Citizen Journalism and the Mainstream Media: An Analysis of 85 New York Times Articles on the Syrian Civil War
The Arab Uprisings that began in 2010 generated an unprecedented rise of citizen journalism in the mainstream media. The changed relationship between traditional and nontraditional media, once viewed with optimism, came at the cost of the once highly valued pillar of verification. This paper studies the mainstream media’s use of citizen journalism throughout the ongoing Syrian civil war and how this form of news media sourcing has become obstructive to a comprehensive and accurate coverage of conflict. The study looks at 85 articles from The New York Times covering three different time periods of the conflict to assess the salient trends in information gathering and the shortcomings of this relatively new form of sourcing. Finally, the paper reviews other examples in which such sourcing has led to inaccurate coverage.
There was an unprecedented rise of citizen journalism in the mainstream media in the last few years. The Arab Uprisings that began in 2010 demonstrate how citizen journalists, in the face of government crackdown, are able to utilize novel forms of communication, ranging from blogs to social media, to ensure their voices are not silenced. These voices have become a vital source of information for the mainstream media. Both sides embrace and view with optimism this relationship between citizen journalists and the mainstream media; for the mainstream media, citizen journalists offer local “scoops” from the ground that would otherwise be inaccessible and, for citizen journalists, the mainstream media offers a platform to share their stories with the world. However, this relationship came at the cost of the once highly valued media pillar of verification. The coverage of the ongoing civil war in Syria demonstrated how the mainstream media’s reliance on citizen journalism came at the expense of accurate and objective reporting.
The Syrian civil war has become the Achilles heel of the mainstream media. The Syrian government’s ban on international reporters generated a growing dependence on citizen journalism. Consequently, there was a curious transformation in the media where less access has resulted in more coverage. Since its beginning, the Syrian conflict was covered on a nearly daily basis, yet the abundance of news-stories and the lack of verification had an adverse effect in terms of informing the international public; the multiple sources made it practically impossible to understand what is “really” happening. Through a careful assessment of The New York Times’s (NYT) coverage of the Syrian civil war, this paper will demonstrate how the relationship between citizen journalism and the mainstream media became more obstructive to the understanding of conflict. While the researcher recognizes that the NYT is not representative of all mainstream media, it is used herein as a case study, a small sample of just one outlet broadly lumped with other news organizations typically considered part of the “mainstream media.” This paper will argue that this relationship does not provide a more objective and accurate image of the conflict and, further, has set a dangerous precedent to the mainstream media and its deteriorating verification process.
The Syrian civil war and the NYT
On March 15 2011, an arrest of students for writing anti-government graffiti sparked a series of demonstrations across several towns in Syria, calling for reforms and the release of political prisoners. What began as organized protests against a long-term government, much like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, escalated into a full-fledged civil war with no foreseeable end. Peaceful protests for government reform are now replaced with armed rebels battling the government for territory and control. The Syrian government’s restriction on international media presence turned the country into what The New York Times referred to as “something of a black box.”
Yet, despite the lack of access, international news coverage on the Syrian conflict is anything but limited. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it, “The problem is not what you think. It is not a lack of information. The problem is a volume of it and the difficulty of sorting out what is true.” Due to the lack of access and a heavily propagandistic Syrian state media, international media outlets resorted to covering the conflict from a distance, relying heavily on activist organizations, witnesses and massive amounts of Internet footage and social media. The intended outcome was to offer a clearer, well-rounded image of the events unfolding in Syria unfiltered and uncensored by the official state media. However, in the frenzy to get the scoop and run the story, news outlets such as the NYT did away with the verification process. Instead, by relying on citizen journalist reporting and adding a disclaimer to gathered information, news-stories are more speculative and less informative.
The data for this research was collected from the NYT archive on the Lexis Nexis Academic database. In order to establish a pattern of news gathering and sourcing, the search term “Syria” was used to extract all articles regarding the Syrian civil war throughout the following three time periods: The first was the month of April 2011 which saw the uprisings in the country take a violent turn, the second was from March through to May in 2012, marking the escalating violence in the country as well as the failed cease-fire attempt, and the third was the more recent coverage in the months of March and April 2013.
