Found: Journalistic Differences

Journalists write stories for particular audiences.  It is widely known that in order to succeed in the business of publishing news, or what is taken as news, they need to write about what interests their intended audience.  What is less often publicly acknowledged, but no less true, is that what they write needs to be plausible enough that it is not rejected as a test of credulity (“the Loch Ness monster attacked tourists!”) or propaganda (“the Loch Ness monster works for the communists!”).  But what one audience considers plausible another considers pure fantasy or mere agitprop.  On any of the numerous contentious issues swirling around the modern Middle East, events which are considered reliable “news” to one audience are “impossible” to another, and these boundary lines often (though not always) lie along national, linguistic, and religious lines.

A news source I do not usually read reported on June 13 that the Free Syrian Army massacred the entire Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs “late last month” as they withdrew from al-Qusayr in the wake of its capture by the Assad regime.  Apart from many pictures showing damage to a church, to church property, and to houses, the text of the report is worth quoting in full (fortunately it is not too long):

More details of a massacre in Homs late last month have emerged following the global outcry of a massacre in Deir el-Zour yesterday.

The massacre, carried out by Free Syrian Army militants reportedly targeted men, women and children in the Christian village of al-Duwayr/Douar close to the city of Homs and the border with Lebanon. The incident received little media attention, having occurred at the same time as thousands of Syrian troops converged on the insurgent-occupied town of al-Qusayr.

According to sources, around 350 heavily armed militants entered the village, broke into homes and assembled residents in the main square of the village where they were executed. The final death toll is not known but photos show severe damage to property in the village.

Syrian army sources said that they reached the village after the massacre, resulting in clashes with militants. Sources also reported that Turkish and Chechen extremists were among the perpetrators. Chechen militants are known to have kidnapped two Christian bishops in Aleppo earlier this year. The following images show al-Duwayr/Douar village after the massacre:

[photos omitted]

Conditions for ethnic and religious minorities have been made increasingly worse as Free Syrian Army affiliated organisations including Jabhat al-Nusra increase ethnic and sectarian cleansing across Syria. Kidnappings, executions and assassinations are common.

Late last month, around the time of the massacre in Homs, a fifteen year old girl was kidnapped by militants in Damascus, who demanded $100,000 for her release. Miryam Jbeil, a niece Damascus-based Catholic priest Nader Jbeil, was released after a number of days in captivity.

In the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on al-Qusayr, the church was discovered to have been desecrated by Free Syrian Army militants.

This outlet reproduces this article from Syria Report, whose article dated 12 June on the subject does not cite anything, so in order to find out where Syria Report got the information from, it took some additional searching.  The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which reports on issues relevant to Assyrian Christians in the Middle East or in the diaspora, published a clearly related story on 29 May, drawn from the Fars News Agency‘s identical article dated 27 May.  Fars News Agency seems to be the original source in English.  From there the story has branched out, and especially in the past five days it has been picked up by many blogs and anti-Obama discussion forums, but by no Western news outlets.  Google News is not as effective at searching Arabic news outlets but I did eventually find an article on the Syrian news agency breakingnews.sy (Arabic, English).

The Fars News Agency’s short article reads as follows:

Armed Rebels Massacre Entire Population of Christian Village in Syria

TEHRAN (FNA)- Armed rebels attacked a village in Syria’s Western province of Homs and slaughtered all its Christian residents on Monday.

The armed rebels affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) raided the Christian-populated al-Duvair village in Reef (outskirts of) Homs near the border with Lebanon today and massacred all its civilian residents, including women and children.

The Syrian army, however, intervened and killed tens of terrorists during heavy clashes which are still going on in al-Duvair village.

The armed rebels’ attack and crimes in al-Duvair village came after they sustained heavy defeats in al-Qusseir city which has almost been set free by the Syrian army except for a few districts.

Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011 with organized attacks by well-armed gangs against Syrian police forces and border guards being reported across the country.

Hundreds of people, including members of the security forces, have been killed, when some protest rallies turned into armed clashes.

The government blames outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorist groups for the deaths, stressing that the unrest is being orchestrated from abroad.

In October 2011, calm was almost restored in the Arab state after President Assad started a reform initiative in the country, but Israel, the US and its Arab allies sought hard to bring the country into chaos through any possible means. Tel Aviv, Washington and some Arab capitals have been staging various plots to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who is well known in the world for his anti-Israeli stances.

The relevant portion of the article on breakingnews.sy reads more briefly:

The “Free Army” militia has committed a massacre on Monday 27 May, in the right of civilians in Homs countryside, as the army continued operations in al-Qusair and thwarted the infiltration of gunmen from Lebanon and killed Saudi members from al-Qaeda.

The elements of armed militia’s has broken in the village of al-Dweir in Homs countryside, committed a massacre in the right of civilians, killing women and children.

Our correspondent in Homs pointed that the army has intervened and currently is engaged in severe battles against the insurgents in the mentioned village, claiming martyrs of the army and tens of deaths in the militia’s ranks.

