The mainstream media ignored Delara Darabi. New media didn’t.

May 2, 2009

Early Friday morning in Tehran, 23-year-old Delara Darabi was executed in the Rasht prison in Iran for a crime that happened when she was 17. Human rights groups had been protesting and trying to save her from execution for months, since it is a violation of international law to execute anyone for a crime that occurred when they were a minor. Despite the protests, Iranian authorities executed her on Friday with no notice.

What is perhaps the saddest part of her story, however, is that the mainstream, traditional news media did not report the story at all. A Google News search on Delara Darabi revealed, as of late last night, a total of ZERO mainstream US news stories. The only stories about Delara as of last night were from Iranian and international sources, blogs, and human rights groups.

Today, the mainstream media started to pick up on it, with stories from the Los Angeles Times, BBC, United Press International, New York Times, and a few others. Still, at the time of writing this post there are only 206 news stories about Delara Darabi’s unjust execution. By comparison, there are currently 762 news stories about Matthew McConaughey, and 7,078 news stories about Arlen Specter.

So, how, you might ask, did word of the story first break? Who reported it first? The answer is: Darabi’s execution was first reported on Twitter. And then the first media outlet to pick up the story was none other than the epitome of new media, BreakingTweets.com, a news site which reports stories from around the world using Twitter for breaking news. BreakingTweets isn’t run by seasoned news pros, either — its founder and head is Craig Kanalley, a twentysomething journalism grad student trying to revolutionize the way we get our news, through the use of new media.

Breaking Tweets was paying attention to the Delara Darabi story, and they reported it more than a full 24 hours before the mainstream media.

Delara Darabi’s story should be seen as a case study of some of the challenges with our media system as it stands today:

Ethnocentrism still reigns supreme: stories with an “American” angle – like the imprisonment of American journalist Roxana Saberi in Iran – are more important than similar stories, like Delara Darabi’s, without the American angle. With Roxana Saberi, international media attention has been fierce — and because of that, so has international pressure on Iranian authorities. Had Delara Darabi had that kind of attention, she could have had a very different fate. But she didn’t get that attention – because she’s not American.

And new media won major points. Old media types who rail against new media, such as NYT’s Maureen Dowd and Matt Bai, who spent last week complaining about Twitter, should take note: the New York Times was shamefully far, far behind Twitter and new media in picking up this story.

Where are our media’s priorities? What is driving them to choose to write 7000+ of the same stories on Arlen Specter, and almost nothing about the international law-violating execution of an innocent young Iranian woman?

Perhaps it is because human rights stories just don’t sell as much as stories about high-intensity partisan clashes or Hollywood actors. Human rights stories, particuarly world news, may sell less copies or bring in few page views. But news isn’t supposed to be about the profit motive — it’s supposed to be about educating and informing the masses about the world around them. If the press is to act as an arbiter of what is news, they should be reporting on what matters, rather than more banal stories about the White House puppy or Michelle Obama’s garden.

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  1. Thanks for speaking out about this! Great write-up. You’re right on. Ethnocentrism is a big part of it and it is troubling. America is not the center of the world, especially in the interconnected world we live in today…

    • Hi Craig, thanks for commenting. Very true that ethnocentrism is such a huge part of the news today. I like that your site focuses on ALL world news, rather than just American-focused stories. Keep up the great work!

  2. I sincerely hope that this comes to the attention of all of the mainstream outlets which ignored Darabi’s plight. There may have been an opportunity to save a life. Kudos to you for pointing out the failings of the mainstream media in this case, and hopefully contributing to a change in those practices. Often people given information and an opportunity to act DO care about these issues. Absolutely no one I spoke with over the past couple of weeks was even aware of the pending execution.
    Keep up the good work, and I will talk to you on Twitter (where I get most of my information these days).
    Doneen Mills

    • Yeah, it’s scary to think that if the media had paid more attention, there may have been an opportunity to save a life, as you said. And I agree with you that I seem to be getting a lot more news via Twitter than anything else these days…

  3. We wrote every news media outlet, government officials, celebrities on so on over and over again warning them of what was about to take place. Nothing! Then I see this chatter…

    @DelaraDarabi was hanged to death by the terrorist government of Iran. I feel like my life just ended with. There is NO forgiveness for Hayedeh Amir Eftekhari for what she’s done. There was the stay of execution for @DelaraDarabi 2 months from Iran’s head of judiciary. HAYEDEH I’LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU. YOU PROMISED!!
    today.12:31 AM May 1st from TweetDeck

    So I asked…
    Is it true? Did they kill her?1:44 AM May 1st from web in reply to

    I recieved… Iran’s terrorist government, with the all-too-willing assistance and encouragement of Hayedeh Amir-Eftekhari, just murdered @DelaraDarabi.

