September 26, 2020

For News From Syrian Battleground, a Reliance on Social Media

Western journalists are struggling to cover what the world has so far seen largely through YouTube. But while some television news crews have been filing reports from Damascus, the dangers of reporters being killed or kidnapped there — as well as visa problems — have kept most journalists outside the country’s borders and heightened the need for third-party images.

“The difficulty of getting into Syria, the shrunken foreign correspondent corps, and the audience gains for social media make it likely this story will be consumed differently by the American public than tensions or conflicts in past years,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Syria the deadliest country in the world for reporters. Last year, 28 journalists working there were killed, and 18 have died so far this year, according to the group, a nonprofit based in New York.

Among the few television outlets broadcasting from Damascus are CBS News, the BBC and ITN, a British news provider. A CNN correspondent, Fred Pleitgen, had been reporting from Damascus, but his visa expired this week and he was relocated to Beirut, Lebanon, a spokeswoman for the network said.

The Wall Street Journal has a reporter in Damascus, and Reuters and The Associated Press both said that they had journalists inside Syria.

For many news organizations, though, Beirut or Syria’s borders are the closest they can safely get. Richard Engel, an NBC News correspondent who was held hostage for five days last year in Syria, traveled inside the country earlier this week, but most recently reported from the Turkish-Syrian border.

Reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times are in Beirut, and this week ABC News reopened its bureau there after two decades.

“It’s risky being in Damascus in the best of times, and when you’ve got U.S. missiles raining down on the city, it adds to the sense of risk,” said Jon Williams, ABC News’s managing editor for international news.

For networks without a Syrian correspondent, partnerships with other organizations supply some video. ABC works with the BBC, for example, and NBC with ITN. But the networks also rely on YouTube and other third-party sources, which have yielded some of the most vivid and disturbing video of the conflict, but has also brought a host of verification problems.

This week, CNN broadcast a film showing what purported to be evidence of mass graves, and said that it came from “an independent filmer who is absolutely trustworthy.” CBS News uses a team of Arabic-speaking employees in London to review third-party videos, according to Christopher Isham, its Washington bureau chief.

ABC News, Reuters and other outlets use Storyful, a company that scours social sites and verifies videos through tests like comparing street scenes to maps and checking an uploader’s affiliated accounts. The New York Times has also worked with Storyful in the past. David Clinch, Storyful’s executive editor, said it first learned of a possible chemical attack last week from videos, and alerted its clients within an hour of the incident.

“This content is often the only content available,” Mr. Clinch wrote in an e-mail, “because news organizations either can’t get to the scene of suspected chemical attacks, don’t have anyone in Syria (some do but most don’t) or their staff cannot go out from Damascus.”

For those still within Syria, the challenge has simply been to stay safe. Mr. Isham said that CBS went to “extreme lengths” to protect its staff there, although he did not elaborate.

“Anytime you go into a combat zone, your folks are at risk,” he said. “You want to reduce that risk as much as possible.”

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