Our correspondent noted that the gunmen have break through the town and carried out the massacre after their major defeats in al-Qusair, which is about to fall in the army’s grip.

It is obvious that the news of Syrian rebels massacring Christians, especially the Free Syrian Army which Sen. John McCain was already campaigning to supply with weapons, looks well for the Assad regime and poorly for President Obama who has just decided to provide greater arms to that group.  Even the most cursory review of the headlines on breakingnews.sy reveals its pro-Assad stance, and of course the semi-official Fars News Agency follows Iran’s public support for the Assad regime, so it is no surprise that these news outlets would run this story.

The more important question is how much of this is true.  For many Americans, merely saying the story was found on Syrian and Iranian news outlets is enough to condemn it to implausibility, which just shows the differences of intended audiences (although my inability to find translations of this story in Farsi, Arabic, or Turkish on the Fars News Agency website may indicate that it is primarily intended for an Anglophone audience).  The reason Western news outlets have failed to report on this story is no doubt that they do not trust the source, and they do not regard it as sufficiently plausible for their audience.  But we dare not break down the world into mutually exclusive news feeds for mutually exclusive audiences; we need news from sources that do not agree with our preconceptions, in order to reveal to us our own blind spots.

Our ability to evaluate parts of this story is aided by the identification of progressively increasing sources.  The original report that portions of the Free Syrian Army massacred Christian civilians in al-Duwayr is the most important detail.  Fars News Agency states that the Free Syrian Army massacred all the inhabitants of al-Duwayr, but they probably have no source apart from the breakingnews.sy, so the “all” component can be confidently rejected.  Indeed, from the logic of the case, the breakingnews.sy article indicates that the Syrian Army engaged the Free Syrian Army in the village of al-Duwayr, which most likely indicates that the massacre cannot have killed the whole village, unless the Syrian Army interrupted the murderers in the post-execution process of looting.

It is unclear what sources Syria Report has to peg the number of militants who perpetrated the massacre at 350, or their method of rounding up the villagers in the central square.  Syria Report also comes up with a way to include both Fars News Agency’s report that “all” the villagers were killed and also breakingnews.sy’s report of Syrian Army engagement with the rebels in the village: the Syrian Army reached the village “after the massacre.”  The rest of the Syria Report article is their gloss on the situation, linking Jabhat al-Nusra with the Free Syrian Army and highlighting rising sectarianism and violence against civilians.

Finally, it is not at all clear that breakingnews.sy has correctly identified the group responsible for the attack on al-Duwayr.  Indeed, news articles from 10 March 2013 celebrate the Free Syrian Army’s “liberation” of al-Duwayr from regime control, which suggests that they were in control of the village before the massacre took place.

Unfortunately it is only too plausible that a massacre took place in the Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs.  Sources favorable to the Assad regime blame the Free Syrian Army, the group to which US President Obama has just promised weapons.  The absence of counter-claims by the rebels suggests that at least some rebel group probably did carry out the massacre.  Their motive is less clear; the contemporaneous battle for al-Qusayr may indicate that looting was the desired goal, or perhaps a desire not to leave anything that would help the regime when it came into town, but it is unlikely that the Christian village of al-Duwayr had any equipment that would be useful to either side.  Some graffiti in the ruined church indicates an Islamist rejection of other religions (to a degree not required by shari’a), but it is not clear whether this graffiti was the tag on the church or the motive for the entire attack.  If the fighters had recently escaped from a siege in al-Qusayr, they may have been primarily after food.  But like so many other war crimes and works of opportunistic violence during the Syrian Civil War, the actual chain of events along with any possibility of justice in this situation may be lost beyond recovery.

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4 thoughts on “Found: Journalistic Differences

  1. Amgine

    “Unfortunately it is only too plausible that a massacre took place in the Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs.”

    Well, actually, no. If I understand your secondary analysis correctly, you are talking about a reported event which has a single source which is assessed to be unreliable. In other words, you have no reason to believe any event actually took place.

    I made a series of searches for the existence of a village in Syria named al-Duwayr; it is not listed in their census data as a population point according to wikipedia. A casual search of the internet mostly finds this particular story, but also referents to Khan al-Duwayr (depopulated Palestinian city), Doueir (Lebanon), Dweir Baabda, Dweir al-Shaykh Saad, Dweir Taha, Dweir Ruslan (these four in Syria.) Al-Dar al-Kabirah is a suburb of Homs. Unfortunately cbssyr.org, the Central Bureau of Statistics for Syria, is offline, making the official census report (http://www.cbssyr.org/General%20census/census%202004/pop-man.pdf) unavailable. Nor did a search for الدوي‎ turn up useful results.

    This was all very casual, but it raised further questions for me as to the report’s veracity. Yes, the recent history makes a massacre of Syrians – of any identity – plausible. But there is a clear difference between journalism and marketing/propaganda: the former informs, while such is not the goal of the latter.

