The Livestreamer Mission To Syria Was Not A Good Idea

Earlier today the Guardian published a story about livestreamers from the US who took a trip to Syria to capture the conflict that has many journalists perplexed. From the article:

The pair [William Gagan and Geoffery Shively] managed to enter Syria on three occasions, totaling approximately 10 to 15 hours in the country near the Turkish border town of Guvecci. They have returned with footage of their surreptitious entry, as well as two interviews from inside a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and video from a pro-Assad rally in the president's Turkish hometown. They also recorded a plea from FSA fighters for foreign intervention and arms.

Prior to Syria, Shivley, from Newport Beach, California, spent most of his adult life working in computer security. In the last year he has provided online support for the Occupy movement. He is currently an agent with the "hacktivist" news agency Telecomix, which provided the pair with online security and support throughout their time in the region.

Six months ago, Gagan, from San Francisco, was serving drinks in a bar and going to college. He too was drawn to Occupy and describes himself as "an independent citizen journalist" covering the movement. Gagan says reporting on Occupy helped prepare him to cover conditions in Syria. He refers back to an Occupy Oakland action on 28 January that he covered via live stream. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets and number of clashes with police ensued.

It's a noble thing to risk your life to try to tell an important story, and these men should be commended for having the courage to put themselves in harms way and attempt to do such a thing. But that's where the commendation should stop.

This is not an indictment of conflict journalism. I remain perpetually in awe of journalists who dedicate their lives to covering conflict. This is also not an indictment of inexperienced journalists venturing into combat to begin their careers. Everyone must start somewhere, and these days there aren't exactly tons of bureaus lining up to send correspondents overseas (and cover their insurance).

When this article came out there were some critiques of young journalists who went to Libya, but it seems most of those journalists were prepared. Most had contacts or fixers, had the right equipment and they had knowledge of the situation they were getting themselves into. Everyone needs to start somewhere. If anyone has seen the documentary Shooting Robert King, perhaps one of the more interesting parts is King venturing off into Chechnya for his first assignment and bumbling around. 15 years later and he's covered damn near every conflict on earth. There's a difference between inexperienced and unprepared.

Look, it's a crapshoot. Even the most experienced, battle hardy journalist can get killed. We learned that with Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Marie Colvin and countless others. But you do what you can to minimize the risks and maximize your effectiveness.

Two weeks ago while visiting a friend who covers conflict in South America I was privy to a conversation between two experienced conflict journalists, each with more than a decade of experience. One was considering going to Syria. What followed was a very intense conversation that focused on logistics, fixers, money, outlets, and equipment. And this was a guy who has been published everywhere and regularly been caught in heavy gun battles between opposing forces. Nothing was taken lightly. Every potential setback was weighted.

Citizen journalists have contributed many stories of value, especially with the Occupy movement. But journalism is still a skill. Grainy iphone footage does not a journalist make. And Syria is NOT an occupy protest. Your failure to prepare can lead to other people getting killed. Even if you are prepared, it can lead to people being killed. 13 Syrians were killed trying to help get Paul Conroy out of Syria.

So when you post on twitter the day after you arrive that your equipment is water damaged and you need help, when you talk about how you only had one contact there and it was someone you only knew off twitter, and when you spend more of your time talking about how dangerous it was and how brave you are for going in the first place than the actual conflict, it's going to rile up people. Also, quotes like this don't help:

"I was going to get some truths out of the trip. I was going to find out what was really going on, if the mainstream media was reporting the truth of the conflict or if there was a whole different story not being told," he [Gagan] said.

Seriously, I'm curious what "truths" you were going to get to that Anthony Shadid or Marie Colvin had missed. And then there's this:

He [Gagan] did not, however, feel it was worth spending time researching Syrian history. "I knew about the parties and the Sunnis and I looked up a little of Assad's background and whatnot but I didn't really think any of that was relevant," he added. "The fact of the matter is people were dying and that's what I was going there to try to help."

Reveling in your ignorance of a situation does not reassure people that you were after more than just some adventure you convinced other people to fund. I spoke with Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor, who has covered Iraq, Libya and a host of other conflicts worldwide. "They want to go experience conflict, but they don't realty seem to be aware of the conflict they bring to locals. Guys like these kids, they're not going to do a good job…there's a lot more harm they could do than potential good," he said.

Murphy also said that he worried how someone who admitted they didn't really study the history of the country before going could possibly hope to understand what he was seeing. "They're trying to claim they're not sullied by preconceived notions or knowledge, but everyone they talk to will have an agenda," he said. It's important to be aware of that agenda.

The two livestreamers also seem to have forgotten the basic tenet of conflict reporting and that is talk more about the conflict and less about yourself. It's pretty much the golden rule. There's way too much of an air of smug self-satisfaction. And this is not the right attitude to bring to the table for responsible reporting.

"I've almost felt invincible and thought, 'Screw it, go live stream from Syria,'" he [Gagan] explained.

I wasn't there with these gentlemen. I'm not aware of everything they saw, or every way in which they prepared. I haven't seen all their footage, though most of what I have seen - pleas from the FSA for ammunition, refugee camps on the border, a pro-Assad march in Turkey – is nothing new.

On one hand it's hard to say that the content they produce isn't important; any material that documents what's happening there is important. But as of now, you'd have a hard time convincing me and many others that this was a worthwhile expedition. Having barely spent more than three days there (only a few hours in Syria, it seems) and without some as of yet unseen groundbreaking footage, it seems it was more about them and less about Syria. Not only that, but it sets an entirely bad precedent.

[article and pic via The Guardian]