IRAN: 2009

This study analyzed four months of US and UK media coverage of the presidential elections in Iran – May 1, 2009 to August 31, 2009.

Where is my vote? A huge crowd of Iranian opposition demonstrators gather in Tehran on 15 June 2009 in support of defeated reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Events in Iran came to challenge global notions about the role of protests, social media, women and youth in elections in the Islamic world.

News outlets during the four-month period surrounding the 2009 Iran election reported with terrific fascination the changing relationship between political leaders and their electorates because of the intercession of social networking technologies and the possibility of global attention.  Mainstream news media with outlets across platforms sourced much of their reporting with citizen journalism and information gathered from social networking outlets such as YouTube and Twitter.

The world, in the era of the first Gulf War used to talk about “CNN diplomacy” because of the cable network’s ability to create a broadcast space for leaders of opposing sides to talk to each other (and the world).  In the months surrounding the 2009 Iranian election, the new catchphrase was the “Twitter Revolution,” because of the ability of that micro-messaging technology to allow people at the grassroots to get their messages out past those leaders who wanted to silence their voices.


  1. ‘The whole world is watching… The whole world is watching…’ Reports emphasized the unrest in the streets and the power of the grassroots protests. And news outlets featured the violent response of the Iranian security forces to the demonstrations. Many stories on the election focused on those protesters arrested or killed, such as the “martyred” young woman Neda Agha-Soltan.
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  2. Religion as Politics: No separation between Mosque and State. In most cases, religious words carried meaning mainly as political signifiers, in the same way as Americans talk about “conservative” Republicans and “liberal” Democrats and the British speak of the “conservatives” and the “liberals” in the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.
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  3. No longer the “CNN effect”: It’s now the Twitter or “YouTube effect.” Iranians in the streets covered their own protests after the international press corps was booted out of the country. Protesters use of social media got both news and images out to a waiting world, despite the government’s attempts to block access. As a result, US and UK media outlets discussed the role social networking Web sites and citizen journalists played in the Iranian election more often than the other four other elections combined
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The Stack Graphs below trace key trends in what 13 American, British and Arab news outlets had to say during the four months surrounding the 2009 election. The graphics are screen grabs from dynamic charts that can be seen on IBM’s ManyEyes’ site. Click on the charts to go to ManyEyes and see details about the data.


The peaks in this graph correspond to media’s focus on the “protests” and “demonstrations,” as well on whether there was “corruption” and “fraud” in the election – and whether the election was “free and fair.”

The world’s media quite thoroughly covered the lead-up to the Iranian election as well as the June 12 vote itself, but it was the following demonstrations that erupted against the “disputed,” “fraudulent” or “stolen” election that claimed the most attention and most riveted all eyes.

Interestingly, although some protests were described as violent, others were described as “peaceful” or even “diplomatic.” The Guardian reported on “peaceful” gatherings and the Financial Times reported on “diplomatic” protests. Words such as “violence” were more often used to describe the actions of the violent suppression, repression and crackdown by the security forces than the actions of protesters.

Proof of that? The single image that dominated the coverage of the post-election period was that of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman killed by the security forces during one of the protests.

Many stories took a personal angle on protests, leading into their accounts by relating stories about those killed or arrested, but even those that didn’t focus on the victims or their families, contextualized the election outcome with mention of the rising death toll (the official count was 20, but human rights groups suggested the number may have been in the hundreds) and the thousands who had been arrested.

But over all, it was the spectacle of youths protesting against the hardline Iranian government that received the most attention – the clear implication being that the the scale of the demonstrations gave lie to the authorities’ pronouncements about their control of the country. Across the board, news outlets devoted an average of more than three times as much time and space to the protests and demonstrations as they did to the attendant violence and death.


Note a high peak that marks frequent use of the generic terms “Muslim” and “Islam.”

Religion was a primary focus for most news outlets during their coverage of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. However, most outlets spoke in general terms about Islam and Muslims, speaking, for example, about “the Muslim world.”

