The British empire wasn’t really a global phenomenon. Parag Khanna

Bearing Witness

The advent of social media has fundamentally altered the journalistic landscape. But the basic challenge remains the same: To bear witness, and to tell the stories that matter.

For journalists writing “the first rough draft of history” never has there been a time of late where the draft has been so historic, the history so rough and dangerous.

When the so-called Arab Spring erupted two years ago, journalists told extraordinary stories of euphoria and optimism sweeping a region as people took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt to overthrow authoritarian rule.

But, by the end of 2012, countries like Syria were engulfed in civil war. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says 28 journalists, both Syrian and foreign, lost their lives there last year.

And yet, a story so full of risk, is also so compelling and urgent to tell. One of the best of the storytellers, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, was quoted telling colleagues in 2011 how amazing it was to be a journalist in the Middle East at this historic time.

A year ago last month, Anthony died of an asthma attack as he was coming out of Syria on an unauthorized trip to a country where visas are hard to get. A few days later, veteran Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, and young French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed in a rocket attack in the Syrian city of Homs. Hours before, one of Syria’s most prolific citizen journalists Rami al Sayed died in intense government shelling on the same neighborhood.

The CPJ says 70 journalists died across the world last year, almost double the number the previous year. Syria came in first place, making it the deadliest place worldwide to cover a story. The year before, Libya was in second place. The violent uprising to oust Colonel Gaddafi cost the lives of three veteran award-winning photojournalists – Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington, and Anton Hammerl.

Journalists live by the maxim “no story is worth dying for.” But many still believe there are stories worth taking risks for. The agonizing uncertainty is knowing when risks are too great. When Marie Colvin, who covered the worst of many wars, heard caring words of caution from friends and colleagues before she crossed into Syria, she acknowledged the danger. But she dismissed it, saying “it’s what we do.”

And “what we do” now applies across a dramatically changed landscape that is not just fraught with risk in some countries, but full of new challenges, and opportunities, in others. In the same way revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have toppled or threatened old regimes, there has also been a social media revolution challenging the old order of news.

This “first rough draft of history” is now also being written, as it happens, by those who make it happen. Social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have unleashed new streams of eyewitness reports, emotion, and analysis. For journalists, these new sources give us unprecedented access to vast amounts of information. They offer us windows on places too dangerous or difficult to visit. They allow us to still cover events we miss. But now, many of these new citizen journalists, observers, and activists, don’t even need us to get the story out. Many stories now break first on Twitter. Many videos appear first on YouTube.

But in this brave new world of media, the same old rules of journalism matter. The 6 basic questions they teach in journalism school still apply: who, what, when, where, why? And, most importantly: is it true?

At the BBC, we now have a dedicated team of journalists who collect and check those largely unregulated streams of information on the world wide web. Some of the material comes to us directly, some through social media sites from all points of view, all points of the globe.

In the excitement that can sizzle momentarily across a Twitter feed, there can be that tantalizing quality of the “story too good to check.” But “getting it right” is still the stock in trade of more mainstream media. Our reputations rely on it.

Our surveys and audience responses tell us that, at the end of the day, people still turn to more traditional, and trusted, sources of information to try to make sense of our world. The BBC has found that, contrary to expectation, during strong social media stories, viewing figures for BBC TV News spiked.

What hasn’t changed in our fast-changing business is the role of the storyteller. It does still matter. There’s still a place for someone to step back from the shifting kaleidoscope of the internet to sift fact from fiction, emotion from analysis, and tell a compelling tale. And the best story-telling still means being on the ground, as close as possible, to where it is happening.

Some countries in the Middle East and North Africa restrict visas to journalists. Some areas are dangerous to work in. But across this region, more and more citizens are no longer bound by repressive media laws, or no longer held back by their own fear of speaking out. On trips to Syria, on official visas, we met so many people who wanted their stories told, although some still ask for their identities to be hidden. Their courage is humbling.

Poignant personal testimonies give us insight into wider issues of global consequence. There are stories across the region that should be told: Syria’s deepening humanitarian crisis; political turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia; establishing new order in Libya, to mention but a few.

Decades ago, when Washington Post Publisher Phillip Graham used that phrase “the first rough draft of history,” he spoke in a very different media world. In some ways it’s easier to tell the stories that matter. Dazzling new technology, and access to places and people, make possible a better draft.

But in other ways, it is still just as hard. The age-old risks and responsibilities still haven’t gone away.

Read more in this debate: Sahar el-Nadi.


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