "Harmony: Life of the Ayatollah." I began by asking Lindsay HIlsom whether the election was as exciting as she first expected.


LINDSAY HILSOM: I had not realized before I went to Iran in the run up how so many people were attaching so much hope to it. And I've been going backwards and forwards to Iran for 10 years, but never before have I seen that number of people in the streets in huge excitement in the days leading up to the poll. And then, of course, never before have I seen that many people in anger and despair on the streets. It was the most absorbing story that I have done for years and years.

SWEENEY: And was there any difference in how you were treated by the authorities during the time there?

HILSOM: Totally different. To begin with, it was the most pleasurable reporting experience I've ever had in Iran. Everyone was very welcoming. Whoever they were going to vote for, or whoever they were campaigning for, and government officials were also extremely helpful to us.

But as I said at the time, from the evening as the polls closed, to the next day, I felt like I went to sleep in one country and woke up in another. Because then by the next day, suddenly the shutters came down. When people came out on the streets, then we had the Baseej (ph) and the police in their riot gear beating people, people running. And then shortly after that, that's when the authorities withdrew our press cards . And suddenly, there was no more cooperation. It was an entirely different experience.

SWEENEY: I can remember watching it from London, being Iranian, were you surprised at how the story unfolded once the elections and the aftermath evolved the way they did?

BAKA MOUN: Well, in a sense, yes, because the day of the election and the day before was the story of hope. The day after the election for many, it was the story of despair, especially so many Iranians in the West and specifically London and went and voted specifically for this election because they wanted change They were not happy for the past four years and they thought they have got an opportunity.

And many people haven't been voting at all for the past 20 years. Suddenly, they were also disappointed in many ways. And so, you know, sort of cues to go and vote, you had cues and lots of people in front of the embassy and other places demonstrating against what they consider the stealing of their vote.

So it was very, very emotional on many fronts.

SWEENEY: Do you think the complications of that story were generally widely reflected on Western media?

MOUN: I think by and large before the election, it was reported accurately because journalists have access to this story properly. The problem came to after the election, when the journalists were asked to leave Iran. And then we faced censorship from the government side, because actually, Iranian radio and television were not reporting what is happening in Iran in the streets.

At the same time, it was citizen journalism that took over in Iran. It was Twitter. It was Facebook. It was Youtube. It was mobile phone. It was a digital revolution and practice in Iran. And it was very difficult for editors abroad in the West to deal with that flow of information.

SWEENEY: Can that kind of revolution, digital revolution you talk about, can that be over turned now . Can the government ever stop that in the years to come? Can any government stop it?

MOUN: Technically, I suppose they've got facilities to do so, but the culture of it is much more deeper than reporting of it. I mean, what we are seeing these days coming out of Iran and coming from the Iranians abroad, if you look is more the cultural impact of what happened. So many (INAUDIBLE), so many stories, so many package of sound and slides and so forth, that are really reflecting their deep anger and anxiety and happiness, that we have never seen in the past 20 years in Iran.

You just, as if the country has changed completely and the new generation have taken over challenging the entire clerical system.

SWEENEY: But the new generation hasn't obviously taken over officially in any sense of the imagination. But let me ask you, how do you think what has taken place is going to affect you, Lindsay Hilsom, going back into the country and what you imagine it might be like to report from there in the future?

HILSOM: Well, I hope very much that I can go back. And hope very much that the Iranian government will allow me and other Western journalists to go back in as soon as possible, because this is a very important story that we want to report.

I think that all of this citizen journalism was an extraordinary part of the story, as well, you know, being the message of communication. But the problem that we had as the days went by was verifying that information. You would see a video clip showing a protest. And initially, it was possible to make a call, to find out, you know, yes, this did happen in such and such a place at such and such a time. But then it became more difficult. Was this a clip from today? Or was this somebody rerunning a clip from a few days ago?

It became extremely difficult to work that out. And that shows why this kind of citizen journalism, as valuable as it is, can't replace, I think, what we do as foreign correspondents going in and trying to report objectively.

SWEENEY: Just a final question on a separate subject, but not unrelated in terms of citizen journalism, what is taking place in China has been taking place in Jinjang (ph) Province. It seems that the Chinese are acting differently in allowing more journalists to go there, than they would have done previously in previous similar situations?

HILSOM: They've done exactly the opposite to the Iranians in one sense. They've allowed the foreign reporters to go into Arunshi (ph), but they cut off Twitter first thing in the morning on the Monday morning after the riots took place on the Sunday. They closed down the Internet completely.

So what they prioritized was stopping Uighers, the people of Xinjiang, from communicating with each other. And the reporters up there, the government has tried very hard, I think, to control the story. But they certainly haven't completely succeeded. And I think that reporters have been able to some extent to tell us what's going on. But we're still missing some important information.

MOUN: I think it's very important for the editors and reporters really to use the old discipline of ensuring that they are not taken over by events. It's very important to keep a cool head, and look at evidence and decide.

Because the technology has got the advantage of the speed. We cannot catch up with it unless we prepare ourselves for every story and keep ourselves up to date with the background, with the roots of the story in order to be able to decipher what is happening. Otherwise, we are going to be besotted and sort of by emotionalism and human story, that's important in its own place. Yet it may not be whole the truth.