Since the research focuses on the situation on the ground in Syria, articles referring to international diplomacy, such as the United States’ policy on Syria, were removed from the original search results. This left a total of 85 articles for analysis. The articles were then qualitatively analyzed through careful reading to identify sources cited in each article. The sources were hand-coded and tallied at the end of the analysis to specify the number of times each source or category of sources appeared in the corpus.
Sourcing and Information Gathering
Of the sampled 85 articles, the NYT referenced 175 sources, which were individuals and not all identifiable by name or organization. For instance, the largest number of sources cited, 32.6% of the total, were “activists”. Other regularly cited sources include witnesses (5.1%), the Syrian state owned SANA news agency (6.3%), the Local Coordination Committees (6.3%), online video footage (8.6%) and the England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (12.6%). Other sources cited include the National Initiative for Change, the Damascus Center for Human Rights in Syria, residents and protestors, all of whom authors cited infrequently, some only once throughout the conflict. The plurality of identified sources decreased with the progression of the conflict. Sources such as Insan and the National Initiative for Change disappeared and the NYT appeared to narrow down its sources of information to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and other unknown activists.
A further 8.6% of the cited sources were reached over telephone or Skype. Eighty-seven percent of these were unidentified and 80% were referred to as “activists”. Of the activists, 69% were unidentified and were referred to simply as “activists” or by pseudonyms such as Abu Rami or Abu Yazid with the articles citing “fear of reprisal” as the reason for anonymity.
The NYT’s coverage of the Syrian conflict over the selected time periods revealed three main trends. The most predominant is the organization’s attempt to protect its credibility by using a disclaimer pointing to their inability to independently verify published information especially when referencing events, assertions made by different individuals about the conflict, and the death toll. Further, while the phrasing of the disclaimer varies based on the article or the information published, most stated that it is “impossible” to verify information due to the government’s restrictions or ban on international news media presence. Referring to the verification of information as “impossible” indicates that the newspaper is more concerned with telling the story rather than verifying it before its release. Using such disclaimers demonstrates the organization’s attempt to run a top story while protecting their credibility. While the disclaimer does serve to protect the mainstream media’s credibility, it sets a dangerous precedent as news stories are no longer reliant on facts, but on mere speculation.
The disclaimer also protects the NYT’s objectivity in some instances. For instance, in cases where sources from the Syrian government and from the opposition make contradictory claims, the NYT adds a disclaimer to state that neither claim could be independently verified. However, in almost all the evaluated articles, information taken from the Syrian government or its news agency is placed in between quotation marks, whereas opposition statements are not, thereby indicating more incredulity towards government sources. Further, information taken from the SANA news agency generally appears very briefly at the end of the news article and usually only as a token means to contrast the general narrative of the story. On the other hand, information taken from citizen journalists, such as activists or witnesses, appears to set the story’s narrative. This trend is epitomized in articles that include “activists said” in the title, essentially covering the story from the point of view of the activists. The discrepancy between citing government sources and a largely unidentified pool of citizen journalist sources shows that even when attempting to protect credibility and objectivity, NYT articles tend to rely more heavily on sources that even they claim are unverifiable.
A final trend that is apparent in the coverage is the way in which the information from sources is gathered. The assumption behind the relationship between the mainstream media and citizen journalism is that there is a direct line of communication between both. However, in the case of the NYT, information is gathered from second-hand sources that have their own network of contacts inside Syria. With information passing through a second, separate channel before the story reaches the audience, it becomes practically impossible to identify the sources on the ground. The most frequent examples are the SOHR based in England, which gathers its information through an unidentified network of contacts from within Syria, and the LCC, which consists of activists spanning the globe and collecting information from their own connections in the country. The result is a greater distance between the news outlet and the primary source of information, making it virtually impossible to determine not only who these sources are, but also how they collected their information and in what capacity they are involved in the conflict. One specific example is an article published on April 8, 2011. The story is based on information from Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Ziadeh gathered his information from “half a dozen friends and relatives” over the phone, information that shaped the narrative of the news story. He was later cited as a source in articles published over the following four days, wherein he is identified as a “human rights activist”, without any reference to the fact that he was in the United States and not in Syria, nor any indication as to how he collected his information.