    I immediately (after going hysterical) notified everyone I could. People thought I was making it up and since i had only heard chatter on Twitter I started to question it myself in hope in was not true. So I searched all night for the news- Slept a few hours and searched some more. Nothing! NO MEDIA After all that time of trying to reach those people to help save her, they didn’t even have the decency to report her death. Not CNN, Not Oprah, Not Larry King, Not Anderson Cooper, Not Anne Curry… No one!

    If it hadn’t been for twitter we would have not known till’……???

    There are many more waiting for media attention. They better get it!

    • I definitely agree child executions are an issue deserving WAY more media attention than they currently receive. First hearing about a story like this on Twitter, and realizing there’s no news reports about it at all, must have been really awful — so sorry you had to go through that.

  4. Great post Nisha! I’m glad you wrote about it, because I too was shocked that the mainstream news media hadn’t written about this at all even though Twitter reported it long before. Even I was pretty much left questioning whether this had actually occurred since I had just heard it in Twitter. In fact, Twitter reported it even BEFORE Amnesty International sent out the official statement about Delara’s death.

    I too, like you, really think there’s a huge case of ethnocentrism going on – if something doesn’t involve Americans or pertain directly to Americans, the news media is pretty much going to ignore it. I agree that news should be about what’s important and what’s true, rather than more mundane stuff. But stuff like celeb gossip and Paris Hilton sells, while people don’t really care as much about human rights abuses. I feel like even if the news media reports it, the people who care are people like you and me and human rights activists – not regular people. I think the media can have a huge impact and could have played a much bigger role in helping Delaraba. But at the same time I think a larger question is: how do you get people to care about this??

    • How do you get people to care about anything? Show them what they have to lose personally. Appeal to their emotions. Make it clear what they can do about it if they choose to.

      I’d also recommend getting it out of your head that because you’re an activist you somehow transcend what you call “regular people.” Getting off what will be an easily discernable high horse to anyone who is not an activist crony of yours will be the first step to getting other people to listen to you and care what you care about.

      I still don’t get the ethnocentrism thing! The U.S. is one of the least ethnocentric countries in the world!

      I’d be glad to hear an explanation.

      • I agree totally that the U.S. is one of the least ethnocentric countries in the world – we truly are a “melting pot” of diverse cultures. That’s not to say that we don’t still need to figure out how to best evolve policies regarding immigration – from any country. Any country around the globe needs to be cognizant of their geographic, economic, resource, etc. limitations. Ethnocentrism can be given either a positive or a negative spin. It can be what promulgates bigotry, intolerance and hatred. But it can also be what perpetuates and sustains the incredibly fascinating diversity of culture throughout the world.

      • Sorry – I didn’t mean to say that I or Nisha or human rights activists are really different from regular people…I just meant to say that even if the news reports things like human rights issues, it seems that those who already have an interest in these issues are the ones who perhaps take notice. It seems to me that some of my friends, for example, who are not interested in human rights issues, do not take notice or read about these things EVEN if the news reports them. So my question was how to get everyone else, who may not be interested, to care?

        • That is the age old question!

  5. […] Chittal says exactly what I’m thinking in her post, titled, “The mainstream media ignored Delara Darabi. New media didn’t.” Despite the fact that the majority of the Muslim and feminist blogospheres have not reported on her […]

  6. “But news isn’t supposed to be about the profit motive — it’s supposed to be about educating and informing the masses about the world around them.”

    Don’t be so foolish. Of course news is about making money. If your goal is to educate and inform, that’s fine, but you’ll always be speaking to a limited audience. People are only going to buy what they want, not what you want them to want.

    If you want people to buy what you want them to buy, continue to vote for Democrats.

    Iran flouting international laws and oversight is unreportable because its nothing new. Hollywood news is nothing new either, but is part of an ongoing drama that feels close, and people like it.

