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Why was the world's press reluctant to cover recent Syrian 'massacre'?

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Why was the world's press reluctant to cover recent Syrian 'massacre'?

As is the case with many breaking news stories, this one first surfaced on Twitter – one tweet, then two, then hundreds, all bearing the same piece of news: there has been a horrific massacre in a Damascus suburb on Saturday 20 April... and the media are ignoring it. According to Twitter users, 450 people were killed by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, including women and children, in an effort to eliminate a large number of terrorists in the area. Not exactly an ignorable news item...

The hashtag #rememberthe450 began trending on the micro-blogging site. Twitter users sensed it was their moral obligation to make this human tragedy known to the world, and simultaneously to denounce the silence of the traditional media who were failing to keep up with breaking news of such a shocking nature.

This isn't entirely true, though. Delesalle points out that the media did not ignore events in Syria, they simply chose to limit what they reported in order to avoid misinforming the public. CNN, France 24, BBC and The New York Times all reported on the violence at Jdeidet al-Fadel on their websites, but all reinforced the fact that they did not have sufficient information on the attack, and therefore, were reluctant to report on specifics as important as the number of fatalities.

Whilst Twitter users ensured that the number "450" was cast far and wide (without any substantial proof), the traditional media, on the other hand, thought it better to keep quiet and admit to a lack of information that was not remotely the fault of journalists, but rather the consequence of army patrols in the area making the verification of numbers very difficult, paired with the fact that the Assad regime banned almost all independent media organisations following the March 2011 uprising.

The traditional media relied on a legitimate source of information, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who Yahoo News quoted as saying that it "documented 80 names of people killed, including three children, six women and 18 rebel fighters." They also warned readers of the distinct, but as yet unconfirmed, possibility that there may be further fatalities. For example, Yahoo reported that "Jamal al-Golani, a member of the Revolution Leadership Council opposition group, said the number of dead may be higher than 250." In other words, the press ensured that readers were fully aware of the haziness surrounding the information. Even major news websites such as the BBC chose not to place the Syrian massacre on their home page – readers had to be actively searching out information on this topic to have a chance of finding it.

On Monday, France Inter aired a programme devoted to recent events in Syria, but the massacre (even the rumour of it) went unmentioned. Editor-in-Chief of I-télé, Lucas Menget, said "we could be hypocrites and carry out a press review of what we read on Twitter, but that’s not our job." He explained that he wouldn't use any image that hadn't first been verified by AFP (Agence France Presse) since, "when it comes to what circulates the web, we don't know where anything comes from."

Three of the major press agencies – Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Press – did not release anything very quickly on the subject, and so major newspapers and news websites awaited futher confirmation (quite rightly). Such agencies have previously been tricked by false images, and so have clearly learned from their mistakes.

When talking about images sent to AFP by the public, Patrick Baz, director of photography at AFP’s Middle East branch said: "It has become nearly impossibly to determine where they come from." He also stated that AFP won't use figures reported by the public that have not yet been verified in a concrete manner. "What does that mean, 450? Why a round number? Why not 422, or 423? At one time, we had lots of figures including 11's and 9's, I’m not sure why. Always 11's and 9's... Lots of images circulate, we try to cross-check them, to see whether or not they've been seen before. We spend our days doing that – checking" (these citations can be read in their original French in Delesalle's article). 

This is undoubtedly an example of the traditional forces of the world's press valuing quality over rapidity. After the Boston marathon bombings, journalists are warier than ever of being duped by information diffused through social media networks. It seems that the core standards of journalistic conduct are being reassessed and reinforced by the traditional media now more than ever – even if this means that we might receive news slightly later this way than on Twitter, at least we know that theirs is news that we can reasonably count upon to be true.

Author

Emily Moore

Date

2013-04-24 17:27

Author information

The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.


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