04 February 2016
The art of deciphering which stories make the headline and which don’t is tricky, all editors will say. What’s newsworthy for one might seem trivial for another. When a global humanitarian crisis such as the one that hit Syria over the past few years comes into play, things get even thornier.
Madaya is a small city in southwestern Syria that has been under siege by government forces and Hezbollah fighters since July 2015. Its inhabitants’ limited access to food and resources led to a dire state of starvation that is only now making the headlines, six months after it started. Why did international news organisations took so long to get on the story? What ethical issues does this situation raise?
These questions, amongst others, are the topic of a report entitled "International Coverage of the Madaya Siege" published recently by the Samir Kassir Foundation, a leading press freedom and journalism training NGO based in Lebanon. It compares the difference in interest and angle between local and international publications and identify areas of improvement that can be addressed by the Foundation in subsequent training programs for journalists.
In this conversation with its author Shane Farrell, journalist and consultant for the Samir Kassir Foundation, we discuss the ethical responsibilities of journalists reporting on the crisis in Syria today and how powerful pictures and social media are to help raise awareness on such topical issues.
Why choose the Madaya siege as the topic for this report? What makes it singular compared to other events surrounding the Syrian crisis?
The Syrian crisis led to so many humanitarian disasters, most of which received little to no coverage. As for Madaya, within days, a town that was unknown for all became a household name and the number of articles and reports about it surged. We wanted to understand what leads international media to pay attention to a topic and how deep they go in analyzing the dynamics. The Madaya crisis also shows human suffering that is bloodless, in the sense that it is not about bombs or shelling causing death and destruction, but a slow process of starvation, which requires a different style of reporting.
Chart from the Samir Kassir Foundation report "International Coverage of the Madaya Siege" shows how many articles mentioned Madaya's story over the past six months
There was scarcely any mention of the humanitarian crisis in Madaya by English language news sources in 2015 even though by the end of the year the town had been besieged for over six months and many people had died of starvation. Your report states that "great suffering has been so normalised that only the sensational breaks the news." What do you think is going wrong in the way news organisations prioritise their coverage? Can it be blamed on the lack of information or the danger for reporters on the ground?
Those are certainly contributing factors - and shouldn’t be underestimated. Syria is the deadliest conflict zone for journalists, and many news outlets have correctly calculated that the risks of sending journalists into the war zone is just not worth the story. Inevitably this means that the majority of journalists reporting on Syria do so from abroad, picking up bits and pieces of information from contacts within or social media. This is laborious and frustrating, particularly since it is often very difficult to verify claims. In the case of Madaya, I suspect Syria followers had long had some idea of what was going on, but not the true extent – or at least did not have enough information to justify a story. Otherwise it points to a disappointingly poor use of Twitter as a source of information, as reports about Madaya were prevalent in December if not earlier. It also is important to note that this is not the first area to be besieged and that across the country there is suffering that deserves greater attention, but after years of conflict Syria-fatigue is such that these stories rarely make it to mainstream media. In terms of room for improvement, I think new news platforms like Coda play a role as they stay focused on stories for longer, rather than chasing breaking news.
Chart from the Samir Kassir Foundation report "International Coverage of the Madaya Siege" breaks down the coverage of the Madaya crisis by countries
Your report also mentions the ethical responsibilities of journalists reporting on such issues as the Syrian crisis saying that articles on stories such as the Madaya siege help "addressing the issue and hold culprits accountable". However, those responsibilities "often clash with the modern realities of news," the report says. Can you elaborate? What could be done to improve the system?
It is no secret that journalism – particularly print – is in a bad state right now. Newspaper purchases are falling dramatically, even among the long-standing reputable broadsheets. This has huge implications for which stories are selected and how stories are covered. Lowest common denominator stories about the salacious are almost always going to generate more attention – and therefore revenue – than heavy analysis and investigative reporting. This is not a new trend, of course, but with revenues dropping steadily editors are under more pressure to prioritize such stories over more important stories that are not likely to generate as much traffic. Outlets are responding to these challenges in various ways, from internet paywalls to more social media-focused journalism. Personally, I think more outlets will start following the examples of sites like Buzzfeed and Vice, which combines click-bait articles with hard-hitting news by high quality journalists.