    Its always been astounding to me that so many pacifists came to the defense of Saddam Hussein in 2003, claiming the U.S. was illegally invading a sovereign country, whose affairs should be left to their own, but then bray that an execution under any circumstances should be subject to the ridicule and scrutiny of the whole world. And how is it addressed? Tweeting? And a “Wall of Shame?” Is that a joke? Are we trying to hurt the Iranian leaders’ feelings into reforming their policies?

    “Iranian Leaders Summit, Seek ‘Wall of Shame’ Removal” sounds like an Onion headline.

    I don’t understand at all from your blog why not reporting Iranian news is ethnocentric, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with that, but what I do think is very ethnocentric is the idea that Iran should be amenable to international law in their domestic affairs, laws that are authored by Western standards. There is clearly no shortage of complaints from Iran about how we do things here. Laughably, they wanted us to apologize for ‘300.’ I agree, there is no comparison between an execution and a movie production, but it would be ethnocentric to expect them to believe so as well. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see any fault in being ethnocentric, and its pejorative status is a mystery to me.)

    I’m honestly not aware if Iran acceded to U.N. sponsored international law when joining the U.N., I’m not versed in international law, but regardless, what is expected of the U.S. or anyone else to do about it?

    I appreciate your blog above, Nisha, but I just don’t get where you’re coming from.

    • I’m not here to debate whether or not America or American people are ethnocentric – I think you’ll find some degree of ethnocentrism everywhere.

      I was making the argument that American media coverage is ethnocentric, and that’s a commonly accepted theme in media studies and political science. I’d recommend reading “Deciding What’s News” by Herbert Gans, for more on the idea of ethnocentrism in media coverage, before we start an endless debate about who is and who isn’t ethnocentric.

  7. Yes, I’m an American – it was my fate to be born here. I’ve been a member of Amnesty International for about 20 years, and I do care about global human rights. However, think a bit about media in general today. It’s a big, complicated business – like it or not. In all of the “first-world nations”, media is compartmentalized to appeal to a wide variety among a nation’s population. There are divisions within the larger agencies devoted mostly to news about local politics, about agriculture, about economics, sports, entertainment, celebrities, education, religion – all of these varied interest areas under the general heading of “news”. And most countries, not just the U.S., focus their news toward things directly related to their own citizens – it’s only natural to be ethnocentric in that regard. But I wholeheartedly agree that it is a sad statement for us that we are not more globally-minded. With information/communication technology literally at our fingertips, it should be so much easier for us to expand our sense of community to include our brothers and sisters around the globe. Those of us who share a larger sense of community just need to keep moving forward in positive directions wherever and whenever we can. We need to stay positive and active, and hope that gradually more and more people throughout the world will join together with us into a globally caring community.

    • I agree the media business is big and complicated, and I am very idealistic in my idea of how the news industry should work — which is obviously far from the reality. And I do agree that ethnocetrism is seen everywhere, though in media coverage, I still argue the US’s news is more US-focused; you see less international stories than you would from media sources in other countries — like in Europe or some sources in the Middle East even. I like your point of moving forward in a positive direction though — I think that is definitely key.

  8. Thanks for a great post. Mainstream media is just not keeping up with the times, unfortunately. Maybe they will see your post and get with it.

  9. Great post Nisha! I like your points on new media versus traditional media. New media definitively revolutionize how information spreads and old media, it seems, are reluctant to integrate these new tools, but I guess it is a matter of time before they’ll get more involved in the new media.

    I agree that there certainly is some ethnocentricity in US media. For any foreigner visiting the US, it’s often choking that the only foreign news concern countries where the US has troops or major interests. In Europe, for instance, international news are more widespread.

    However, I have to agree with parts of the above comments. Media is sadly a for-profit industry that will produce profitable news, mostly sensational news, celebrities or local events, which the readers supposably can relate more to. But, I think media got it wrong in believing that people are only interested in local news. If the media starts relaying more information on human rights violation, readers will start to get interested in those topics as well. And I agree that media industry has a responsibility to educate, and it doesn’t necessary forestall profit making.

    • That’s exactly the point I was trying to make — foreign news in the US is really limited only to places where the US has an interest. In Europe, and elsewhere, international news coverage is much more widespread. Thanks for helping to explain that 🙂

      I do agree that media is a for-profit industry here so they will write what sells. Interesting, isn’t it, that media in the UK, like BBC, is publicly owned rather than private, and the BBC also happens to do a lot more international coverage, perhaps because they have less of a profit motive…

      • This is exactly why intelligent and caring people should support NPR (National Public Radio) and PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). We do have these forward-thinking and globally-conscious agencies for educational news here in the US. They are publicly-owned and they rely on us for support to continue the excellent work that they do.

