Digital Newsgathering Journalism Social Media Verification

The hazards of war reporting from the other side of the world

Inspired by Alastair Leithead’s very insightful piece on The hazards of war reporting from the Libyan frontline, I’ve been meaning to write about my own experience of the Libyan revolutionary war as a journalist. Now that the world has witnessed the end of Muammar Qadhafi in all its grimness, I can’t put this off any more.

I am part of a team of people who do this role. We’ve all experienced this conflict and dealt with it in different ways. We all depend on each other for support in dealing with it on a day-to-day basis, something which has made the experience far less painful than it could have been.

Am I really part of this?

Unlike Alastair, I’ve never got my “boots dirty”. I have absolutely no concept of what it’s like to be in a war zone. Part of me is glad of this, part of me feels like a fraud, this being the first war I’ve been properly involved in reporting in a newsroom and being a foreign correspondent still being something I might aspire to becoming.

The nearest I can claim to have been to a hostile environment is a survival weekend being chased around the woods around Aldershot, as a Royal Marine cadet when I was at school. Having been a military cadet and shot rifles throughout my school years, I understand how loud gunfire and munitions are but I’ve never experienced it in a conflict.

That is ultimately of little relevance when I’m sat at a desk in west London, connected only to events on the ground by a network cable, a screen and a phone line.  To some I am a proxy, reporting a war by remote control, no better than a drone. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel like one.

The war reporter on the ground can witness what is within their eyesight. They can say “I saw these events today”. I can only say that I have seen videos and spoken to people, both of which describe events but I am unable to independently verify that this is indeed what happened.

I can tell you pretty definitively which corner of Tripoli Street in Misrata was the place in which a tiny group of civilian resistants turned the tide against the full force of Qadhafi’s military. Until I see that street with my own eyes, I will always feel that there is something missing in my experience and understanding of the events.

The objects are familiar: shipping containers, 4×4 trucks, sand, shops and domestic dwellings. But some days it feels difficult to comprehend warfare in that space without the experience of senses like the smell and physical presence of them.

As you walk along the street today, look up at the trees and tops of buildings. Consider how much your sense of their scale and relation position is shaped by the physical sensations of bending your neck, turning your head, having to step back to see them better.

You don’t have to get shot at to be traumatised

But the war has been very close to me, too close sometimes. When the sound of gun fire, mortar explosions and screaming explodes into my headphones it still makes me jump.

Sometimes it’s diegetic and you can pre-empt it, others it’s only a vicious crackling noise somewhere around my head, like a swarm of wasps in a tin. I can take the headphones off, I can step out of the war, but that feels like a betrayal of the people who risk their lives to document their experience in my absence.

Long ago I lost count of the number of casualties I’ve seen this year, but many of the injuries are hard to forget. It’s not always the most graphic ones that are hardest to deal with.

An empty house, a market devoid of stalls and food, the stillness of a dead body prepared for burial. All these can be as visceral as the sight of a gaping wound.

Viewing the videos that emerged in the hours after Qadhafi’s capture and death was uncomfortable, because the information emerging  as I viewed them already gave a sense of the likely course of events and what the deposed despot’s fate had been.

Watching the clips uploaded by Misrata Post (ripped from Al Jazeera Arabic) and Freedom Group Misrata was tough. I was viewing events before many people in the newsroom, and before some of those on the ground in Libya would have been fully aware of them.

Viewing them in a corner of the newsroom on a screen with nobody else sharing the experience at that moment is a dissociative experience. The process of analysing it, effectively repeatedly exposing myself to the same brutal events, does not make it easier.

In the field, where these events happen in realtime and with real physical danger, you see a blast once and run for cover. At a desk, you watch it over and over, looking for clues and markers, trying to decipher the information to place it in context.

In the field  you will be with a cameraman and/or producer, plus a local fixer if you don’t speak the language and likely a security adviser. They all share in that experience in a way that doesn’t exist for those of us away from the events, where we’re analysing video material and contacting eyewitnesses.