SWEENEY: But that might not necessarily work against the Iranian government's disadvantage if we become obsessed by technological breakthroughs or pictures of NATO, for example, and that takes away from perhaps the deeper roots and the conflict or debate going on within the clerics, for example.

MOUN: Yes, I mean, in the long run, it's in the interests of both sides. The truth has to come out. When you rely entirely on citizen journalism, who are not experienced, who have been trained, they themselves may fall for things. And the editors, if they follow them, will follow exactly their mistakes in a sense. That's - it's a very important cautionary story for all editors when they are facing such an emotionally charged story, as well as digital revolution that is currently around in the world.

HILSOM: And (INAUDIBLE) what you have is that you have arbitrary pictures being put out, which we're not quite sure what they represent. And the phrase that gets used is not wrong for long. In other words, you put all this stuff out on the television without really knowing it means, then you have to take it off and eventually find out what really happened.


SWEENEY: Lindsay Hilsom and Baka Moun.

The entertainment world mourns the King of Pop as the story of Michael Jackson dominates the news agenda. His life and death in the media spotlight when we come back.


SWEENEY: Newspapers around the globe dedicated their front pages to Michael Jackson. Since his death on June 25th until his memorial service 12 days later and even beyond, the pop star's demise generated wall to wall coverage on networks across the planet.

British 24 news channel Sky News and the BBC had extensive reports, as did those of other countries. BFM in France, CNN Plus in Spain, to Turkey and elsewhere. Millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the Jackson memorial service.

It was the impact of the Internet and social networking that stood out. Sites reported a major spike in video streaming during Jackson's memorial. The 10 most popular topics on Twitter that afternoon were all connected to the memorial.

News that Michael Jackson's death broke initially on the website TMZ. Correspondents from around the globe then descended on California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Since he died, we've been making (INAUDIBLE) on every, every newscast. We never stop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's been pretty much 24/7. If I haven't been actually really on the job, I've been on the job through Twitter or people, you know, Twittering me, tweeting me. It's been non stop since June 25th. And you can tell, the helicopters have (INAUDIBLE).

SWEENEY: A poll by the Pew Research Center found nearly two in three Americans thought the media went over the top with its coverage of Michael Jackson's death. Out of 1,000 adults surveyed, 64 percent said there was too much air time and column inches dedicated to the story. Though half agreed the media struck the right balance between his music and private life.

The amount of attention dedicated to the latter prompted harsh words from a friend of the Jackson family, Reverend Al Sharpton.

AL SHARPTON, REV.: I have seen other musical icons die where there was serious questions about them. And I've never seen it dominate the news before their funeral, and dominate it to the point that people forget their greatness.

SWEENEY: Michael Jackson, a pop star who faced so much media scrutiny throughout his life, also in the public glare in his death.


SWEENEY: Let's assess the media's coverage of Michael Jackson's death . So for that, we turn to entertainment writer with "The Los Angeles Times," Jeff Buchet.

Jeff, a huge story for "The L.A. Times." Is it possible that there was too much coverage?

JEFF BUCHET, "THE L.A. TIMES": Well, I think that's a very reasonable question. I think that we tend to jump on something like this, and report it in every which we can. And I think that certainly there is a danger of fatigue or saturation.

SWEENEY: So given that of course it's a huge story for "The L.A. Times," is it possible that there's too much coverage, and it's difficult for editors, journalists to walk that fine line?

BUCHET: Certainly from the eye of the storm, it's easy to lose sense of how much is too much. But our readers are there clearly. And they let us know what they think. We had a recent issue with commemorative pullout n Michael Jackson. And I got quite a few e-mails from people who said enough is enough. But that same day's paper was -- it was less than 10 percent of the paper. I mean, it was probably 5 percent of the paper. The rest of the paper dedicated to our usual report on international news, local politics, features, sports, everything else.

It's all still there, but certainly, there's this dedication to this story at this time. But you can feel it starting to wind down.

SWEENEY: I mean, at the time in question of his death, "The L.A. Times" very quick to be among the first to say that he had died, Michael Jackson had passed away. But you were up against some stiff competition. And I'm thinking of particularly the website TMZ.

How does that traditional media versus the online media compete? And is there a clear winner? Or which direction do you see it all going?

BUCHET: It is interesting, isn't it, to watch that division. I think that, you know, we - the only way we can approach it is to do what we do. When we have a story, and we know it's right, we move forward. Being first is important. Being first and being wrong doesn't really count. So we go by our own measure when we felt that our sources had given us enough information to go on. We went forward with the story. And you're right. I think we were first.

And certainly, you know, that day, we had 12 million hits on our website, which begs the question of what new media is. I mean, we are new media as well.

SWEENEY: In a wider editorial sense, I mean, could you sense at the moment when you knew he had passed away, that the story was going to take on all the manifestations and go in all the directions that it appeared to go, the will, his former wife, etcetera.

BUCHET: Absolutely. I mean, you could see all the different story lines that would need to be pursued. And for us here at "The Los Angeles Times," I mean, you can't forget this was a man's death. And this is a man that people watched their entire lives for a certain generation. They grew up with him. They have a lot of strong feelings about him.

I would never frame it as a story that should be defined by our experience. But I think this is going to be looked on as a turning point for our paper and moving forward with our dual missions of being an Internet and a print publication.

SWEENEY: Jeff Buchet in L.A., thank you very much indeed for joining us.

BUCHET: Thank you.

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And that's all for this edition of the program. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you again next time.