  10. This is terrible. Awful. Sad. And not at all surprising.

    And that’s the worst part.

    Media is a business. Education is a business. Medical care is a business. This are all things that we like to believe are run without thinking about profit, but they are.

    I don’t want to expand too much on this, but let’s just say that I obviously agree with you, but this is the story of the world.

    It’s not about what’s right, it’s about what’s best.

    Also, if people wouldn’t buy all that celebrity crap, the media wouldn’t sell it.

    It’s terrible, but you have to stop feeling surprised at this things, because they’ll spark “rage” in you always. By accepting it, you’ll know what to do to change it.

  11. Excellent post Nisha. I am horrified that Delara’s story had such a tragic ending. I completely agree with your post. The news is supposed to be about educating people, however, those in charge of mainstream media stations have allowed greed to take over. They are and will continue to be in for a rude awakening when people stop turning into their stations to seek out the news and start turning to social media sites such as Twitter that are able to feature stories as they happen without getting “approval” to run the story.

  12. I care. What should I do?

    When you have the knowledge, what are you supposed to do after that? Empathy builds a compassionate world, but is only the first step. I’m playing devil’s advocate a little here, but also I think that it’s important to realize that it’s overwhelming to know about all the tragedies and wrong-doings in the world. It just increases the sense of depression and helplessness for most. There’s rarely a call to action in mainstream media because as you say their job is to educate and inform. Blogs can take it one step further. For instance, now I know about Delari Darabi from your post. How can I prevent future travesties from happening? You didn’t tell me. Knowledge without action is pretty useless.

    • I agree, Rebecca. It’s not always enough just to care, but it is a start.

      In some situations, there may not be a lot of options for concrete things that we as individuals can do. Sometimes just “spreading the word” to others about a particular situation is all we can do. The more people who become aware, the better chance we have of effecting change when an opportunity arises where there are specific steps that can be taken.

      One way to get involved is to write/e-mail/call our elected officials and voice our opinions when the need arises. Granted, much of the time it may not change the final outcome, but sometimes it does – and those times are worth it. All the way from little local school boards and town councilmen to state senators and representatives to national ambassadors and heads of departments… Many “little people” together can have a big voice, and it always starts with one.

      If you’re interested particularly in global human rights issues, Amnesty International is probably the most powerful and influential voice of conscience throughout the world. There are lots of different ways to get involved. I subscribe to their Urgent Action Network. About once or twice a month, an e-mail bulletin comes out about a specific situation. We are given the information about the situation and exactly who to contact about it. Over the course of the next few days, the government officials in whatever country the emergency exists are flooded with plees from people all over the globe. It is most often successful. Unfortunately, in Delari Darabi’s case, it was not. The Iranian government chose to snub its nose at the rest of the world.

      But… there have been so many successful interventions. And once again, any single individual or group that can be saved or helped is a glorious victory – a precious triumph of the human spirit, of community working together.

    • Also, as an earlier post suggested, you can support NPR & PBS for continuing to go against the mainstream media and provide meaningful and educational news coverage.

  13. Wow, thank you so much for writing this post. The mainstream media has such a presence in our lives, and many of us rely on them for the majority of our information, so when they mess up we often don’t find out. They definitely messed up here and I’m glad you called them out for it. The growth of new media is amazing, and I’m actually in the process of writing about it. I will definitely link back to this post because you provide a prime example of the legitimacy and relevance of new media. Great post, Nisha!

  14. This story is a shame but unfortunately nothing new for Iran or the greater Middle East. Nor was it the only stunningly awful event to take place there last week. I just wrote an article about this recently:

    Death sentences for juveniles, real estate brokers and pigs: just another week in the Middle East

    RIP Delara

  15. […] The mainstream media ignored Delara Darabi. New media didn’t by Nisha Chittal, May 2, 2009 Politicoholic blog […]

  16. […] by Guest Contributor Nisha Chittal, originally published at Politicoholic […]

  17. […] by Guest Contributor Nisha Chittal, originally published at Politicoholic […]

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