(I know that some people on the ground were shown these clips by members of the al-Gheryan Brigade and other units from Misrata who captured him, but they emerged online before they appeared through agencies.)

This is traumatic and we’ve all had to learn how best to deal with what we’ve witnessed. I ride my bike and use that time to process events or to simply forget about them. I intend to write about the issue of dealing with prolonged exposure to distressing material at length elsewhere.

In the place next to the witnesses

In a strange way we come closer to seeing what is happening than some correspondents. Sometimes we see events before them, as I’ve mentioned already.

We watch the videos of people bleeding to death on our screens from about the same distance as many of them have been filmed. You can’t speak to them or say anything to a bunch of pixels darting across the screen. That in itself can be traumatic.

That much of this material is shot point of view and handheld does have an impact. When this sort of video is edited, it’s pretty easy to treat it simply as “material”. When it is a single continuous shot, there is something about its unified perspective – as the point of view of a real person, not of a piece of a broadcast – that can be difficult to cope with.

This isn’t journalists trying to sort facts and report “the story”, this is people showing you what they are experiencing, as if to say:

“I don’t understand why this is happening. Why are they doing this to us? If I show you, then perhaps someone will explain what is going on.”

When it was material from armed fighters on both sides, I would frequently find myself asking why they felt a need to film the events. Battlefield filming is as old as moving pictures, but this new point-of-view filming by combattants is far removed from what was the norm before digital devices shrunk to become portable.

Intimacy and responsibility

Telephone conversations are usually intimate by their nature. Two people, in isolation, communicating with each other, telling each other things they might not otherwise share.

For all the advances of video-conferencing and Skype, the bread and butter of finding out what was happening in places where journalists couldn’t go in Libya was audio calls gaining eyewitness accounts.

Feb17Voices are the most incredible example of this, their brilliance in documenting of events in hard to reach places is one of the most underrated pieces of journalism to emerge from the Libyan war. Lots of bigger organisations have benefitted hugely from the work of John Scott Railton and the rest of the team.

I’m sure that they have also developed relationships with the people that they have spoken that go beyond simple binaries of reporter and witness. Their use of trust networks to gather material means that the person on the ground is always speaking to someone who they either know directly or who is contacting them through a trusted intermediary.

This is different to the traditional mode where people aren’t known until they get in contact. With Libya that has changed to a degree in that many contacts came to us via friends or family and they entrusted to us private numbers to reach people on the ground.

As with any contact, the more you speak to them, the more a relationship develops as you become familiar with them. Additionally, talking to them in a time when they may feel isolated and threatened means that the nature of your conversation is intensified by circumstance. What they are saying is massively important to them, so you must treat it with equal importance in your engagement.

In Benghazi the late Mo Nabbous personified that energy. I spoke to him several times in the middle of the night as he explained what he had seen and how he had documented it. At the time of his death our team were in contact with his wife trying to reach Mo.

It’s difficult to explain how others feel, but I felt there was a collective sense of being unsettled by it. We always tell people not to take risks for us, but Mo wasn’t risking his life for us, he was risking his life for what he believed in. How could anything we could have said stopped him?

In Tripoli, Niz Mhani was an internationally renown source of information. It’s fair to say his email list was said to be notable for the news organisations not on it, rather than those on it.

A testament to the relationship we built with him is that he was willing to risk meeting Wyre Davies while Tripoli was still under Qadhafi’s control, as you can see in this video report. I believe this was possible in part because we took responsibility for the BBC’s relationship with Niz.

What usually happens when a contact becomes available to outlets is that everyone wants a piece of them. For Niz, it was an endless stream of calls that cut into his time. We decided that to reduce the stress for him, he only had to take calls that were agreed through our team or the producer who was his original contact.

Then we agreed to put him in direct contact with producers on the ground and allowed the judgement on when he felt safe to contact them to be entirely his own. Again, this relies on trust between all involved.

