A spat between Reuters and Iranian state media reveals, and maybe worsens, how the West and Iran mistrust one another.

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Some of Iran's female ninjas pause during a practice session / Reuters

Iranian women do not have it very easy in life, which is maybe why 3,500 of them decided to learn the martial art of ninjutsu, modeled after Japan's ancient ninjas. The practice allows them empowerment and independence in a society that wants to deny them both. But now Iran's female ninjas face another hardship: Western media portraying them as "assassins" who want to kill "foreign invaders." They're not, and the media fight over the mischaracterization reveals -- and maybe worsens -- how the West and Iran misunderstand one another.

In February, Reuters sent Caren Firouz to photograph an all-women ninjutsu gym in the town of Karaj. His photos (which we also ran) appeared in a slideshow on Reuters' website. Now, Iranian state-run outlet PressTV says that several of those ninjas are suing Reuters for defamation. The Reuters story, according to PressTV, "accused [the women] of being assassins" whom the state is training "to kill any possible foreign invaders." There's no reason to think that these female athletes are actually state-run killers.

It's hard to untangle what actually happened, both because PressTV is notoriously unreliable (ironically, their story uses stolen Reuters photos) and because Reuters is oddly mum about the incident. Reps for the news outlet refused to answer as to whether or not they are really being sued by the Iranian women. When I asked whether there was any truth to PressTV's report, a Reuters rep emailed this:

The only thing I can confirm is that there was indeed an error in a Reuters video script that was promptly corrected. Here's our statement on it: 

Reuters always strives for the highest standards in journalism and our policy is to acknowledge errors honestly and correct them promptly when they occur. We acknowledge this error occurred and regard it as a very serious matter. It was promptly corrected the same day it came to our attention. In addition, we have conducted an internal review and have taken appropriate steps to prevent a recurrence.

The "video script" error could refer to a Reuters video report on the ninjas. Though I couldn't find the video, indicating Reuters may have pulled it from their site, PressTV aired what they claim is a Reuters video. In the clip, a narrator says the athletes "could be the West's worst enemy" and calls them "ninja assassins."

Reuters does have an excellent reputation, and their reporter Caren Firouz is himself Iranian, so it's difficult to imagine why a Reuters report would make this mistake. Still, other British news outlets picked up on the Reuters story as reporting that the athletes are actually assassins poised to kill foreign invaders. When I pointed out to the PR rep that Reuters had said nothing to suggest that PressTV's version of events was anything less than 100% accurate, and even when I volunteered that maybe Firouz had called them "assassins" as a joke that PressTV had misconstrued, the answer was silence.

Whatever happened, the incident is likely a product of the same sad misperceptions that it will also help to entrench: the Iranian belief that Westerners maliciously distort Iran to make its people seem like murderous cave-dwellers, and the Western belief that Iranians are angrily and violently anti-Western. Believe it or not, sometimes Iranian people do things for reasons other than hatred of the West. And not every Iranian is out to kill us. A significant number of Iranians actually think the West is pretty OK.

There's an unfortunate tendency in the West to conflate every Iranian we encounter with the two whom we know best: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Why else would The Telegraph's story on the ninjas follow three paragraphs about female Iranian athletes with two paragraphs about the Iranian nuclear program? How are these two things connected, unless we assume that a female gym and a clandestine enrichment plant must all be part of the same pan-Iranian killing machine? We tend to focus so obsessively on the bad behavior of a handful of leaders in Tehran that we can sometimes forget that the country has 79 million diverse people.

That misunderstanding goes both ways. The Reuters clip that PressTV played doesn't come off as very serious, so why are its Iranian subjects taking it so seriously that they'd want to open a lawsuit? PressTV quotes a woman named Akbar Faraji as saying, "Reuters has introduced us as assassins to the whole world. The truth must come to light and everyone should know that we are only a group of athletes. We are supervised by the Ministry of Sports and the federation of martial arts." This seems like a bit of an overreaction. But it also shows how ready many Iranians are to believe that Westerners would lie about Iranians, would tar them as violent and dangerous.

The governments of Tehran and Washington are in a very real conflict, but the societies they represent are not. Iranians don't want to kill Westerners any more than Westerners want to kill Iranians. Maybe if we in the West could find a way to not be terrified of every back-flipping Iranian, and if Iranians could not assume an anti-Iranian conspiracy behind every Western movement, we might get along a little better.

Update, 2:30pm: Iran has suspended Reuters' accreditation over this incident, demanding that all 11 Reuters employees in the country hand in their press cards. Reuters says it's over their inclusion of the word "assassin" in the headline, but clearly it's a bit more than that.

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