The reliance on nontraditional sources has largely been attributed to the Syrian government’s highly propagandistic coverage of the conflict and the international media’s restrictions in the country. Using such nontraditional sources would arguably provide a more objective and accurate version of the conflict. Through the trends of the NYT’s coverage and a further closer assessment of the most frequently used sources, however, it becomes obvious that the NYT trades off government propaganda with unverifiable, and arguably equally biased sources.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of the mainstream media’s deteriorating verification process is the NYT’s abundant use of “activists” as sources of information. As mentioned above, of the 175 sources in the sampled articles, the majority are “activists”, 91% of which are unidentified. What is even more troubling is that while some activists are identified as human rights activists, anti-government or opposition activists, 42% were simply referred to as just “activists.” Since the term refers to a broad range of people, it is difficult to determine from only the context of the articles whether these activists are a part of human rights groups, protestors, or as the conflict escalated into a civil war, participants in the fighting.
Around 30% of the activists were referred to as antigovernment, opposition or anti-Assad, indicating that they are in favor of one side of the conflict. Considering the nature of the civil war and the armament of the anti-government rebels, it is possible that a number of those activists are involved in the fighting and therefore have an interest in framing the conflict in a way favorable to their cause. Two of the activists are described as “affiliated with the insurgency” and “involved in the fighting.” Much like any other conflict, it is difficult to take information from one side and pass it on as fact, given the vested interest each side has in framing the conflict a certain way. The inability to differentiate between the different kinds of “activists” and their role in the conflict, therefore, only serves to confuse rather than inform.
One example that demonstrates a potential inaccuracy or bias in the way in which certain “activists” report on the conflict is the article that ran on March 22, 2013. The article covers the assassination of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramada Al Bouti, a pro-Assad Sunni cleric, and briefly summarizes the damage caused by the explosion. The contacts cited in the article are “fighters and anti-Assad activists reached by telephone” who state “they would not be surprised if the government was responsible for the mosque explosion.” Such a statement is highly biased, extremely speculative and no less propagandistic than government-released statements in the state media. However, unlike cases in which the NYT cites government statements, this statement is not placed in between quotation marks to mark its prejudice. What is even more interesting is that NYT reporters reached out to the activists cited here. Because 80% of sources that were reached over the phone are identified as activists, it becomes necessary to identify with which organizations or groups these activists are affiliated in order to gauge the accuracy of the information they are communicating. Further, the fact that such sources are actively reached out to by NYT reporters indicates that the paper is voluntarily following a certain narrative that suits the interests of one side involved in the fighting.
Forty percent of the total video footage that is cited in the sampled articles is identified as “activist footage.” The remainder is identified as YouTube footage, videos posted online, internet videos or attributed to specific YouTube channels without reference to who maintains them. After tracking some of the footage, it became apparent that the majority could be affiliated with anti-government groups or sites. Two video clips linked in separate articles are taken from Ugarit. For the first, the NYT article states that the video was posted by “activists who maintain the Ugarit News Facebook feed” without any additional information about the Ugarit channel. This clip presumably records Hama at nighttime during a gunfight. The gunfight itself is not visible; instead the sound of gunshots is heard with no visibility of their source or what is happening on the ground. The second video is only identified with Ugarit through the organization’s logo on the video. Here, the NYT article only links the video without identifying its source. A quick look at the Ugarit Facebook page and YouTube channel shows that the organization is run by anti-government and militarized activists. Videos posted on their YouTube channel are also highly militaristic, reflecting the organization’s partiality to the armed, Islamist groups in the conflict. Neglecting to add any details about Ugarit’s background and role in the war, therefore, is damaging as readers may be misled to believe what would otherwise be considered biased and propagandistic information.