For me it was the people we spoke to in Misrata whose voices stick in my mind most. “Dr Abdullah” was one of our most faithful witnesses at a time when there were no journalists in Misrata. Almost nightly he contacted the BBC to speak about what he witnessed in a city under brutal siege.

Without him, other medical staff and civilians such as Isra, what happened in that city would have gone far less reported. They provided us with information that allowed us to locate events, both in space and time, and to confirm the veracity of video material.

Simple things such as: the location of buildings; the types of weapon they could see and hear being used; the weather; the number of casualties reported. All these informed reporting of the battle for the city when international journalists could get no closer than the junction near the bottom of Tripoli Street, and then only under regime escort.

Every time I spoke to Abdullah I would end our long conversations about what was happening by telling him “please stay safe and don’t take any risks on our behalf”. He would reply with words to the effect of “Thank you for your concern Alex, but who else is going to document what is happening here?”

I’ve never found an answer to that but I made sure that whenever he made himself available to speak to the BBC, I tried my hardest to make sure programmes found time to speak to him.

Why it matters

Foreign deployments to high risk environments are expensive and obviously dangerous. Increasingly few organisations are willing to pay for the benefits that it brings to reporting of conflict.

There’s a rise of freelancers self-funding their presence in conflicts but, for all their benefits, there is a power that big news organisations have to force their way into a story – both in confronting authority and safely deploying people – that they lack.

The digitalisation of media has pushed the barrier to entry in generating reportage material down to several pounds where it used to be several thousand. On an economic level, the business aspect of news will always look at ways to reduce cost.

People like me are no substitute for people on the ground, and if you don’t have to pay for them, then there are plenty who will take that option. It’s a stark analysis of one option, but it’s an option that I’ve seen become fairly widespread in less than a year.

Engaging with the people formerly known as the audience cannot be a one way transaction. Conflict reported in this way will become the norm for an increasing number of journalists.

We need to start understanding how it works and how it affects everyone involved, regardless of whether we designate them citizens, journalists, activists or eyewitnesses.

Digital Newsgathering Journalism Social Media Verification

Making video material verifiable – identifiable features

Reading Journalism and a world in transition: Wadah Khanfar’s James Cameron memorial lecture I thought I’d pick out this passage which relates to how Syrian activists have helped make material easier to verify:

The repetitive doubting, for instance by the Syrian authorities, of what al-Jazeera transmits of news and pictures received via Facebook, Twitter or YouTube and the accusations levelled against us that we fabricate such material, all of this inspired activists to come up with new ideas including a better documentation and authentication of demonstrations.

This they do by means of including in their footage the names of streets or images of landmarks or well-known public squares in the various cities; as well as including the date of each clip using a newspaper front page where the date of issue is clearly printed.

This is definitely something I’ve noticed in recent months. Below are some thoughts on how to extract this information usefully and the sort of things I look out for in a non-exhaustive, non-exclusive list.

The physical environment as source of verification

Physical objects that often people take for granted have become a very useful set of keys in my verification toolbox.

Landmarks and squares are pretty easy to pin down – tourists tend to take photos of them which we can use as reference. Plus they are relatively easy to spot on satellite imagery and to match up to wide shots in video clips.

When it comes to landmarks in the arab world, mosques are a favourite of mine as minarets tend to be distinctive and so easier to identify. These are the sort of buildings for which there tend to be photos I can use as a reference.

They’re only beaten by historically significant buildings or monuments for ease of identifying features I’m glad to see. Rarely do these go un-photographed.

Statues are absolutely brilliant on the grounds of their uniqueness – even if they are a common typology, their setting is usually unique.

Bridges are also helpful landmarks as anything filmed from a bridge tends to mean that there’s a clear line of sight onto the surroundings.

Street names, I’m less a fan of as it’s not always the case that the local name matches up with the one found on maps of the area.

