Story of Neda’s Death Reveals 7 Elements of Next-Step Journalism

Just before ending his news conference Tuesday, President Obama called on CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux for one last question.

MALVEAUX: Back to Iran, putting a human face on this. Over the weekend, we saw a shocking video of this woman, Neda, who had been shot in the chest and bled to death. Have you seen this video?”

THE PRESIDENT: I have… It’s heartbreaking… And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there’s something fundamentally unjust about that.

The mention of her name at a presidential news conference reflected the extent to which Neda Agha-Soltan had become, as Malveaux put it, “the human face” of the weekend’s dramatic events in Iran.

But the brief exchange between correspondent and president also represented something of particular relevance to journalists: a big step in a process that transformed a horrible but isolated event in Iran into international news.

It’s a process — call it Next Step Journalism — that will shape more and more of the news we need from around the block and around the globe.

Journalists have relied on a process approach to writing for years. The Next Step Journalism process practiced on the Neda story began with an event and is characterized by the collective sharing and enhancing of information.

Such a process provides lots of opportunities for journalists and non-journalists alike to assess what a story needs next, figure out what he or she is best equipped to contribute, and move the story along.

Deconstructing the Neda story reveals seven elements of this kind of storytelling — some more in need of professional journalism skills and values than others. In describing what’s involved in each elements, I’m struck by a common thread: the importance of collaboration.

Documentation: Two cell phone videos of Neda captured the crucial moments after she was shot Saturday evening, including the frantic efforts of those around her to save her. The low resolution of the videos and chaotic movement of the cell phone cameras did not get in the way of telling this critical part of the story. Increasingly, this is the kind of journalism that more and more people are committing without benefit of any journalism training.

Context: The videos raised many more questions than they answered. Among them, who did the shooting, why Neda was shot, who was trying to help her, who captured the videos, what happened next? Most still remain unanswered. But Neda’s fiance, Caspian Makan, provided some context in an interview broadcast by the Aljazeera English language service. Among other things, he described Neda’s perspective on recent events in Iran and explained why she happened to be on that street corner.

Transmission and Distribution: It was unclear, in early reports, how the videos made their way from the street corner to Facebook and YouTube. The Guardian reported Monday that an Iranian asylum seeker in the Netherlands, identified only as “Hamed,” got a call from a friend in Tehran. The paper reported that the friend said he witnessed the shooting and had recorded video of the aftermath on his cell phone. The paper said the friend sent Hamed the video, who immediately uploaded it, in tears, to Facebook and YouTube.

The New York Times added some detail in Tuesday editions, reporting the file size of the video (two megabytes), additional recipients (The Voice of America and The Guardian) and the message sent along with the attached video: “Please let the world know.”

John Blackstone did a piece for the “CBS Evening News” about the role of a self-described “activist-techie” named Anthony Papillion who helped enable the transmission of information from Iran by setting up a proxy server in Miami, Okla.

Verification: Some of the initial postings about the shooting included a message from someone who identified himself as a physician who said he witnessed the shooting and tried his best to save her. (See message inset in this post to USA Today‘s On Deadline blog.) The first step toward verification that I saw came in a re-tweet by Jeff Jarvis of a tweet by a Brazilian man: “@paulocoelho: best friend in Iran, a doctor, seen trying to resuscitate Neda: http://bit.ly/PmTfa.” I know Jarvis, and noticed that Paulo Coelho had lots of followers on Twitter (currently more than 43,000). That leaves this piece of the story closer to verified than before. On Tuesday, Coelho followed up with a tweet reporting that he hoped to be able to share the name of the physician by Wednesday. Sure enough, earlier today, he tweeted this: “# Iran My friend, the doc who tries to revive Neda, just landed in UK. You can see him, our emails at http://bit.ly/TNrPz.

Correction
: Some of the details distributed Saturday, including the identification of the white-haired man next to Neda as her father, turned out to be wrong. By Monday night, Los Angeles Times correspondent Borzou Daragahi had tracked down the man and identified him as Neda’s 50-year-old music teacher.

Analysis: The best analysis I’ve seen of the significance of Neda’s death has been produced by journalists, especially the essay published by Robin Wright over the weekend at Time.com. This may reflect my own media consumption patterns, though, and I welcome examples of useful analysis provided by thoughtful observers who earn their living in ways other than journalism.

Sense-making: My Poynter colleague, Kelly McBride, is heading up a year-long project exploring sense-making as a journalistic form (see Al Tompkins’ video on the project’s first conference at Poynter).

It’s still too early in the Neda story for anyone to be able to provide the perspective and wisdom required by this stage the process. Who will do it best. Journalists? That physician who tried to save Neda? Historians?

More important than the who is the what. The Neda story has taught us plenty about what this kind of storytelling will require — and what it can produce.

Correction: This post originally misidentified Neda Agha-Soltan.

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