August 10, 2011

Verifying Sources in the Era of Amateur Video

The competing narrative continuing to unfold about the ongoing violence in Syria reflect how completely amateur video has now transformed our understanding of what “news” is. Activists’ homemade videos have shattered the idea that the Syrian government’s claim to be restoring “stability” to towns under attack from “armed terrorists” can be taken at face value.

Yet, amateur videos cannot be verified easily, and for that reason also cannot be taken at face value. In order to try to tell the “whole” story, Reuters, CNN and other mainstream sources seem to be frequently reduced to a version of stuttering about how, although they are showing citizen footage, they can’t vouch for it’s accuracy.  The New Yorker, commenting on an August  5th video below, notes that, “Like all of the amateur videos coming out of Syria, where the foreign press has been banned, this footage has not been independently verified.”

Other journalists, like Dissected News founder James Miller, are rewriting the terms of journalistic objectivity to try to make sense of, and verify, amateur video claims.   Like traditional journalism,  this new form requires a zealous desire get the story right and the passion–and knowledge of context–to uncover truth. But it also requires the talents of a film critic—the ability to read images, to interrogate pictures for what they reveal and conceal, and to explore how they are constructed.

As it turns out, a picture is not worth a thousand words at all.  A picture is just like words – it may tell the truth, it may deceive, but it is never the transparent conduit to fact we once thought it was.  It is up to good journalists to decipher them, and learn to read them as they do sources’ statements: as complex, layered signals that say as much about the worldview of the people making them, as they do about events at hand.

It’s an important task,  as Miller points out:

… Some news agencies have occasionally been duped by propaganda promoted by individual “activists”, but those observers who are more tuned in, after months of experience, to the claims of the activists, now know which individuals or groups produce credible information, and they know when to be extra-skeptical about reports. However, many of these claims are reliable, and the media who drop in on the Syria story need to pay attention to the journalists who are working hard to separate the “good” reports from the “bad”. Because in Syria — to take a position — one side is lying, one side is mostly truthful, and thousands of lives are in the balance of the two.

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0 thoughts on “Verifying Sources in the Era of Amateur Video

  1. Thanks for the compliment, and the interesting analysis. As an anthropologist by training (before my journalism days) I see the kind of work that do as an interesting shift in the way narratives can be told. In a world where whole governments, and certainly individual actors, are constantly attempting to influence the official “narrative,” and the old models for taking them to task simply don’t work. In order to cover a complicated story like Syria, or Iran, news agencies have to throw out much of what they have relied on in the past. Our news network exists not because we think it is a better way to do things (we don’t) but because we believe it is the only way to do things, in some circumstances, and silence is simply not an acceptable alternative.

    Feel free to contact me. I’d love to talk more on the subject.
    Cheers! ~ James Miller

    1. James,
      I’m glad you liked the post and will definitely be in touch to continue the conversation! It is impressive to me that “news” and “the official story” increasingly present to all of us–even those with a stake in official truths, such as mainstream news agencies and states– as the fragmented, multi-perspective events that they are. You are helping those of us trying to get a handle on complex events with new standards for evaluating multiple truths. I think these new perspectives will have even broader implications for mainstream considerations of what “truth” and “History” mean, in the not distant future … All best, Amy

  2. Excellent article, thanks!

    I like that you point out what legitimate journalists must contend with, to determine inherent bias, the chance of a video being staged and the consequences.

    Amazingly it was Little Green Footballs that exposed Hezbollah’s staged videos back in 2007. Then the multiple rocket launch pictures from Iran were discovered to have been doctored. With more and more eyes examining any piece of evidence as well as identifying people on videos, there is an increased chance of catching biased and staged videos. We hope..

    1. Joel-
      Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting. You are tireless! Yes … the ease of doctoring what we once thought of as a more direct and truthful form of documentation has definitely thrown a wrench into the works, as you note. And then there are the many, many videos that are not exactly doctored, but simply a more muddled mish mash of viewpoints that skew the broader truth that needs to be told about an event … Best, Amy

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