Early-ish this morning, Twitter informed me that while I’d been frothing at the mouth about how awful a film Jobs is, a suburb of Damascus faced chemical warfare. Anti-Assad activists have said that the area of Ghouta suffered “toxic” gas attacks. Tweets said hundreds were dead (the numbers varied between 218 and 500). A few video feeds (they were live and are now uploaded recordings) showed people who had been exposed to the gas being brought into a makeshift hospital.
If you click on the link to the video feeds, be warned that they are horrifying. Not because they’re gory. There’s no blood, there’s no disfigurement and few look like they’ve suffered any injury. They’re filled with people reduced to pale, dead weight by the gas. Unblemished, unmoving, alabaster-skinned bodies of men and children who don’t react to being hosed, poked, injected; their eyes open and unblinking or sealed shut, their jaws slack.
I did the only thing you can do in this day and age when you have an immediate emotional reaction: I tweeted about it.
For the next few minutes, a gentleman and I had a very polite disagreement on Twitter. He looked up “gas attack, Syria” on Google and saw that the last reports of such an attack were from August 5. No news agency had reported the incident I’d tweeted about. That didn’t make sense to him because surely deaths and chemical warfare in Syria would have every news agency buzzing? I think he suspected the video was from August 5, instead of being ‘delayed live’.
It was interesting because of the vastly different expectations my interlocutor and I had from news media. He expected news agencies to tweet, blog or acknowledge what was happening in Damascus immediately. Without this, there was no badge of validity to the incident and its timing. I think his point was that if I was wrong about when the video had been shot, then the attack that I’d written about may not have happened at all. It could be footage from August 5, which doesn’t make a gas attack any less terrible, but it would mean I’d disseminated false facts.
For me, though, Twitter isn’t necessarily a news source. You could sift through it to find news, sure, but the medium is as much about personal reactions and quickly-formulated observations. News, for me, is a more considered affair. Maybe it comes from knowing how much of a mistake a news organisation can make because it’s manic about reporting quickly rather than accurately, but I don’t expect a good news publication to put out a piece seconds after some catastrophe has happened. I expect it to sift through the clutter of rumour, get verified reports from reliable sources, and then put their piece up.
Immediate reports are the business of agencies and wire services. In case of a place that is as difficult to access and assess as Syria, those services aren’t able to provide indisputable statistics readily either. Twitter, then, becomes your best bet if you’re looking for a heads-up on what might be happening. It’s not quite a news alert unless you have someone whose claim of being on the ground is trustworthy, but it could certainly be a tip-off. My interlocutor thought much the same. It’s just that his and my notions of what is trustworthy are different. He wanted a media outlet to confirm the gas attack. I, on the other hand, will repose my trust in a citizen report when it’s from a place as difficult to access as Syria. It’s not just tough reporting from Syria, but it’s hellishly hard to get news out, partly because of the country’s state of affairs and because of news media’s expectations.
Freelancer Francesca Borri, who is in Syria, wrote:
… the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”
I imagine it doesn’t get easier when people die, because then you need to have some confirmation of statistics. Like what is actually meant by “toxic gas”. Or how many people have actually died. In such circumstances, the grief-struck may well exaggerate. You can’t really rely upon the official spokespersons when the country is in a state of civil war. Particularly if you can’t get hold of indisputable facts – as is the case in Syria – research becomes that much more critical and time-consuming. It’s going to decide how you present the few fragile facts you have, after all. (For a look at what kind of secondary sources need to be tapped when you don’t have a single traditional source, see The Guardian’s report on the gas attack.)
Anyway, the point is, a few hours after my little Twitter debate, reports of the gas attack and the video feeds did surface in the news. It’s interesting to see how one incident can be so differently narrated depending upon which sources you choose to privilege. The Telegraph carried this headline: “Syria denies reports of deadly Damascus nerve gas attack” while BBC went with, “Syria conflict: ‘Chemical attacks’ near Damascus”.
Read the two articles and their sources are pretty much the same: SANA (the Syrian state news agency) and reports from activists in Syria. The Telegraph piece came out first, about 30 minutes before BBC’s. It seems to be doing its best to be objective, but ends up leaning in favour of SANA which isn’t surprising since it’s the only official, authorised source that can be quoted for news on Syria. Contrast that to the BBC’s report, which does everything it can to strengthen the activists’ claims, even though they are unverified.
None of the reports I’ve read of the gas attack in Syria leave you with the cold, heartbroken sense of despair that you feel if you watch the video feed.
At the moment, Twitter is full of all sorts of claims. One person says more than 1000 are dead. Apparently, the gas is sarin. These will become news or be discarded as and when they can be confirmed, debunked or verified by news organisations. That’s why you need journalists, good ones that is. You need people with experience and perspective to understand and interpret the information swirl. You need people who notice, follow and tell stories. You need people who will ask the questions my interlocutor did, but also people who will find trustworthy sources, like the Twitter user who led me to the video feed.
In the last few months, Indian media has fired almost 800 journalists and technicians who worked in news media: 100 from the TV news channel NDTV, 100 from the Outlook group of publications, 550 from Network 18 and TV 18 which own a number of channels. There have been cuts in the newspaper DNA. The magazine OPEN is rumoured to be in serious financial trouble.
That means almost 1,000 people looking for jobs in an industry that isn’t making money and can’t afford to hire anyone. And there will be more cuts in the coming months. There will, however, be no jobs. It’s a brutal and confusing time to be a journalist and it is perhaps not surprising that none of our news outlets – print or television – are able to provide any kind of perspective to the current state of affairs in this country. We’re all frantically trying to survive and hold on to what we have; who has the head space to analyse anything? Who has the equanimity to calm down and see things in perspective?
Someone told me yesterday, “First thing you need to have as a journalist in India today is an alternative source of income.” I panicked for a second at that. Then I shrugged in my most je-ne-sais-quoi manner. Because my only skill is that I can (sometimes) write, and it’s a miracle that it has earned me a livelihood at all. If I don’t write articles, I’ll write something else because that’s all I can do. I thought for a moment about setting up a schedule to try writing that damned novel. Except the only industry that’s in more of a hole than journalism is Anglophone publishing in India. So. Shrug. And verbal vomit on blog. Sigh.
That said, if you have any ideas about what could be my alternative source of income, feel free to make suggestions.