How Syria's citizen journalists are developing their skills, ethical standards

byMargaret Looney
Sep 16, 2013 in Specialized Topics

Lacking the example of local independent or uncensored media, it would be easy for Syria’s citizen journalists to play an activist role, especially when reporting on human rights abuses in their own country.

Instead, they’re embracing the values of accuracy and unbiased reporting as an antidote to official misinformation and distortion.

This is what journalism professor Kathleen Bartzen Culver learned from her meeting with three Syrian citizen journalists visiting the U.S. through a State Department leadership program.

"One of the journalists told me that because the regime used misinformation and fabrication, they wanted to emphasize a revolutionary journalism focused on accuracy, context and credibility," wrote Culver, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, in a PBS MediaShift post.

Without a formal means to conduct training, experienced journalists took to Skype and Google Hangouts to teach underground classes on the basics of journalism for citizens ready to report the facts. This corps of grassroots reporters gathered on-the-ground reports via text, audio and video. They're distributing them by on their own, via social media and the web.

"Working without any homegrown example of free and uncensored media, the journalists used social media and other technologies to establish what sounds like an amateur wire service - a sort of Citizen Associated Press," Culver wrote.

With many of the atrocities seemingly too graphic to be true, the world relied on these social media reports from the "army of self-anointed reporters," (as termed in this Radio Free Europe post) to see what was really happening in a country with a restricted flow of information.

It was a set of citizen-filmed YouTube videos distributed by Shaam News Network that actually convinced the Western world that chemical weapons were used on the ground.

Many of these citizen reports also supply the data needed to create infographics that can tell the story of what's happening on the ground. Humanitarian Tracker worked alongside Ushahidi to create Syria Tracker, an interactive map that uses crowdsourced social media reports to track deaths throughout the country.

Apart from reporting from the conflict zones, these citizen journalists are also telling stories that spotlight social issues.

"One of the citizen journalists - a physician who runs a radio transmitter in one of the rebel-held areas - said as the revolt continues, it’s important for citizen journalists to move from war coverage to reporting on social issues," Culver wrote. "They need to serve as a counterpoint to excessive international coverage of violence and militarism, he said, telling stories of social issues and progress, as well."

Read more about Culver's experience with Syrian journalists here.

IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via jamesjustin.