POLIS 2012: Reporting Revolution

March 23, 2012

I’m at the POLIS Journalism Conference where we have been talking about Reporting Revolution with the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 and Tom Coghlan at The Times. 

"An extraordinary time to be a journalist"

All the panellists expressed their excitement at covering the Arab Spring. Tom Coghlan began by comparing the limitations on his reporting from Afghanistan over the last four years with the "fabulously unrestricted" nature of his reporting from Libya.

Covering the conflict from the perspective of the rebels, Coghlan noted that it was "completely chaotic" and journalists were welcomed by Libyans who were keen to tell their stories to the world. 

He said it was a "fantastically optimistic" story to cover with "ordinary people" doing "extraordinary things". 

Lindsey Hilsum described 2011 as "the reason" she "went into journalism". She said it was amazing to have access as a journalist to what was happening at Tahrir Square and the aftermath of Gaddafi’s departure from Tripoli.

In Libya, she said journalists benefited from the fact that battles took place on main roads – journalists could drive up, film the story and then retreat from the front line to file.   

Hilsum believed that for all the dangers and risks of reporting the Arab Spring, her generation of reporters have been "very privileged". 

Lyse Doucet agreed: it is "an extraordinary time to be a journalist". But she observed that the story of the Arab Spring, which began with great "excitement and euphoria" was now entering a new stage.

She said that there were parts of the story that were causing "awe and anguish" as the ‘revolutions’ faced opposition and challenges in the aftermath. 

Reporting Syria

In particular, there was concern on the panel for what was happening in Syria.

Tom Coghlan described his six days reporting from there as exceptionally unpleasant and said the risks that Syrians were taking meant he had not been able to report a single name of anyone he had interviewed.

He revealed that The Times would now only send journalists into Syria with bodyguards.

The role of "citizen journalists" and "activists" in accessing the story from Syria was also discussed.

Coghlan was impressed by the innovative and clever use of online tools by activists, while Lindsey Hilsum said news organisations are developing increasingly sophisticated techniques to verify video material coming out of the country.

Interestingly, an example Hilsum gave of trying to verify a video from the Free Syrian Army included an appeal to Twitter users to see what they made of the footage – effectively crowdsourcing part of the verification process to a networked audience. (Although it should be noted that this was just one of several verification strategies.)    

Nevertheless, prompted by a question from the chair Richard Sambrook, the panel emphasised the importance of "objective", independent reporting and "bearing witness".

Lindsey Hilsum said it was difficult for governments outside of Syria to formulate a policy towards the country, but she argued that it would be even harder if journalists were not going there to gather news and information.