War reporters to speak of the hazards of the field – and Twitter – at Dublin event

Journalists highlight struggle to get accurate and balanced reportage in Syria

 


Some 56 journalists have been killed in Syria in the past two years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, but security is only one challenge facing those covering what has become an increasingly splintered and complex conflict.

Audience fatigue means it is becoming harder to get stories past editors and into the public domain, says Rania Abouzeid, who works for Al Jazeera America, “especially because there is no clear way to end this conflict and things have largely reached a stalemate . . . I think many people are numb to the suffering, and are increasingly relegating Syria to the ‘too hard to solve or understand’ basket.”

Earlier this year, the Guardian’s Martin Chulov was filing daily despatches on Syria but in the past two months he has done only about half a dozen stories. “It’s the quietest period covering this beat for probably five years,” says the Beirut- based writer.

“I just think people are emotionally fatigued by it now.”

The two journalists are in Dublin tomorrow for the first in a series of talks, entitled From the Frontline, featuring leading international reporters and commentators.


Ever-evolving struggle
They highlight the ever-evolving struggle to get accurate and balanced reportage from Syria, as well as Egypt, and neighbouring states during a period of turmoil.

“Verification is certainly a challenge, and it’s getting harder as Syria becomes more dangerous to report from,” says Abouzeid.

“It’s part of our jobs to be militantly sceptical of any claim until there are tangible details.”

Recalling the “gay girl in Damascus fiasco” (involving a hoax blog by an American man), she says: “I have made it a point to never speak to a source via Skype, for example, whom I have never met because I need to be able to verify sources, to know that a person is in the town or city that she or he claims to be in, and that she or he is a reliable source.”


Chemical weapons
Verification was a particular challenge of the August chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Initial reporting of the attack was heavily qualified: there were denials and counter-denials about whether such weapons were used, the number of the fatalities and who was responsible.

The experience of Iraq “did bleed directly into” the manner of coverage, Chulov notes.

“We have all lived through and worked through a period of false intelligence leading to catastrophic consequences. That was on our minds both here and in London and in the aftermath of that chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, things were caveated in the early days and rightly so. But as the days wore on, a mountain of circumstantial evidence and some case facts built up and there was quite a compelling case built against the regime.

“And I think that was one of the cases, certainly in the last three years, where journalism by and large did do a service.”

Chulov says forums like Twitter can be useful, but “you need to be very careful who to follow and give weight to . . . Social media is information, journalism is what you do with it.”

Abouzeid also has reservations about Twitter. She describes it as “a bubble, and some people seem to live in it, rather than the real world”.


Rania Abouzeid and Martin Chulov will speak at Wood Quay Venue, Dublin, tomorrow at 6.30pm. The From the Frontline series is hosted by the Clinton Institute, UCD, in association with The Irish Times. Free entry; to reserve a seat, email catherine.carey@ucd.ie

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