Throughout the Syrian civil war, video footage was used to further the cause of the different parties involved in the conflict. On March 27 2012, a French photographer in Syria recorded a Syrian activist embellishing footage. Before taking the footage, the activist Omar Telawi generated smoke by setting a tire on fire below the camera position to give the illusion of smoke rising from a government airstrike. UK Channel 4 news reported on the incident. Channel 4 reported that when confronted about the evident embellishment of his video, Telawi was unapologetic, claiming that the exaggeration was necessary to capture attention. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, this is a common sentiment among some activists who “feel that there is nothing wrong with mislabeling a video because…the exaggeration is nothing compared to the bloodiness of the regime.” These cases demonstrate clearly that some footage released by citizen journalists in Syria comes with an agenda, one that is a part of ongoing propaganda war with the state media. The NYT ran Telawi’s story the day after it was released on Channel 4 and, based on articles following this story, it did not impact the use of activist footage in their coverage. The Ugarit footage, for instance, was posted on the NYT website on April 20, less than a month after Telawi’s story was published.
Another striking aspect of the footage linked on NYT is how little the content was informative of the ongoing conflict. On April 6 2012, a few days before the attempted cease-fire, an article titled Syrian Activists Report Intense Gunfire in Hama appears to be solely based on information and footage gathered from social media sites. The article linked one audio recording and three video recordings. The audio recording was uploaded on the Hama2Free channel, which seems to be an anti-government channel. Sounds of gunshots can be heard in the recording, however with no indication as to how they were initiated or whether or not they were part of an ongoing battle. Similarly, gunshots can be heard in the first video recording, but with no clear indication as to where the sounds were coming from. The only thing visible is the night sky and a series of lights that may either be coming from lit apartments in the camera’s shot or from gunshots. The second video recording is equally unclear, showing an army tank, but with no description or indication as to whether the tank was leaving the area following the brokered cease-fire deal, or whether it was entering. The final linked video is also uploaded on the Hama2Free channel and, according to the article, shows “an evening protest that was interrupted by the sound of gunfire.” While the footage does indeed show an ongoing protest in front of a mosque, only one gunshot is heard. After the gunshot, the person taking the footage is heard commenting on the single gunshot; the protest, however, goes on uninterrupted.
What is clear from the footage linked and cited in NYT articles is that very little is explained about the sources which, as evidenced in the case of Omar Telawi, could have a substantial impact on the authenticity and the objectivity of the information. Further, based on the lack of informative content, it appears as if the presence of the footage in itself serves as a good story rather than support facts about the conflict.
The Local Coordination Committees
The LCC have become a vital source of information to the mainstream media. With the lack of access to the country, the LCC is one of the organizations that provide media outlets such as Al Jazeera, CNN, the NYT and The Guardian with “semi-official alternatives to the notoriously propagandistic Syrian state-run media.” Since its inception, the LCC played an active part, not only as a source of information, but also as an active participant and organizer of anti-government protests. According to the LCC’s website, the committees established across Syria “took responsibility for meeting, planning and organizing events on the ground within their own community” during the beginning stages of the anti-government protests in 2011. Rami Nakhle, a spokesperson for the LCC based in Lebanon, likened the organization to a small news agency, stating that they started by reporting the news. The tension between the LCC’s role as a news source and as an anti-government activist organization is mentioned in a NYT article by Anthony Shadid, in which he reports that the LCC has “faced sometimes bitter divisions” and that there are “debate[s] over to what degree the committees reflect or drive the protests.”
The Columbia Journalism Review has described the LCC as “a network that represents the interests of the resistance to the Assad regime” and that it “aspires to a place of leadership in post-Assad Syria.” It is evident that the LCC has a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict and, therefore, cannot be viewed as an objective monitoring organization. The way in which the LCC gathers information is also unclear. According to Shadid’s article, which ran in March 2011, many of the members work anonymously in fear of reprisal. Further, like Rami Nakhle, some of the organization’s members gather information from outside Syria. The Columbia Journalism Review article argues that “LCC produced-information represents the agreed upon narrative coming from the opposition” and while this may be true, it does not make the use of the LCC as a source less problematic.
