Apparently unaware of the unwritten rules of both ethical journalism and satire, an Iranian news agency published an edited copy of a report from The Onion on Friday, without crediting the original or acknowledging that it was fiction.
The Fars News Agency, which is close to Iran’s powerful Republican Guard Corps, posted its version of the report (now removed) on its English-language Web site under the same headline used by The Onion for the original four days earlier: âGallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad To Obama.â
Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama http://t.co/snzZBomZ
- Fars News Agency (@FNA_Iran) 28 Sep 12
Although the dateline for the news brief says that the reporting was done in Tehran by Fars, the first sentence is identical to the earlier Onion parody: âAccording to the results of a Gallup poll released Monday, the overwhelming majority of rural white Americans said they would rather vote for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than U.S. president Barack Obama.â
The second sentence of the Fars report, however, changed the phrase âhave a beer with Ahmadinejad,â to âhave a drink with Ahmadinejad,â and entirely omitted The Onion’s description of the Iranian president as âa man who has repeatedly denied the Holocaust and has had numerous political prisoners executed.â
The final two sentences of the original Onion report, quoting a fictional voter in West Virginia who prefers Iran’s president, were published unchanged by Fars:
âHe takes national defense seriously, and he’d never let some gay protesters tell him how to run his country like Obama does.â According to the same Gallup poll, 60 percent of rural whites said they at least respected that Ahmadinejad doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s Muslim.
The only other difference between the two versions of the fake report is that The Onion used a more flattering photograph of Mr. Ahmadinejad, showing him with a broad smile.
For more than an hour after the error was noticed, and mocked, by bloggers including David Kenner, an editor for Foreign Policy in Cairo, the report remained on the home page of the Fars English-language site, where it was promoted as the day’s third most important story.
The news agency has in the past copied an entire blog post from The Lede without attribution.
While it is unclear how Fars came across the fictional report, Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, who blogs about the Iranian press, first noticed on Wednesday that the main, Persian-language version of Fars Web site had mistaken The Onion report for real news. Mr, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi notes that report has now been removed by Fars, but was picked up by at least two other Iranian news sites, Hayat and Mehr.
The incident might also reflect how increasingly easy it is to come across information online that has been intentionally or accidentally denatured through copying as it is passed along from one site to another, or one social media user to another.
The Onion’s has been criticized in the past for posting fake news updates on Twitter – where the text is divorced from contextual clues that make it easier to identify the reports as satire. As the Guardian editor Matt Wells wrote last year, when The Onion used Twitter to post fictional live updates on a hostage crisis that was also fictional, as information is passed from user to user on social networks, fiction can easily be mistaken for fact.
The viral way that information spreads online also makes it ea sy for errors to proliferate. To take a recent example, before a violent protest against an anti-Islam film took place in Cairo on Sept. 11, the United States Embassy released a statement condemning the makers of the film for abusing their right to free speech by promoting religious bigotry. After the protest turned violent, however, a version of that statement posted on Twitter was passed around by opponents of the Obama administration who mistakenly described it as an apology to the protesters, released after attack on the embassy. Within hours, Mitt Romney joined the chorus in repeating the false accusation that the statement was posted online after rather than before the protest.
Then too, Fars might have been more easily confused by The Onion’s satirical report because competition from satirists and Internet news sites seems to have encouraged traditional news organizations to allow their journalists to lace their reports with comic elements.
A remarkable ca se study of the dangers of the new laughter-based news economy can be found in the great difficulty Reuters has had in correcting a flawed video report produced in Iran in February, on the popularity of the martial art of ninjutsu among Iranian women.
As my colleague David Goodman reported in March, Iran’s government imposed a harsh sanction on Reuters journalists in Tehran, rescinding their press cards, in retaliation for errors in what was apparently intended to be a lighthearted video report distributed by the news agency under the headline, âThousands of Female Ninjas Train as Iran’s Assassins.â
Although Reuters issued a correction once the government pointed out that the women featured in the report were not studying the martial art of ninjutsu in a dojo outside Tehran with the intention of killing anyone, but simply to keep in shape, the agency has no control over what news organizations do with the material it provides to them, so several versions of t he story remain on the Web sites and YouTube channels of its clients.
While the corrected item is no longer available on the Reuters Web site, video reports repeating the false premise – that Iranian women who practice the sport primarily for exercise are a squad of trained killers – produced by the American networks CBS and MSNBC, the Saudi channel Al Arabiya, Britain’s Channel 4 News, Japan’s state broadcaster NHK and The Telegraph in London, can all still be viewed online.
