A large part of advocating for human rights comes involves bearing witness. While we will never be able to prevent all the atrocities in the world, the hope is that by bringing these realities to light we can gather the political will to make them stop. In this regard, the media plays a huge role in how we see and understand the events around us. But as the protest movements of the last two years has highlighted, a divide between professional journalist and citizen journalism has emerged and at times, can be at odds with one another. On October 2, the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted an event featuring activists and journalists to address this new dynamic and how it is unfolding in Syria.
The overarching theme of the discussions soon became about narratives; how something is framed by media and received by the audience. One of the drawbacks of citizen journalism is the perception that it is not as accurate as professional journalism; after all, the motivations of an activist is quite different than that of a foreign correspondent. But the citizen journalists insisted that credibility is just as important to them as exaggeration of events will only serve to discredit the larger story if discovered. As Rami Nakhla of The Day After Project explained, all their stories are double-sourced because their name is still on it. That of course doesn’t mean that activists aren’t seeking to mold the narrative; like any other media outlet, citizen journalists choose the stories they cover and in the case of Syria, many of them do so with the goal of bolstering their cause to oust Bashir al-Assad. But that can only be harmed if their actions lead to the perception that the information they give cannot be trusted. This sentiment was echoed by Free Syria Foundation’s Rafif Jouejati. Citizen journalists want to be the voice of truth and hold the regime accountable, she said, so accuracy and credibility are essential. Trust between the mainstream media and citizen journalists develops over time, but credibility is a key part of that relationship.
However, as NPR’s Deborah Amos pointed out, even with social media and access to voices on the ground, it’s not always clear what the story is. Social media offers far more information than a single person could collect in person, but sorting through that information to understand a story becomes a new skill needed by journalists. For some, like The Lede’s Robert MacKey, sorting through and supplementing traditional reporting is their main job. However even then, understanding what you are presenting is another issue as verifying YouTube videos and raw reporting via Twitter and Skype is extremely difficult from thousands of miles away. An added difficulty for traditional journalists and activists alike is that as the war in Syria drags on, it takes more energy to sustain the story and differentiate different facets of it. Thus it becomes even more important to deconstruct what citizen reporting is trying to tell the outside world in search of the next viable lede. There are obvious dangers to this. For example, activists and journalists alike agreed that story concepts that appear more “sexy” to editors such as sectarianism and the role of foreign jihadis in Syria may get disproportionate coverage to the more common struggles in the conflict, thereby skewing international understanding of the war. There also becomes a common way for journalists to approach the story as the story arcs become more routine; inevitably, this means critical voices such as ethnic and religious minorities and women are left out, leading to further skewing of how the conflict is framed.
In the end, the panels discussed a lot of interesting ideas regarding the intersection of journalism and new technology but the overall result was a lot of problems and questions without any easy answers. Yet perhaps the most important takeaway from this discussion was not how traditional journalism is interacting with social media in Syria, but rather how most of social media coming out of this conflict is between Syrians. Lara Setrakian of ABC News highlighted what many have said before: this generation of Syrian youth were largely apolitical before the revolution, taught to stay quiet by their parents and grandparents who bore the brunt of Hafez al-Assad’s anger when they dared to speak out before. But aided by social media – the ability to discuss and debate amongst themselves about these issues – that barrier of fear and apathy came crashing down last year. Nakhla and Jouejati echoed this observation and pointed out that most interactions online by Syrians is with other Syrians, creating a form of democracy if you will, about the central issues of the revolution and what the new Syria should ultimately look like. Given the ability of the internet to bridge distances and connect people from diverse backgrounds, this might wind up being the true legacy of social media in the Syrian Revolution. If those bridges can be built and sustained online, then the social media and citizen journalist reports emerging from the war today are about more than just bearing witness and framing the present narrative, but also about laying the foundation for a new and hopefully more peaceful and democratic state.