Data from your report reveals that January 2016 was the month with the highest percentage of articles on the Madaya crisis. The story started gaining traction after distressing pictures of emaciated individuals apparently living in Madaya were being widely shared on social media. Highlighting this example, your report argues that news coverage of the Syrian conflict is "highly dependent on social media and highly influenced by visual imagery". How detrimental do you think this is? What underlying issue does it showcase?
I think this is inevitable, given the dangers inherent in covering the Syrian conflict, but it presents a wide range of problems. For one, it is sometimes very difficult to confirm or reject reports, resulting in potentially false information accepted as truth. Second, it allows internet-savvy armed actors like the Islamic State to control key narratives. On countless occasions they’ve packaged videos glorifying their actions or/and driving forward a message of fear, and more often than not these have been broadcast in mainstream media. Third, it means that important stories are lost if they don’t come with compelling visuals. I think we can take numerous lessons from the coverage of the Syrian crisis, including the need to provide greater support for local journalists and activists, who are often the source of news in conflict zones. Furthermore, there is still a great discrepancy between what is covered in Arabic language sources and English language publications, due to linguistic barriers. I am not aware of Arabic-language training grants for foreign journalists, whether from news outlets or media development organizations, but this is certainly an avenue that should be explored.
Facebook post by NYT’s Beirut Bureau Chief Anne Barnard pays tribute to the team of journalists and contributors behind a recent article on Madaya.
The New York Times comes out in your report as the news outlet which published the most articles on the Madaya siege, Thomson Reuters coming second. How do you explain it? What was exemplary about these two organisations' way of reporting?
The first thing that comes to mind is a Facebook post by the NYT’s Beirut Bureau Chief Anne Barnard, after the NYT published an excellent, in-depth article into the family of Aylan Kurdi, in late December. The article included interviews from at least three different countries, and in her post Bernard wrote “This kind of story can’t be done alone”, before citing around a dozen people who had contributed to the article. Not only do outlets like the NYT and Reuters have excellent journalists, but their editors have the foresight to commit multiple journalists to important stories and give them enough time to report on these stories. The other publication I think deserves mention is Al Monitor, which although less prolific, published the first piece on Madaya and arguably the most thorough.
Your report says that there were inconsistencies in terms of figures as well as facts on the situation in Madaya. Who is to blame? Could it have been done better?
In many ways inconsistencies are inevitable in such conflict zones. We don’t know the numbers of people killed, only approximates, given the nature of the conflict and the difficulty in gathering reliable information from within. Organizations working inside the country, such as international and local NGOs offer possibly the most accurate figures, but these are rarely exact. So I certainly wouldn’t “blame” journalists for this. That said, in other areas I think news outlets could be more consistent, especially with the basics. There is little consistency across outlets in terms of place names and names of armed actors. Adding numerous spellings to an already complicated conflict adds another layer of challenge to readers and is something that could easily be overcome through standardised spellings.
What impact do you hope to achieve with this report? Is there a next step in your initiative, a follow-up in the pipeline?
Ideally to promote some introspection among news outlets in terms of how they cover pressing news. It also offers them a means of comparing performance against competitors, and could therefore promote a revision among some outlets about how they cover pressing news stories. Very often, Samir Kassir Foundation's media monitoring lead to training workshops for journalists addressing the shortcomings identified in the research phase.
Shane Farrell is a consultant and journalist with a focus on political, security and humanitarian issues in the Middle East, where he has been based for over five years. As a journalist he has seen the impact of the work of the Samir Kassir Foundation first hand and support their work through report writing, conference facilitation and other media-related projects.