    Reply
    1. tacarlson Post author

      Yes, it is always important to check “does the place exist?” I initially had difficulty finding a place named al-Duwayr near Homs, which caused me also to regard the report as an entire fabrication. But the Arabic Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for دوير does list a village near Homs (and the last edit to the page was August 2012), and Ahrar Press reported in March that the Free Syrian Army was claiming to have “liberated” al-Duwayr at that time (http://www.ahrarpress.com/Section/8331/Default.aspx). So I am convinced the place does exist.
      But I also see reliability not as a binary (“reliable or not”), nor even as a spectrum (from “more reliable” to “less reliable”), but rather as a complex character of a source: in what ways is a text reliable, and in what ways is it likely to be distorted or fabricated? The breakingnews.sy and Fars News Agency reports on this topic are likely to be distorted in ways favorable to the Assad regime And all news seeks both to inform and to persuade; perhaps the only difference between news and propaganda is the deliberate misinformation put into the latter. But Fars News Agency and breakingnews.sy do report news – not merely propaganda – as I verified by looking at other headlines. Indeed, the scene of the reported violence being al-Duwayr, such a no-name place, also lends limited support to the idea that an event occurred: a propagandist asking around, “Where should I place a completely false report of violence?” is not likely to have heard of al-Duwayr any more than a propagandist would set a false report in Zumbro Falls, MN. As you say, given the violence in Syria, a massacre of Syrians is plausible enough. That plausibility combined with the obscure name suggests to me that an event occurred, although as I indicated, everything else is unclear.

      Reply
      1. Amgine

        There is a topic stream within the NPOV community (neutral point of view) which is generally summed as “undue weight”. Within any given informational category, for example ‘politics of the USA’, there is a good chance the research/journalism/writing will give equal coverage to (tiny) subsets of the field (neo-fascism), often distorted by conflict of interest (sensationalising to improve site traffic.) Relevant to this particular news story, the possible massacre of christians in this village, identifying the supposed victims by their religious affiliation is odd because – assuming the distribution of attrocities surrounding Homs is purposeful, to inspire terror or as collective punishment – it is certain that Syrian christians will eventually be among the victims. They *may* be targeted at a higher rate than the many other religious identities of the region, but this incident by itself certainly cannot suggest that at all. (On another hand, any harm to a small minority has a proportionately larger impact on that minority – it really is a ‘bigger harm’.)

        I would take issue with the idea that all news seeks to persuade; most news coverage does not. There are more sources of financial trades news than any other single topic, and the second-most-common is probably weather. The *industry* of news exists primarily to sell advertising – not to report news – distorted in some economic settings by government-operated news sources. (Imo it’s unexpected that such melieu in the English language tend to promote more aggressively partisan or sensational news coverage, but it is also true the quality of the coverage is better.)

        When designing marketing, a meme, or propaganda it is far better to set your ‘story’ in an unknown place. If it is remote, tiny, and especially if it has poor communications with the rest of the world it is more difficult to be proven a fabrication. If I started a story about a black family moving to Zumbro Falls and being harassed with KKK being spray painted on their mini-van and a cross burned in their yard, many people would believe it because it is plausible, even though it is easily disproven.

        You ask in what ways is a text reliable? three: what, when, and usually where. Maybe who and how, sometimes why. The five w’s and h of news coverage.

      2. tacarlson Post author

        As you said, the massacre of civilians in Syria, of whatever category, is plausible enough. In this case, the identification of the victims as Christians is significant for breakingnews.sy and the Fars News Agency because Bashar al-Assad has often portrayed himself during the Syrian Civil War as the bulwark for the religious minorities – perhaps especially for the Christians – against the rising tide of sectarian “cleansing” or Islamist subjugation by al-Qa’ida affiliated groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Of course, massacres committed by the rebel group favored by the US also make the US look bad, as many commentators have re-posted this report with that additional comment. From a Muslim Middle Eastern perspective, it looks especially inconsistent that America (which many Middle Easterners presume to be a “Christian” country) is supporting those who are killing Christians.

        The regime is not alone in highlighting the dimension of religious affiliations among those who fight and those who die in Syria. Before his abduction in April Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Aleppo, claimed that no violence was targeting Christians specifically, even if they were suffering equally with everyone else in the general violence. The fact that he disappeared two months ago without any verifiable word since, apparently abducted by a rebel group which rumors indicate contained Chechen elements, and that he and the other abducted archbishop of Aleppo (Boulos Yaziji) were abducted while returning from (unsuccessfully) attempting to negotiate the release of two kidnapped priests, indicates that some rebel forces appear to be targeting Christians, at least as the opportunity presents itself.

        While it is true that setting a fabricated news story in an obscure location hinders any attempts at verification, someone involved in the production of the story must first have heard of the place in order to use it in such a way. I suspect al-Duwayr is obscure enough that even Syrian propagandists are unlikely to have heard of it!

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