The Ethics of Reporting Conflict: Syria

On August 17, 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh was pulled out from the rubble after an airstrike on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. A video of him in an ambulance circulated around social media and  captured the world’s attention as the new face of the Syrian conflict, as Alan Kurdi did almost a year ago. The video was distributed by the Aleppo Media Center, and most news organizations identified Syrian photographer Mahmoud Raslan as the one behind the footage, even though there were others who filmed Omran and his family being rescued.

Aside from the fact that the Syrian conflict troubles me deeply, I chose to bring the case of Omran up because it presents many ethical dilemmas related to reporting on conflict and the sharing of graphic images of war. As journalists, documenting the horrors of war falls within our responsibility to unearth humanity’s truths and record the history of mankind. Reporting and documenting conflict I believe is one of the most challenging and conflicting jobs to do within the field of journalism, especially since the humanitarian aspect of conflict is so devastating.

One of the main questions I have in relation to conflict reporting: How do we report on conflict accurately and responsibly from a neutral standpoint, while maintaining our humanity?

Reporting on conflict

The key journalistic principles that come into question when reporting on conflict are that of truth & accuracy, minimizing harm and independence.

In such a complex, intractable conflict such as Syria’s, there is so much urgency yet sensitivity needed in its reporting. It has reached such an unprecedented scale, with more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees and more undocumented and caught in the massive refugee exodus. The regional and international repercussions of the conflict, as well as its evolvement into a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia has shaped international news coverage of the conflict and allowed journalism to bleed into advocacy. The following was posted by journalist Anne Barnard who wrote the accompanying article on NYT.


The dire circumstances within Syria has cut off almost all access to foreign journalists and many news agencies have been getting their information from citizen journalists inside Syria. These journalists tell the world what is happening inside the country through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Aleppo Media Center, which uploaded the video of Omran, has a Facebook page that provides updates on the latest attacks, mostly by the Russian-backed regime. AMC is referred by the mainstream media as a group of anti-government activists and citizen journalists. 


When news of Omran broke out, alternative and independent media channels challenged the authenticity of the video, calling the whole incident a tool of Western propaganda that would justify American intervention in the conflict.

China’s state media has also called the video fake. In news articles on the matter, the fact that  China supports Russia in its backing of the Assad regime is mentioned.

In this situation, where foreign journalists cannot be on the ground and facts are hard to obtain what more corroborate, how do we make sure we get the facts right? When the information we receive is colored through intense, emotional and harrowing experiences from sources that might align themselves to questionable sides, how do we make sense of it and seek its truth? How do we even begin to verify the information? What should the public, so far removed from such areas of conflict and strife, believe? How do we stay impartial in the face of inhumanity?

Visual Diary of War

A journalist’s depiction of war serves as a lens into which the public is informed of human suffering elsewhere. The media has the power to turn the tide of public opinion and push governments to change a course of action. Public opinion against the war in Vietnam played a role in ending the most publicized war in American history. Photographs of the horrors being played out in Vietnam had rallied public protest and triggered the peace movement.

With the advent of social media, graphic images of war circulate way faster and without the contextualizing narrative that typically accompanies traditional news stories. Videos of Omran were rapidly shared on Facebook along with the viewer’s emotional response. I did the same when I first watched the video – I shared it without questioning the source of the video or the context in which it was taken. I took it as one of the horrors going on in Syria and Omran, as fast as he became the “symbol of Aleppo’s suffering,” ceased to become so. 


Although Omran became the face of the Syrian war, we later find out that he was just one of a dozen children being treated at the hospital he was at that Wednesday, and that his 10-year-old brother, Ali Daqneesh had died. A still image from a video by the AMC taken shortly before his death was included in the following TIME article on the day Omran was rescued. The article also  raises issues mentioned earlier on relying on citizen journalists as sources. The whole article is a transcript of interviews with five sources, four of which were either at the scene of the rescue or at the hospital that treated Omran. What do we think of this sort of reporting?

The ethics of war photography is a vast and deep topic that I could discuss forever so I’ll just pose a few more questions:

  • What rules should news organizations follow when publishing photos of war, especially of children?
  • How does social media impact the coverage of war and how we feel about war?
  • Is it ethical to visually document death and suffering, knowing that coverage of the war so far has not spurred the international community to act enough?
  • By publishing images of suffering, have  traditional and new forms of media numbed the public even more to tragedy?

