The common practice for achieving unequal error protection (UEP) in scalable multimedia communication systems is to design rate-compatible punctured channel codes before computing the UEP rate assignments. This paper proposes a new approach to designing powerful irregular repeat accumulate (IRA) codes that are optimized for the multimedia source and to exploiting the inherent irregularity in IRA codes for UEP. Using the end-to-end distortion due to the first error bit in channel decoding as the cost function, which is readily given by the operational distortion-rate function of embedded source codes, we incorporate this cost function into the channel code design process via density evolution and obtain IRA codes that minimize the average cost function instead of the usual probability of error. Because the resulting IRA codes have inherent UEP capabilities due to irregularity, the new IRA code design effectively integrates channel code optimization and UEP rate assignments, resulting in source-optimized channel coding or joint source-channel coding. We simulate our source-optimized IRA codes for transporting SPIHT-coded images over a binary symmetric channel with crossover probability p. When p=0.03 and the channel code length is long (e.g., with one codeword for the whole 512×512 image), we are able to operate at only 9.38% away from the channel capacity with code length 132380 bits, achieving the best published results in terms of average peak signal-to-noise ratio (PSNR). Compared to conventional IRA code design (that minimizes the probability of error) with the same code rate, the performance gain in average PSNR from using our proposed source-optimized IRA code design is 0.8759 dB when p=0.1 and the code length is 12800 bits. As predicted by Shannon's separation principle, we observe that this performance gain diminishes as the code length increases.