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What news is fit to publish?

The Syrian conflict has highlighted a need for the media to be more vigilant in using unverified sources from citizen sources, writes Vivien Durant.

News organisations have always been under pressure to produce and report breaking news as quickly as possible. This is even truer when considering the increasingly popular move towards online news, which is capable of being constantly updated. In light of this, news organisations are under even more pressure to report the news as it happens.

Journalists and media organisations reporting on events in foreign conflict zones are expected to get the most up to date details about which group did what, how many were killed and the event’s aftermath. In conflicts, like the ones resulting from the Arab Spring, there is very little direct western involvement. The question arises as to where the media are sourcing their news and just how trustworthy these sources are.

In the ongoing Syrian conflict, many of the international news organisations such as Associated Press (AP), Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reuters have been using a questionable source of information. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a two man organisation operating out of a clothing store in the UK, has been providing reports of death tolls and news from the armed resistance with little verification on the part of the news agencies. An article in Le Monde reported a leading journalist at AFP saying that they were aware that SOHR was not reliable but would continue to use them anyway.

‘When you ask management the answer is always the same: “You’re probably right, but the other agencies use them and we are in a highly competitive business”.’

This is very concerning to say the least. The fight to be the first to break the news and compete with other news organisations appears to take precedence over reporting the news as truthfully as possible. Another element in the battle for information is the use of social media and citizen journalists as sources. These accounts, photographs and footage aren’t always corroborated as truthful or representative of an event, yet are still used by traditional media organisations to validate a report. This occurred in a few cases from conflicts arising out of the Arab Spring, especially in Syria.

In an interview on Radio National, Mark Levine, bureau chief for AFP Australia explains that news organisations rely enormously on reports from citizen journalists particularly in hazardous or inaccessible areas. When the discussion turns to the verification of such sources he says that AFP always try to independently verify the material they are given but admits that difficult decisions have to be made because of tight deadlines.

There is a strong temptation for citizen journalists to not just report the news but to report the news from an ideological viewpoint, a viewpoint which is not always made clear to potential audiences. This has been demonstrated often with YouTube footage and blog accounts from citizens inside of Syria who want the world to see and support their cause.

In one particular case, the footage was proven to be enhanced by special effects. Almost anyone with a phone or internet connection can be a citizen journalist but unlike trained journalists, many citizen journalists lack the skills to put stories into context, necessary for both audience and news agency.

For the most part, when using video footage or accounts from an unknown source, a news organisation labels the source as unverified. This was the case in May 2011 when both the ABC and SBS used footage supplied by Reuters that they claimed showed Syrian forces holding guns to the heads of rebels. While it was noted by both news organisations (and Reuters upon supplying it) that the footage was unverified, Media Watch reported that neither sought to independently verify the material before using it. Part of the role of the journalist has always been to verify sources before publishing news, and there have been a surprising number of media organisations, who in the rush to break a story, do not wait to independently verify their sources.

In some instances, news agencies did not take the time to verify the accounts or footage of unvetted civilians whose agenda was unclear before reporting them as factual. This is especially evident in the reporting about Syria, where it has been reported that a media propaganda war is taking place. In 2011, it was reported that Amina Abdallah, a popular blogger who claimed to be a lesbian living in Damascus, was abducted by Syrian forces. This story was picked up by a huge number of social media sites and news agencies including CNN, SBS, Al Jazeera and the Guardian. The Guardian’s coverage of the ‘gay girl in Damascus’ was often filed by their Damascus correspondent, who clearly did not verify the story as it turned out to be a hoax.

The media has considerable influence on foreign policy decisions with its ability to sway public opinion and thus, to some extent, the foreign policy platforms of government. So it is very important that the media portray, to their best ability, the reality of a situation.

The need to verify sources is not a new issue; it has always been a key role in news reporting. It is a role that is coming under increased pressure due to the vast quantity of information pouring in and the need to get news out faster than ever before. With citizen run organisations, blogs, social media and video footage uploaded instantaneously onto a world viewing platform, it has become increasingly important for the media to be vigilant in verifying the sources they use to bring us the news.

Vivien Durant is a Master Of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and is one of upstart’s staff writers. You can follow her on Twitter: @VivienDurant

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