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How the New York Times Uses Citizen Media to Watch "Syria's War"

BY Lisa Goldman | Monday, July 16 2012

Source: YouTube via nytimes.com.
J David Goodman.

Last month, the New York Times launched an interactive page called Watching Syria's War. Edited by J David Goodman (@jdavidgoodman), the site collates Youtube videos recorded and uploaded by both citizen journalists who oppose the regime and official regime sources. Goodman analyzes each video, explaining what can be verified and what is unknown and providing background information and context that he obtains from a variety of sources both inside Syria and abroad. The interactive site offers readers the opportunity to submit comments and offer more information. It's a fascinating project that puts some much-needed order to the chaos of online citizen reporting.

Below is an edited transcript of techPresident's interview with Goodman.

What was the catalyst for the project? Was it your idea?

It wasn’t my idea alone. We were watching these videos from Syria in an ad hoc way for a long time. I did a few blog posts about them for the Lede Blog and meanwhile the graphics department was trying to figure out how to follow the fighting around Syria. They wanted an interactive story on the web so that people would know the New York Times was on top of the story, but there was too much information to cover over too much territory.

So I was approached by the deputy foreign news editor to figure out how to combine forces with the graphic department by sharing our information.

For me, the most important issue is to present each video without claiming it is fact. Even when we believe the video is accurate, we want our readers to know that we didn’t shoot it so we can’t take responsibility for it. And of course these videos are presented by people [in Syria] who have a point of view - an agenda. So we present context and explain why we cannot say 100 percent that it’s true. As soon as a new post is published, we immediately tweet a link. The goal is to start a conversation about these videos.

What about your sources? Who do you follow and how do you decide who’s credible?

A source's credibility is based on reputation. [On Twitter] you can only know as much as someone is going to to tell you. We built on sources we already had - for example, we reached out to stringers in Lebanon to ask who they followed in Syria, and who they called on Skype when they wanted information for a story. And we talked to [Lede Blog editor] Robert Mackey to see who he followed.

We also look at how transparent people are. Do they say where they’re from? I DM (Direct Message) them and verify their real name and location. We make sure the source is really in Syria. A lot of people tweeting about Syria are not actually in the country. The closer these people are to the action, the more credibility they have. But of course we have received bad information from people who were close to the action.

When it’s not possible to analyze a video, we hold back. For example, we had a video early on in the project – even before we launched – of a roadside bomb. A reputable private intelligence group published a whole paper on new IEDs used in Syria. But after looking at the video and talking to a few people I suspected the video might not be credible. There was too much unknown information. So even though a reputable source said he thought the video was accurate, we chose not to use it.

And we have had issues with our sources. One guy who supports the opposition refused to translate a video that was shot in a mosque by a Syrian opposition faction that is Islamist. He said their views conflicted with his morals.

I maintain a professional skepticism and distance. I think that’s necessary. The people who are involved in this conflict are in an intense environment and we are only getting information third- hand through images. We’re not in the thick of things and I can only imagine how intense being there must be. So I do not begrudge them their emotions but we must obtain accurate information.

How long did it take you to design the project?

We did this very quickly - from initial meetings to launch, it took about a month. There was a real sense all the way up to the executive editor that this was an important story and we needed to be on top of it.

How many people are involved in maintaining the project?

Graphics Department Director Steve Duenes is directly involved. [Associate Managing Editor] Ian Fisher is in charge of overseeing the project. I bounce ideas off him. And Michael Slackman on the Middle East news desk reads back. So the foreign desk is involved. Like everything at the Times, each post is copy edited about three times.

Is this a full time project right for you now?

When we first talked about the project I thought we’d put up a video and it would take me a couple of hours to write the accompanying post. But that turned out to be not the case. It’s pretty much a full time job. There are a lot of videos that take hours to verify. I didn’t quite anticipate that.

What kind of feedback have you received?

Middle East watchers are really into it. Andy Carvin (@acarvin) tweeted that he really liked it. Other Middle East-observing bloggers are also really into it. It’s very in keeping with this social media consumption of news where everything is a work in progress and there’s no problem showing that. People like it that they can see the reporting process. The open-ness is very appealing. Most of the people who are reading the feature have no more information than we do.

Is this reporting for the future?

No. It’s a tool. Reporting is not only what’s going on on the ground, it’s also what’s going on on the internet. Using raw material on the internet is an essential part of the story, but it cannot replace old-fashioned reporting on the ground.

On the other hand, think of how the New York Times covered World War Two. We know more visually about this conflict than we did in real time during World War Two. But as we’ve seen, just seeing something doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s going on.

Personal Democracy Media is thankful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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