The NYT’s coverage and use of the LCC demonstrates that the organization is far from comprehensive in its reporting of the conflict. On April 28 2012, an article covering an attack orchestrated by a suicide bomber against Syrian security services cites a death toll given by the LCC. The article states that the LCC’s death toll did not include the suicide bomber since they believed that the Syrian government fabricated the attack. While the NYT article was careful to place the LCC’s statement between quotation marks, it does raise concerns about the reliability of the LCC as a source and the accuracy of other death tolls cited by the group. From the statement, it is evident that the LCC does not include the deaths of Syrian government loyalists in its body count, a fact the NYT does not bring attention to in any of the articles using the LCC as a source. On March 30 of the same year, and following the assassination of two military officials by Free Syrian Army rebels, the LCC released a statement explaining the assassinations were carried out to “protect civilians” from the Assad government. These statements demonstrate that while the LCC does provide an alternative image of the conflict to the Syrian-run state media, it too has its own agenda.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
The NYT cites the SOHR, run by Osama Suleiman under the pseudonym Rami Abdul Rahman, more than any other identifiable source in the sampled articles. Further, the SOHR serves as a confirmation to information from other unidentifiable sources in some articles. On April 9 2013, the NYT ran a profile article on Abdul Rahman. The article states that “despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band.” Indeed, Abdul Rahman single-handedly collects information from four contacts in Syria who, in turn, collect information from a network of over 200 others in the country.
Based on the NYT’s use of the SOHR, it appears that the news outlet itself knew little about the organization or Abdul Rahman. On March 14 2012, an article cites Abdul Rahman as a source, referring to him as “the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in London.” The same article also cites Sami Ibrahim who is identified as an activist from the “London-based Observatory group.” Based on the way the NYT use these sources, it is unclear whether the two are connected to the same organization. The NYT cites Ibrahim again in February of that same year as an activist with the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Further research into the Syrian Network for Human Rights showed that it is in fact a separate organization for which Abdul Rahman used to work and went by the same name as the SOHR. Abdul Rahman was fired from the organization for his alleged connections with the Syrian government. According to a letter released by the same organization, Abdul Rahman “retaliated by changing all username and password details” of their website. Consequently, the organization changed their name to the Syrian Network for Human Rights and continues to operate out of London, but separately from the SOHR, which is run by Abdul Rahman and based in Coventry, England. The rivalry between the SOHR and the SNHR is not mentioned in NYT coverage, even in the profile article on Abdul Rahman. The confusion between the two is misleading since, even though the two are admittedly anti-Assad, the SOHR reports on government deaths while the SNHR does not. Moreover, the NYT coverage refers to the SOHR as a London-based group multiple times, an inaccuracy that may be attributed to a misunderstanding over which group is providing the information. Even after the profile article – which clearly specifies the base of the organization in Coventry – there is at least one incident where the SOHR is described as an “antigovernment group based in London.” The NYT also erroneously refers to the SOHR as the “London Observatory for Human Rights” and as the “Syrian Human Rights Observatory group”. The confusion over the name of the organization, its base, and its members is troubling, particularly since it has been one of the most frequently cited sources of information.
Additionally, the SOHR’s contacts in Syria are never identified and, according to the profile article, Abdul Rahman is careful to keep the list anonymous, presumably to protect his sources. Since the group is referred to as “anti-Assad” and “antigovernment”, however, there is reason to believe that Abdul Rahman’s contacts on the ground are a part of the elusive “activists” that may potentially be involved in the ongoing conflict. Articles such as the one published on April 26 2013, which reference the actions of anti-government rebels based on information gathered from the SOHR, indicates that the organization has contacts embedded with the rebel fighters.
Cases of Inaccurate Coverage
The reliance on citizen journalism sets a dangerous precedent for the mainstream media. With the lack of access, the media scrambled to get any kind of information on the conflict only to lead to too much information and very little verification.