Getting round the language divide

As a non-Arabic speaker, descriptive data that I can stick through google translate is always helpful. I’m fortunate enough to be able to rely on arabic speakers at work to translate handwritten dates and newspaper dates.

When one isn’t available there is an emergency workaround, which is a bit circuitous, so bear with me…

  • Take the claims being made about location and date as you understand them or have translated from captions
  • Highlight keywords in your translation (date, location) and check the original arabic it relates to
  • Make a note of this arabic on paper and keep this in front of you
  • Re-watch video clip looking for a visual match with the date and location information you have in front of you
  • Find someone to give a second set of eyes to the match and confirm the matched information

This method is far from foolproof, but in emergency it may be enough of a level of verification to get you moving in the right direction. But given its slightly blurry results, I don’t use it if I can avoid it at all.

Note of caution

There have been examples where the dates, times and locations claimed on videos haven’t matched up, so it’s useful to do a longitudinal search for videos in the same location to ensure that the clip isn’t a reboot of older material.

This rebooting, in my experience, isn’t deliberate so much as a result of the sometimes unclear path via which material emerges. They don’t get uploaded chronologically or, well, logically at all. It’s as they surface.

But it can be deliberate if someone believes that it corresponds with a reported event and they feel that a clip can be used to represent it. I’ve seen this where a protest was illustrated with video from a similar incident in the same location a week previous.

In that sense it’s always good to have at least two indentifiable features that tally and are consistent.


Most of all, stay safe. I say this to everyone I speak to who is filming or photographing events. Even the most ordinary of events can pose a risk – for example tripping over a kerb while filming something across the road.

Small World News have done a nice guide to keeping safe when “in the field” which is worth downloading and reading.

Digital Newsgathering Journalism Social Media Verification

Newsgathering in the open

Emily Bell has written an interesting piece on the notion of “live” as a defining characteristic of modern journalism. She argues that any news organisation worth its presence in the digital space needs to work in real time all the time and consider “live” as the default mode of operation.

In it she discusses the nature of Andy Carvin‘s ongoing experiment with journalism on the Twitter platform. I’ve discussed with Andy a bit about what he’s doing on twitter. This is the discussion we had about it back in March, in response to an article by Jay Rosen.


The best tools for note taking


I’ve still not found anything to beat pen and paper


Vanity Fair, the Lockerbie deal and building branding trust

This is an impressive piece of journalism that you should read: The Lockerbie Deal.

No matter what platform you put it on the quality of writing and research shines through. Here’s the summary of what to expect:

“A Vanity Fair investigation reveals new details about the business interests and private dealings that lay behind the prisoner’s release. At the heart of the matter: the cozy and “profitable relationships” between the Blair government and Qaddafi’s Libya.”

Building brand trust

Vanity Fair could have held it for the magazine, but not everyone is going to go out an buy their copy on the same day. They don’t seem to be afraid of people finding their content online.

Perhaps they’re smart enough to realise that increasingly readers are platform agnostic. If they remember to buy the print copy, they will, but they expect it to be available somewhere to them regardless.

Putting it out like this builds a certain trust and loyalty among readers.

If you’re like me, you sometimes forget or don’t have time to read all your favourite sites. But if you know that the publisher appreciates this and puts it online, you’re going to keep reading and maybe buying their content.

Another unseen benefit is that seeing this quality of journalism makes me more likely to buy a subscription to the paper or an enhanced digital copy, not less.

There is something about the physical experience of reading magazines and books that isn’t matched by digital at the moment and perhaps never will be. The tactile experience of paper in unique, along with the all-round sensory exploration that is reading a physical object.

But having the same content archived online beats paper archive hands down because I can access that anywhere without having to leaf through hundred of papers and dig in boxes trying to remember which edition I’m looking for.

Put the two together and you’re starting to build a product I value and trust. And one that I can encourage my friends and extended network to enjoy as well. That is invaluable for surviving in the changing world of journalism.