Unknown Iran Protest Death Filmers Win Polk Award

The unnamed people who filmed and publicized the shooting death of an Iranian woman during the protests there last year have been awarded the George Polk journalism award. Other winners include New York Times correspondent David Rohde who detailed his kidnapping by the Taliban.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The George Polk Awards in journalism from Long Island University have given a top honor this year to a stranger who's probably not even a journalist.

The award went to the unknown person or people who recorded and uploaded video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: She was shot and killed during a street demonstration last June in Tehran as Iranian authorities began a brutal crackdown on protestors. The award suggests a rethinking of what is and is not journalism by some of its gatekeepers, and NPR's David Folkenflik joins us now to talk about that.

David, this footage has become iconic, such an emblem of that protest movement last summer.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I mean, think about the scene. It was in Tehran during these protests that were swelling with opposition to the regime. She gets out of a car during a traffic jam as she and some friends are headed to protests, and she's shot, apparently by a sniper for a pro-government militia. The footage itself is incredibly visceral, and in some ways, as you say, it became a rallying cry for those in opposition.

Think of the man standing against the tanks two decades ago in Tiananmen Square in China. It became therefore not only evocative and illustrative, but in the minds of those judging these awards, quite newsworthy as well.

BLOCK: Do you think, David, that the award here from the George Polk people for this anonymous footage, does it shift our definition of journalism in any direction?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it certainly seems to. I mean, the person or people who did this were anonymous but also, at least to our knowledge, not professionals. Here you have the use of social media, a platform such as Flickr, YouTube particularly in the case, getting out needed information.

Because they're anonymous and because they're probably not professionals, we don't know if they had any agenda. We don't know their identity, the motivation, and yet the information itself, seemingly verified by professional journalists who have to kind of curate and sift through it, helps to establish that this is newsworthy.

I talked today to the curator of the Polk Awards, John Darnton. He said, look, we are not giving these awards to YouTube or to Flickr, to the platforms, but to those who use them and who showed bravery in so doing. And he recognizes, hey, we realize we're opening the doors here pretty wide.

BLOCK: What do you think happens if someday the identity of this winner or winners comes to light?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's an interesting analogue in the Pulitzer Awards, obviously for print journalism, in which an unnamed photographer in Iran several decades ago, after the takeover of Iran by the revolutionary forces, the Ayatollah, there was a firing squad, an execution of 11 Kurdish men, and the photographer's identity was withheld to protect him.

A reporter for the Wall Street Journal figured it out, told the story, identified the man just a few years ago. He was brought to the United States and rewarded for his work.

BLOCK: NPR's David Folkenflik in New York. David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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