Five Causes of Media Inaccuracy – illustrated by reporting of the Iranian election protests

In her piece published yesterday about the reporting of the current Iranian “Green Revolution”, Cynthia Boaz identified five causes of media inaccuracy:

  1. Intentional misrepresentations:  Spinning, twisting, distorting, or outright making things up for the purpose of bolstering a particular ideology, political party, or other limited interest.
  2. Sloppy or hasty reporting:  “…the inability or unwillingness of reporters to engage in serious investigative or assiduous on-the-ground reporting.  For example, when in doubt – where information is sparse or of questionable veracity, and official (government) forces are being challenged by nongovernmental forces, media tend to default to the perspective of the officials, regardless of regime type or ideology.”
  3. Fragmentation, which “involves covering the story in isolated, seemingly unrelated pieces”, which when taken together give a very different impression than a deeper reporting of the whole system would reveal.
  4. Dramatization, which “occurs when the news is encapsulated in short, sensationalistic bits intended to provoke an emotional response on the part of the news consumer.”   This seems to be close to the “intentional’ type of bias, since it serves the narrow interests of the reporting agency.
  5. Euphemism, for which Boaz gives the example of using the phrase “’huge crowds in Iran” which can then give the impression that these “crowds” are disorganized, spontaneous types of groupings, rather than strategic, organized and disciplined.

I see the distinctions, and it is important to understand them.  However, these five causes can still basically be lumped together as either grossly intentional, or as less intentionally lacking a holistic viewpoint.  Lacking a holistic viewpoint can be attributed to effects that may be out of the reporter and agency’s control, such as lack of access to sources or lack of funding; or else they can be attributed to factors that are directly the fault of the reporting agency: lack of competence (sloppiness), or lack of integrity (e.g., a desire to appeal to sensation-seeking consumers in order to be noticed and sell).

In the case of reporting on the Iranian election demonstrations, Boaz states that several of these types of media errors have together given the World the idea that the demonstrations have been chaotic, unplanned, isolated acts that are often violent.  In contrast, she says that

“These people are for the most part technologically and strategically savvy, especially when compared to the hardliners and mullahs that make up the ancient regime in Iran. They have studied the nonviolent struggles in Chile, South Africa and Serbia. They understand the dynamics of civil resistance and the power of simply withdrawing individual complicity in oppression. These are the people whose “tweets” and Facebook “status updates” the world is getting live via digital media…”

And that in contrast to what is mostly reported,

“the reality is much richer and more potentially encouraging. The Green Revolution is not just a series of ad hoc protests against a political theft, it is a story of widespread resistance to ongoing oppression. It is not the repression and violence that is most interesting about the news coming from Iran, it is that people continue to resist despite the repression.”

I would love to see more reporting about the intelligent and conscious components of this resistance.  How much in depth reporting is even possible in a country that obstructs investigation and punishes dissent?


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