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?