When the news comes from agenda-driven sources

Palestinian refugees in Syria wait for food assistance.
Palestinian refugees in Syria wait for food assistance.

Yesterday morning I was talking with my students about the importance of independence in journalistic ethics. Today The New York Times reports that a photo of Palestinian refugees in Syria has come under scrutiny, with some suspecting the picture is a digitally altered fake.

Perhaps questions would have been raised in any case, but it doesn’t help that the photo was distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). According to the Times, the photo appears to be genuine, and depicts the brutal reality of everyday life in Syria. But when the news comes from organizations with an agenda, it’s only natural that observers will ask questions.

The UNRWA photo is important and well worth calling to the world’s attention. But with more and more news coming from non-journalistic organizations, the value that journalism can bring is to scrutinize and determine what’s real and what isn’t.

Obama, Syria and presidential incompetence

I think attacking Syria is a bad idea. But what I really don’t understand is the incompetence the Obama administration has shown. It seems to me that quick retaliation in the form of a few cruise missiles might have had some deterrent effect (or not), and it’s the sort of thing presidents do on a fairly regular basis without going to Congress.

So now we’re in the midst of an all-out congressional debate over whether to take action that is supposed to be fairly limited. I don’t blame people for worrying this is going to be another Afghanistan or Iraq, because that’s how the White House is treating it.

And I find myself in the position of not wanting to see us do anything but at the same time hoping the resolution passes so that Obama isn’t completely neutered for the next three years. What a mess.

How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Three local projects keep an eye on Egypt


Not the first time I’ve said this, but whenever a big international story develops, you can’t go wrong checking in on three news organizations with Boston roots that specialize in foreign coverage.

The most venerable is the Christian Science Monitor, whose commitment to serious journalism extend back more than a century. Now mostly online, the Boston-based news site has correspondents on the ground in Egypt and other stations in the Middle East. Here is a telling passage by Kristen Chick, who’s been covering the protests:

Reinforced, the crowd marched onto the bridge, gathering around two troop carriers the police had been forced to leave behind, along with several of their members. A crowd surrounded the policemen angrily, but some protesters pushed them back.

“This is a peaceful protest,” they yelled. “Don’t hurt them!”

A young policeman walked past, sobbing uncontrollably on the shoulder of a protester.

“It’s OK, you are our brother, you are with us now,” said the protester.

Reporting from Israel, the Monitor’s Joshua Mitnick finds that the Israeli government is anxiously watching what is unfolding in Arab states all around them.

You can follow the Monitor’s coverage of Middle East protests here.

Also well worth following is GlobalPost, the international news agency started by New England Cable News founder Phil Balboni and former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott. GlobalPost reporter Jon Jensen supplements his work with a video report (above).

In an attempt to get ahead of the story, Hugh Macleod considers whether Syria’s repressive regime could be the next to tumble. His conclusion: no, because President Bashar al-Assad has taken steps to spare his people from the grinding poverty that afflicts Egyptians.

You can follow GlobalPost’s coverage of the unfolding Middle East story here.

The most unconventional of the three is Global Voices Online, begun at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center a half-dozen years ago and dedicated to rounding up and synthesizing citizen journalism of all kinds.

Before the Twitter crackdown, Global Voices’ Ivan Sigal posted a fascinating compilation of tweets, blog posts and videos, including a harrowing scene of protesters falling off a water truck. And here is a comment from something called the Angry Arab News Service, in a piece written by Global Voices’ Amira Al Hussaini, reacting to yesterday’s speech by Egyptian President (at least as of this writing) Hosni Mubarak:

Mubarak is speaking live. He is digging a bigger hole for himself. He is insulting the protesters. HE said that he has been sympathetic to the poor all his life. Is that why billionaires surround you, you dictator?

Global Voices has put together a special section called Egypt Protests 2011.