Similarly, there is no correction attached to a version of the report, headlined âIran Trains 3,000 Female Ninja Assassins,â which has been viewed more than 160,000 times on the YouTube channel of Britain’s ITN since February.
A video report produced by Britain’s ITN that called Iranian female martial arts students âassassins.â
The narration for that version seems to retain the jokey tone of the original Reuters script, mockin g the women’s efforts to appear fierce even as the narrator makes the ominous-sounding claim that âthese are Iran’s ninja assassins and they are deadly serious. Some 3,000 women are being trained to defend the Islamic Republic to the death, with hand-to-hand combat, and evasion skills.â Interestingly, the ITN journalist who voice that report, Sam Datta-Paulin, explains on his personal Web site that he is âalso a performing comedian.â
As Max Fisher explained in a post on The Atlantic’s Web site in March, the Reuters report followed an initial report on the female ninjas broadcast on Jan. 29 by Press TV, an Iranian government satellite channel that exists to put Tehran’s spin on the news. Four days after that broadcast, the Press TV report was posted on YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Thanks in large part to attention from Internet news outlets like The Daily, which detected some inadvertent comedy in the notion of Iranian female ninjas, the Press TV report has been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube.
Beyond the mocking tone of the Reuters report, Iranian officials seem to have been most angered by the fact that the initial script cast the efforts of the women to learn the martial art in terms of a potential conflict with Israel, despite the fact that the dojo has been in operation for more than two decades.
First on Twitter and then in a careful reconstruction of how the Press TV story spread and was then picked up by Reuters, Shiva Balaghi, an Iranian-American cultural historian who has lived in both countries, argued that journalists working in the era of The Daily Show had perhaps lost focus on what mattered about the story.
Suspension of Reuters from Iran is no laughing matter. Shame on all who’ve chuckled over it on blogs, twitter, & FB. (1of3)
- Shiva Balaghi (@SBalaghi) 30 Mar 12
Story mocked the gendere d politics that restrain Iranian women’s bodies & what the practice of martial arts means in this context. (2of3)
- Shiva Balaghi (@SBalaghi) 30 Mar 12
The Iranian govt’s reaction is another attack on press freedoms. Where’s the humor in this situation? (3of3) #Reuters
- Shiva Balaghi (@SBalaghi) 30 Mar 12
Ms. Balaghi suggested that something about the images of the young Iranian women wielding swords and running up walls struck journalists used to thinking of ninja moves as the stuff of action movies and video games as inherently funny. The drive to maximize that comedy then seemed to overwhelm more sober journalistic instincts, like factual accuracy and the need to place the images in context.
âAcademics are often rightly accused of being too insular,â Ms. Balaghi wrote in the online journal Jadaliyya. âThe same could be said of some journalists, especially those who work for so cial media sites. One wonders if there isn’t too much pressure to get more âlikes,’ retweets, mentions, and followers. Brevity and witticism have become valued tools of the trade.â
At the end of her essay, she observed that a far more serious issue, the restrictions placed on women in Iran, was ignored in reports that sought to hype the comedic potential of the story:
Iran’s women athletes remain caught in a web of government control within Iran while their modest Islamic attire makes them subject to prohibition by international sporting bodies.
And now some careless or unethical journalists made the women athletes in the Karaj dojo the butt of jokes or props in their jingoistic drum beating for war on Iran. More power to them for speaking out for themselves. Unfortunately, the whole sordid affair provided the Islamic Republic a handy excuse to withdraw Reuters’ credentials, making it even harder for us to get accurate reporting from Iran at a critical time. Above all else, the story of Iranian women martial artists turns out to be a cautionary tale.
When the Reuters bureau in Tehran was first shut down, after the women featured in the report took the news agency to court, The National in Abu Dhabi explained that part of the context for the story was that state-owned Press TV has an axe to grind with Britain:
Press TV, which has spearheaded the blowback against Reuters, is viewed as Iran’s propaganda mouthpiece in the West. Ofcom, Britain’s independent media watchdog, revoked the channel’s license in January for failing to pay a record £100,000 fine for broadcasting an interview with a prisoner obtained under duress.
Unlike Press TV, Reuters enjoys an excellent reputation for accuracy and impartiality. It had managed to maintain its bureau in Tehran after Iran’s disputed presidential elections in June 2009 which was followed by a crackdown on Iranian journalists . Visas for western reporters have since been very hard to come by. The activities of those allowed in on rare visits are strictly monitored and curtailed.
In late July, Iran’s official news agency reported comments from an Iranian offiical who said that after the lawsuit against Reuters in Iranian courts takes its course, the wire service’s office in Tehran âis likely to be shut down for good.â