A Year in the Life of a New-Media Journalist

On June 16, 2009, James Miller joined the “Twitter Revolution.” A year later, he reflects on the need for the media to evolve as the Green Movement does.

One year ago today I read an article that suggested that one way to help the Iranian protesters avoid detection was to change one’s Twitter location and time zone to Iran. I did that, and I inadvertently joined the (misnamed and misunderstood) “Twitter Revolution.” This accident of the cosmos, this tumble down the #Iranelection rabbit hole, has changed my life. Perhaps most importantly, however, it has taught a large amount of Americans the truths about Iran and the Iranian people.

A year ago, to the surprise of many in the West, it seemed that the Green Movement, against all odds, was moving mountains. Everything about it defied everything our media and our politicians had taught us about Iran. It seems appropriate then that a year later the old guard of Iranian conservatives, American neo-cons, and establishment media forces are just as confused and threatened about the reality of the situation on the ground in Iran.

Once again, it is time to prove to the world that the Green Movement, and the New Media sources that cover it, are legitimate and significant.

Earlier this week, I posted an article discussing what actually happened on the anniversary of last years elections this past Saturday, June 12.  While the headlines in the Associated Press tell a story about a slow, “quiet day in Iran,” free of protests but filled with internet activism, the sources on the ground told a different story. Videos and pictures have emerged to back-up reports of fairly widespread protests. Today, I added yet another video,  another piece of possible evidence that Saturday was more like a revival of political activity than a remembrance of it. Since Saturday, Middle Eastern news sites and our own personal contacts have flooded our inboxes with additional evidence to support that conclusion. Rallies and protests have greatly increased in frequency, size, and geographical location since last week. So has the pushback from the Iranian government.

In short, as the days tick by, the evidence mounts that, once again, the bloggers and independent news agencies who still have contacts inside Iran paint a more accurate picture of reality that certain major Western news agencies.

The misconception is that bloggers like myself, located hundreds or thousands of miles away, are political activists, not reporters. The misconception is that we rely on internet rumor, unsubstantiated sources, and conjecture. After all, without mainstream media conglomerates to add credibility to our information, how can we possibly receive reliable information?

In fact, the blogs have been consistently reliable since last June. What makes it to the blogs is often information that has been confirmed by multiple sources, sources who have a track record of having their reports corroborated by press reports and videos later on. We sift through Foreign Press, translate it, ask Iranian expatriates and experts for their analysis of news stories, and spend every single day following the developments inside the country.

Information that is reliable gets the label “confirmed.” Information that fits the pattern of events but has yet to be corroborated gets the label “unconfirmed.” Most of the information never even gets that far.  Also, whenever possible anonymous sources are avoided, or their information is corroborated with other sources or news agencies. We are very conscious that our reputations are on the line, so we can’t afford to make a mistake.

So why is it that many media sources have yet to listen to this message? Well, some of them have. As I reported in an earlier blog post, Reporting in the Twitter Age, agencies such as the New York Times and the L.A. Times increasingly rely on bloggers to report their developing stories. As I also point out in that article, however, their “traditional” reporters sometimes get it wrong while their bloggers get the story right. Other times, the mainstream media has come to the defense of New Media Journalism.  While some editors or corporate managers in the mainstream media obviously feel threatened by, or superior to, New Media, others have learned that bloggers can cover stories in more detail than they could ever hope to pay a news team to cover.

So why isn’t the mainstream coverage of Iran better than it is? The first reason is that (to borrow a phrase from the most ridiculous website in the universe) we, as Americans, have been educated stupid. We’ve been sold a distorted history of Iranian-American relations. I was in this camp until June, 2009. Then I learned the truth, that the Iranians aren’t all happy with the Iranian government, and that many of them are willing to move beyond a conflict that the United States started in the 1950’s and into a cooperative relationship with the rest of the world. Following the real stories in Iran, then, would break so far from the media’s oversimplified and distorted “nuclear” narrative that it would be hard to follow. It would also be a slower, less sexy story, that would sell fewer papers.

I could also argue that some members of the mainstream media, and some members of their audiences, suffer from a kind of news xenophobia (even racism) that prohibits the trusting of foreign nationals without Western corroboration, manifesting itself in such a way that unless CNN covers it, it can’t be reliable (sort of like how some people on vacation will only eat at chain restaurants).  Is it so hard to believe, in an era where public trust in the media is decaying, that somebody else couldn’t do a better job?

Combined with the distortions of certain politicians and bad coverage, the American people are missing the real story. Now that the Green Movement is in marathon mode, not spint-to-the-finish mode, the lack of media coverage of the events in Iran is particularly damaging to the prospects of peace in the region.

As the year has progressed, so too has my status as a writer. Before June 16, 2009, I was a hobbyist blogger who used blogging as a tool to dialog with friends. Then I became a Twitter activist, initially using Twitter to spread the news of the Iranian people, and using my blog to explain my activity to those who know me personally.  Since October, my readership has expanded, and since February my blog has risen in the ranks of the New Media revolution. What’s frustrated me, though, is that as my own knowledge about Iran has increased greatly, and my contacts within Iran and the media have increased exponentially, the attention of the American people and the mainstream media has shrunk.  At the same time, my fear that war is on the horizon and my confidence that without war the Green Movement will succeed, are both on the rise.

It is more important now than ever that the mainstream media do a better job of working with the new media sources so that the coverage of complicated stories, like Iran, are properly covered. As the business models of traditional media are challenged, it is likewise important for New Media to find sources of income, editorial oversight, and a level of reliable professionalism that is hit-or-miss at the current moment.  If the last year has taught me anything about the media, it has taught me that New Media doesn’t have to be a threat to traditional media. However, without a change in the structure of how we receive and pay for our news, major stories will continue to go underreported.

Post-election Iran has taught the world the power, and the current limitation, of new communication technology’s ability to create change. But change will come, both inside Iran, and inside the institutions that bring us the news.

Thank you; to all the brave Iranians, all the patient Iranian expats, all those within the media who have covered Iran well, all the bloggers who have helped me grow so much, and all the readers who have stuck with the story. I suspect that the media, the Green Movement, and I will be stronger next year than we are now, and we’ll have the developments of last year to thank.

Azadi (freedom),

James “the Hype” Miller

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