30 آذر 1393

How ghostwritten ‘oral’ op-eds found their way into Iranian journalism

21 December 2014

Translated by:Mehrdad Safa

Khabarnegaran.info – Mehrak Rahimian: A ghostwritten op-ed is an opinion piece written by a reporter that another person – typically an authority or expert on a specific subject – signs.

Iranian newspapers have been now witnessing a dominant trend in a new kind of ghostwritten op-eds: ‘oral op-eds’. After doing a telephone interview with an expert or authority and asking about his opinion on a certain subject, a reporter then starts writing an op-ed under his name. The final product – a ghostwritten op-ed – will be ready in less than an hour.

Despite the fact that these ghostwritten oral op-eds are published just as other op-eds and editorials, they are normally easily distinguishable by their shortness (usually 200-300 words in length), their use of colloquial language, and sometimes their lack of analysis or interpretation.

Ghostwritten oral op-eds have been now a widespread practice in Iranian journalism for years. The question, however, is if this is something that Iranian journalism has borrowed from global journalism practices, or is it a home-made practice?

If you ask such a question form the circle of Iranian journalists, who complain about the obligation on them for obtaining such oral op-eds, you will most probably hear the same thing: “Ghouchani newspapers.”

This is an allusion to the publications, whose editor-in-chief was Mohammad Ghouchani, from the late 90s, after the rise of reformist President Mohammad Khatami to power.

Mehdi Setami, a Communications and Cultural Studies professor from Northern Illinois University, told Khabarnegaran.info that there is no such a practice in American journalism.

“The emergence of oral op-eds is not the outcome of one or two happenings, but a repercussion of a structure or recent changes in the culture of Iranian media, which is itself a product of political, social and professional factors,” Setami explained.

The political and social transformations, as well as technological advancements of the past two decades, have also influenced Iranian journalism.

Setami compares the recent trend of oral op-eds in Iranian journalism with how American newspapers reacted to and fought against the popularity of radio and TV in the 1920s.

“In the 1920s, US newspapers had to equip themselves with a new tool called “analysis” in response to the rising popularity of radio, and later television, so that they can go beyond the facts in their stories,” Semati said.

“With the rise of Internet and the mushroom-like growth of web-based news agencies, people had a much quicker access to news. To prepare quick in-depth stories, a newspaper has had to resort to more quality analyses, and of course prepare stories quickly. It was under such circumstances that oral op-ed writing emerged.”

The political events following June 1997 triggered the popularity of newspapers with a relatively open atmosphere for expression of diverse opinions and beliefs. As a result, there was a sharp increase in not only the number but the circulation of newspapers.

Arash Rahbar, a journalist who started his career in the early 1990s, told Khabarnegaran.info that the two subsequent terms of presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) highly empowered Iranian press. “I think that oral op-ed is also a byproduct of this period of maturity.”

“During this period, newspaper editor-in-chiefs were trying to make new voices heard, while on the other hand, many experts wanted to be seen in highly-circulated newspapers.”

Rahbar also sees the advent of cellular telephone technology very influential in the emergence of oral op-eds.

“Before the 2000s, it was not very easy to find experts on a subject. A reporter had to conduct an interview either in person or by making a call to his landline phone,” Rahbar explained. “However, with the ubiquity of mobile phones, reporters found a chance to have an easier, and of course immediate, access to news sources and experts.”

Side-effects of oral op-eds

In a cursory glance, oral op-eds do not differ from other forms of opinion writing in print media. However, the increasing prevalence of this nascent practice among Iranian journalists has drawn criticism from many reporters and journalists.

Oral op-ed is a form of content writing in which the name of the true writer is not bylined, and does not also require any special journalistic skill.

“Sometimes it is not much important that another individual one is bylined in a story written and prepared by a journalist. What bothers a journalist is that they gradually feel that their capabilities and expertise have been neglected. Many experienced reporters can write a good feature or op-ed on a subject. But most of the times, editors or even editor-in-chiefs prefer to publish an op-ed from a well-known figure,” says journalist Sahar Azad.

“The reporter then just needs to have a full contact list of experts and act like a voice recorder. His expertise in reporting is no longer important. Instead, he just needs to become proficient in “sloppy writing”. Normally the minimum length must be between 200-300 words. But most of the times, these figures do not have much to say more, and therefore, the reporter has to expand the story himself,” she adds.

Oral op-eds undermine principle of accuracy

Journalists are not the only victims of the repercussions of oral op-eds. The practice could undermine the principles of accuracy and objectivity in journalism and ultimately lead to the authenticity of media. An oral op-ed is ghostwritten by a reporter whose name is not in the byline.

Mehdi Semati says that “objectivism” is a principle of journalism in the West: “Unlike Iranian journalism, in Western newspapers, pages that run news, interviews or related features are distinguished from pages that run opinions and comments.”

“A philosophy underlies this labeling. A newspaper must clearly define which stories are within the realm of ‘facts’ and which are in the realm of ‘opinions’.” This gap becomes even wider in oral op-eds where “reporters are able to include their opinions under the mask of an expert.”

“On the other hand, due to the absence of a written proof, such as an email or fax, the bylined author could accuse the reporter or newspaper of misquoting,” Semati elaborated.

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