The case of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog demonstrates the mainstream media’s prioritization of good stories and good scoops over fact-checking. The blog, allegedly written by a half-American homosexual girl living in Syria by the name Amina Arraf, quickly went viral in the media. The Guardian, the BBC and CNN were among many other news organizations that reported on the story, referring to Amina, who shares her experience in the anti-government revolts through the blog, as a “heroine” and an “unlikely icon”. According to the BBC, she was even interviewed by news organizations such as the Associated Press through online correspondence. Reports of her arrest by Syrian security agents, based on a blog entry supposedly written by a cousin, sparked a series of reactions worldwide; social media campaigns were created, letters were sent to Syrian embassies demanding her release, and an investigation was initiated by the U.S. State Department. It was later revealed that Amina was in fact an invention of an American man named Tom MacMaster in Edinburgh, Scotland. McMaster created the blog, where he posted a photograph of a London-based woman, and wrote the entries himself. Cases like this one, where a lack of verification led to worldwide anger, expose the inherent danger of relying on unidentifiable sources.
Disclaimers about the inability to independently verify sources further demonstrate a failure in protecting the credibility of reputable news organizations. On May 27 2012, the BBC posted an image that was presumably taken by an activist in Syria. The following description was added: “This image – which cannot be independently verified – is believed to show the bodies of children in the Houla massacre.” It became apparent later that day that the image was actually taken in 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. News of the BBC’s error quickly went viral with the photographer of the original image expressing shock “at the corporation’s failure to check their sources”.
Another similar, and perhaps even more shocking incident was on May 8 2012 when Reuters distributed footage it lifted off of “social networking sites” claiming that it “purports to show Syrian security beating detained protestors and holding guns to their heads”. [LP1] Reuters added the now-ubiquitous disclaimer: “Reuters is unable to independently verify the content of this video”. The same footage was later used by ABC News and posted on their website. Two days later, an anonymous email sent to ABC expressed suspicion over the origin of the video, explaining that the supposed Syrian security officers were not wearing Syrian army uniforms, that the accent of the men in the video was Lebanese, and, finally, that a car visible in the background had a Lebanese license plate number. It was later confirmed that the video was not taken in Syria, but in fact in Lebanon in 2008. The fact that the video was distributed by Reuters and used by more than one news network, despite clear evidence to its origin in Lebanon, points to the mainstream media’s abandonment of basic verification tools.
The Syrian civil war and the government’s restrictions on international media presence resulted in a heavy reliance on citizen journalism. New trends in information gathering and verification emerged from the relationship between this nontraditional form of journalism and the news media. As evidenced by these sampled NYT articles, the vast majority of sources are unidentifiable. Even sources such as the SOHR and the LCC, which represent the majority of identifiable sources cited by the news organization, gather their information from unknown contacts. There also appears to be an uncertainty over what and where SOHR is. Such uncertainty indicates a lack of concern on the part of the reporters over what information they gather and publish.
Knowing who the sources on the ground in Syria are would also inform the level of accuracy and objectivity in the information they disseminate. Given the nature of the conflict, anti-government sources could be involved in more than an observatory capacity. As evidenced by the case of Omar Telawi and the narrative of the LCC, information reporting can be based on the political allegiance and interests of the sources. The Syrian civil war is also a propaganda battle between the Syrian government and the opposition, and it is, therefore, equally necessary to verify the intent behind anti-government activist reporting.
The NYT published several articles pointing to issues with the coverage of the Syrian civil war and specifically pointed to Al Jazeera, which was once the paragon of news reporting in the Arab Uprisings, as a news network that reports “virtually anything that puts the government in a bad light.” People made similar claims about Al Jazeera over its coverage of the Syrian civil war, demonstrating how a lack of verification can damage a once-reputable news network. As demonstrated in the cases of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog, the BBC’s use of Iraqi footage and Reuter’s Lebanese footage, the reliance on citizen journalism increasingly threatens the credibility of the mainstream media. While the use of a disclaimer to indicate unverifiable information may to some extent protect credibility, it could also be argued that its overuse makes reputable news organizations more inclined to publish information without going through the necessary verification process.
Once viewed with optimism, the mainstream media’s relationship with citizen journalism has become increasingly damaging. A lack of access, combined with a multitude of unverifiable sources, transformed the traditional media from a source of information to a source of speculation. In a sense, the media outsourced its reporting to citizen journalists and its verification to its audiences, leaving it to them to decide whether or not a story is accurate.
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