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Reporting Conflict: Syria”

  1. I think it is very important for journalists to be present in times of war in order to report the facts of conflict to the public, but as you explained the role of journalists in such situations can be complicated. Obviously, major news organizations should send reporters to war zones or conflict areas like Syria to try and delve into the truth of the conflict in order to inform the public of the facts, as well as to document significant events occurring there. It gets more complicated when journalists are witnesses to real tragedies or impactful images such as the visuals of Omran. Yes, that situation did lend itself to a very meaningful video but I understand where people might say it’s more exploitative than journalistic. Personally, I think it is ethical and important to cover such events, so long as journalists don’t use their position to politicize or profit from a conflict. Reporters should be mindful of how they present the wars and conflicts that they cover, but in service of readers and a news organization’s audience material gathered in an area of conflict should be shared in a manner that conveys the news value of its subjects to record and report such an important event.


  2. This is a really interesting case- and you did a great job explaining it/presenting the ethical issues! My gut reaction would say that violent photos of children shouldn’t be shared for journalistic purpose- but I know better than to jump to that conclusion. Photos are crucial when reporting on the Syrian crisis, as they help paint a picture for Americans to understand the severity of what’s happening overseas. This photo, as violent as it is, needed to be shared- it gained so much attention that I think it helped the American public to get a glimpse into the terrors of the crisis.

    As you mentioned, the credibility of the photo is important- it’s so shocking that many of us shared it, without checking for legitimacy. This is always a risk when photos like this are shared on social networks, given the nature of how we all communicate.

    Do we have to consider minimizing harm to the family of this child? Or is the magnitude of this case so important that the truth telling component is more important? I also wonder how this works in tandem with the lack of photos/news coverage of other crisis- many people comment that the news doesn’t cover stories in nations that Americans “care less about”. This might be an interesting angle to include because it discusses journalists decision between which photos are powerful enough to share, and which ones don’t make the cut.


  3. “Is it ethical to visually document death and suffering, knowing that coverage of the war so far has not spurred the international community to act enough?”

    This question really made me pause and think. As journalists, we feel like it’s our duty to document the horrors that happen domestically and internationally. Although, ethically, our duty is only to inform, I feel like reporting in these cases is tied up with the hope that our photographs and stories will cause people to care and to act. The discussion of whether Americans are desensitized to images of violence and war by constant coverage is a good one: every time they turn on the news, there are images of car crashes, news of murder, or reports of the latest viral photograph to bring brief attention to the war in Syria or refugees or victims of floods and droughts and other natural disasters. I think it’s fair to say that, with all these images, a lot of viewers feel overwhelmed.

    I’m currently taking a class on reporting on climate change, and something that we’re discussing there is why people react negatively to certain images or stories. One thing that has been suggested by research is that viewers or readers react negatively to situations that they don’t think they can change, so climate change reporters should frame issues through the lens of what readers can do to help solve them. Something that reporters could do to accompany these images of war or destruction is include a brief note about exactly how people can help: donate to certain charities, contact their Congressman, etc., or to report on what people are currently doing to relieve the situation. I think a lot of desensitization has to do with the fact that viewers see a lot of news coverage as relentlessly negative and remote: they can’t do anything and what they can do doesn’t matter.

    basically, I think that visually documenting death and suffering is important, but reporters may need to consider how they cover these events. Just showing suffering, however terrible, doesn’t usually actually cause viewers to demand change.


  4. This is definitely an interesting subject to cover and it’s one that definitely makes me think.

    It’s important to cover what’s going on overseas with the fighting and the reason our country is divided on whether to let refugees in or not. This is a topic that seems to be pushed aside by a lot of people because “it’s not happening here.” I remember that photograph going viral, and I definitely saw it on my newsfeed. When it comes to photographing children, it’s a tough call. Obviously they’re young and normally you would normally get the parent’s/parents’ permission, but it’s tough in this case. What if they’re orphaned? The famous photo of Vietnam with the children running after a napalm attack was one that has become a large part of history. I would guess that their parents weren’t nicely consulted to see if it was okay to publish the photograph. But why is that photograph so iconic? Because it’s children. You see the pain on their faces, and it definitely has a more chilling effect to see how the children are affected instead of the “big, bad guys” that most of us would like to imagine when we go to war. But at the same time, you don’t want to exploit them as well to further your story or get more attention. It’s just a tough call in general.

    The rise of citizen journalism has definitely helped in spreading this information, since we aren’t able to get American journalists in there to report. But it definitely raises the question, like you noted, of authenticity. How do we verify? I’m looking forward to seeing what answers come up in class tomorrow.


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