Last May 8, for example, Reuters distributed a video that was posted by activists on YouTube with a label stating that it showed Syrian security officers beating detained protesters. Reuters sent it with the following message:
Video uploaded to a social media website purports to show Syrian security beating detained protesters and holding guns to their heads.” REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT OF THIS VIDEO.
Hours later, though, Reuters withdrew the video and advised its clients:
EDITORS PLEASE NOTE: REUTERS IS WITHDRAWING THIS VIDEO AS WE HAVE NOW ESTABLISHED THAT IT IS FILE FOOTAGE FROM LEBANON IN 2008, NOT SYRIA AS ORIGINALLY THOUGHT. PLEASE ACCEPT OUR APOLOGIES.
Reuters declined a request to talk about the video and its withdrawal.
Al Jazeera was apparently fooled when it ran video this month of five men, identified as members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard forces. According to the video, the men were kidnapped by Syrian revolutionaries. That story line seemed to reinforce constant rumors that Iran has supported President Bashar Assad’s troops in their violent crackdown on the Syrian revolutionaries.
But Al Jazeera later reported that the men apparently were not elite troops, but rather members of a group of Iranian engineers working at a Syrian power plant. In December, Syrian state media had reported the engineers were captured by “terrorists” as they traveled to their jobs.
Misrepresentations and exaggerations definitely are out there among the hours and hours of citizen journalist videos coming from Syria, said Ayman Mhanna, executive director of SK Eyes, a press freedom group named after Samir Kassir, a Lebanese journalist assassinated in a 2005 car bombing. Some activists feel there is nothing wrong with mislabeling a video, said Mhanna, because they “feel that exaggeration is nothing compared to the bloodiness of the regime. They say it gets them an attention that they desperately need. ”
Some news organizations have turned to rights monitors, like Human Rights Watch, for help with verification, says Nadim Houry, head of the rights group’s Beirut office. “Media outlets have also contacted us with footage they got, asking whether we can vouch for it,” he said. “They want to be able to attribute the footage to someone that can be tracked.”
Houry said Human Rights Watch is cautious, relying only on videos brought directly to the organization by Syrian activists and verifying them with eyewitness accounts and other interviews.
But even the most seemingly reliable of eyewitnesses can be wrong, as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International learned late last year, when both publicized the case of Zaynab el Hossni, an 18-year-old Syrian woman. When a revolutionary group uploaded a video to YouTube in September, showing the burned and beheaded body of a woman allegedly killed by the Syrian government, the two rights groups got confirmations from Hossni’s family— including her mother—that she was the victim. CNN, The Associated Press, France24, and others then posted the video. Hossni became a symbol of the revolution. Her photo was carried by Syrian protestors.
But Zaynab el Hossni was not dead. Weeks later, she appeared on state television showing her identification card. She said she fled her home because her brothers had been abusing her. The family confirmed that they believed the woman on TV was Hossni. And Houry, who called the mother’s identification “an honest mistake,” said that the woman had “seemed genuinely distraught at the loss of her daughter.”
Such reporting errors underscore the difficulty of getting an accurate picture of what’s happening in Syria, at a particularly fluid moment when journalism can shape events. But each conflict has its particular challenges. Mark Jurkowitz, Associate Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, notes that in less restricted conflict zones, “There was also a lot of parachute reporting in which correspondents would fly into a trouble zone and begin reporting without a lot of context or contacts.”