As the world watches Syria this week, ethics questions will focus on how critically the media are thinking about the purpose and extent of possible military intervention, as well as issues of credibility, independence and context.
But within Syria’s borders, groups of loosely and tightly organized citizens are focused on practicing their own journalism — and they’re developing a sophisticated set of ethics alongside.
Last week I met with a group of three Syrians visiting the United States through a State Department leadership program. They sought to learn about principles and practices of journalism, as they were all engaged in activities to collect and verify information and transmit it within and beyond Syrian borders. They came to ask questions of a colleague and me, but I left inspired by the values they had already developed in a time of crisis. It seems a revolution is fertile ground on which to think radically about what media ethics means and to forge a vision of what I would call “interactive ethics.”
Creating A Citizen’s Wire Service
These Syrian citizens built themselves into journalists in response to government brutality, certainly, but also in rebellion against dictatorial information practices. One woman told me (through a State Department interpreter), “Remember, professor, this revolution started because of a child.” She spoke fervently and emotionally of the torture and murder of a young teenager who had been caught scrawling anti-government messages on a wall. When the regime released statements that the boy was killed for raping a woman, she said, the censorship and misinformation lit a fuse. “That’s how the anger began,” she said. (I am not naming the journalists out of concern for their security.)
She and her two colleagues became part of a network of citizen journalists trying to cover the revolution on the ground. They described gathering text, audio and video, as well as verifying reports of brutality and troop strength. Working without any homegrown example of free and uncensored media, the journalists used social media and other technologies to establish what sounds like an amateur wire service — a sort of Citizen Associated Press.
This intertwined network of new journalists shared reporting tips and information. But they also shared ethics. Almost immediately after the start of the revolution, small numbers of working journalists and academics began hosting underground workshops via Skype and Google Hangouts, helping citizens understand the values of journalism and how to apply them in practice.
One of the journalists told me that because the regime used misinformation and fabrication, they wanted to emphasize a revolutionary journalism focused on accuracy, context and credibility. And because they believe the will of the people is the establishment of a democracy, they focused on a free, independent and responsible press. For instance, they taught participants to avoid subjective terminology, such as “criminal regime” and to not assign blame in stories without evidence.
Rights vs. Responsibilities
Clearly anyone in these networks faced the dangers of reporting in ways that might prompt brutal response from the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But this new Syrian journalism was not without its critics among the revolutionaries. One reporter said many activists aim to speak with a point of a view, to “control the message.” Having been an activist initially, she described blowback when she sought to move from supporting the revolution to being “neutral, objective and transparent.”
“It was an emotional struggle and a very difficult transition for me personally,” she said.
One of the citizen journalists — a physician who runs a radio transmitter in one of the rebel-held areas — said as the revolt continues, it’s important for citizen journalists to move from war coverage to reporting on social issues. They need to serve as a counterpoint to excessive international coverage of violence and militarism, he said, telling stories of social issues and progress, as well.
Flailing Government Response
For a regime as widely known for brutality as Assad’s, the response to these networks of citizen reporters could only be described as a sieve with ever-widening holes. The doctor’s radio transmissions were tracked and targeted in the early phases of unrest, he said, but the government has largely given up on those battles. Police also tracked mobile devices and used GPS to scuttle protests in advance, they said, but as more technologists in the regime defected or emigrated, those efforts have stalled.
It is in these digital arenas that youth has found its calling. The group described a revolution of younger people overall, but especially in the reporting ranks, where they said at 32, 24 and 22, they were older than many. One described a 16-year-old videographer, known for his photos and footage, and a 17-year-old geek who has handily evaded regime digital spying and interference. He’s currently writing the “Guide for the Technical Revolutionist,” they said.
Many of the values these journalists are focusing on are reflected in countless codes of ethics in newsrooms. They spoke of accuracy, context, minimizing harm, verification, independence and objectivity.
But I kept returning to something one of them told me. She said in their training workshops, they taught the “core values of truthfulness, dignity and freedom.” It was the dignity that struck me.
Syrians have been subjected to ruthless intimidation and wild propaganda and misinformation. To these citizens around the table with me, free expression was a measure of respect. Getting and transmitting information was an interaction between people who sought and deserved dignity.
In digital spheres, “interactive” means a device, program or service that responds to user activity. As media ethics are challenged and reframed in this digital age, that’s exactly what we need to focus on — responding to user activity.
At times, this may mean adjusting our practices as readers, viewers and listeners interact with us, such as increasing our transparency about bias as people increasingly question fairness and objectivity or allowing more space for an activist press.
At other times, it may mean continuing to adhere to our standards despite the challenges of an online wild west, such as enforcing standards of truthfulness and accountability in online commenting.
But these Syrians reminded me that as we develop what media ethics can and will be in a new age, we must always, always remember them to be interactive, to be a human exchange that respects the needs, will and dignity of the people journalism serves.
Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Long interested in the implications of digital media on journalism and public interest communication, Culver focuses on the ethical dimensions of social tools, technological advances and networked information. She combines these interests with a background in law and the effects of boundary-free communication on free expression. She also serves as visiting faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.