Though several news outlets referred to specific religious events as Friday prayers – which were often used as a platform for political speeches – it was much more common to have new outlets use religious terms in connection with specific political entities: for example, the “Islamic Republic of Iran” or to reference political institutions that happened to have the word “Islam” or “Muslim” in their names: the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.

Ironically, American and British media, during this Iranian pre- and post-election period, did spend a significant amount of time speaking about Islam – as a religion, as a set of values and as a political force in the world. The irony was that those discussions took place, for the most part, in the unrelated context of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cairo. On June 4, 2009, eight days before the Iranian election, President Obama spoke to packed audience in Egypt. As NPR described the scene, “Pledging ‘to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims,’ President Obama reached out to the world’s 1.5 billion followers of Islam on Thursday, addressing an appreciative crowd at Cairo University.”

The story of what was said – and what were the reactions – dominated mainstream media and the blogosphere for days. Wrote The Guardian in its editorial:

“Barack Obama had set the bar high: to deliver a speech which addressed America’s dysfunctional relationship not just with the Arab world but the Muslim one; a speech which encompassed not only contemporary conflicts but past ones; a speech which would not only restate common values but redefine them in terms of Islamic teaching and the Qur’an. He succeeded spectacularly in Cairo yesterday.”

And a commentator wrote for Al Jazeera,

“Barack Obama entered from the far right of the stage and the audience of a few thousand of Egypt’s great and good rose almost as one body…. One minute into his speech he won nearly every heart and mind in the great hall, announcing his pride to be carrying ‘the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace Muslim communities use in my country: asalaamu alaikum.'”

The explicit focus in the global coverage of the president’s visit to Cairo was on divisions between the United States and Islam – could there be respect or even common ground? Those debates rarely carried over into concurrent stories about the Iran election.


Note the multiple peaks of “students” and the various individual social networking outlets – “Facebook,” “YouTube,” “Twitter” – in this graph of combined media coverage.

Videos of the Iranian election and protests dominated YouTube, and Facebook groups begun in solidarity with the Iranian protesters soared in popularity during the weeks and months surrounding the June 12 election. Attention accelerated after the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan – the dramatic video images of Neda’s death, captured on cellphone, sent millions of visitors to YouTube. The social networking sites were the venues for eyewitness accounts of what was happening in the otherwise shuttered country. As a result mainstream media outlets turned to Twitter, Facebook and Iranian blogs to source their stories.

Most news outlets tracked social media more closely during their coverage of the Iranian election than they did during any of other four elections – even the Afghan and Iraq elections that followed the June 2009 Iranian election.

In other words, it wasn’t just that the technology was available that made it such a focus of the coverage, it was the way the technology was harnessed by the Iranian protesters in the streets and the exiles abroad – as well as the way in which Iranian authorities tried to censor the new digital spaces and the way in which “Western” governments, as well as “Western” media, worked to enable those digital pathways.

Wrote the Washington Post:

“The State Department asked social-networking site Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance earlier this week to avoid disrupting communications among tech-savvy Iranian citizens as they took to the streets to protest Friday’s reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The move illustrates the growing influence of online social-networking services as a communications media. Foreign news coverage of the unfolding drama, meanwhile, was limited by Iranian government restrictions barring journalists from ‘unauthorized’ demonstrations.”

TIME magazine, which scarcely tracked social media in relation to the other elections, discussed the role social media played in the protests surrounding the Iranian election in a mid-June article titled: “Iran Protests: Twitter, the medium of the moment.”

“While the front pages of Iranian newspapers were full of blank space where censors had whited-out news stories, Twitter was delivering information from street level, in real time.”

Mainstream media outlets, including all 13 of those researched in this study, not only needed to report the Iranian story on the ground from citizen journalists and social media sites, but learned how essential the new technologies could be to delivering their own news to their audiences. Coverage of the Iran election, therefore, resulted not only in reports on the role citizen journalists were playing in the Iranian election but in heavy promotion of the news outlets’ own social networking pages.