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.