Study Examines Use of Social Media to Cover the Syria Uprising

Social media and user-generated content played an important role in coverage of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya; however, content from the public was supplementary to traditional newsgathering in media coverage.

By contrast, in Syria, with the tight control and exclusion of foreign media, news organizations had to rely almost exclusively on user-generated content, particularly in the early months of the uprising. Much of the user-generated content used by news outlets came via Syrian activists inside Syria and in exile.

To examine how user-generated content has been integrated into prominent Arab-language news organizations, Internews commissioned and collaborated with the Center for Global Communication Studies to produce Deciphering User-Generated Content In Transitional Societies: A Syria Coverage Case Study which looks closely at how BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera Arabic used social media, photos and videos taken by members of the public to provide coverage of the uprising in Syria, particularly in the early days of the uprising.

Based on research conducted over a 12-week period between No­vember 2011 and January 2012, this study employed a qualitative, mixed method approach using literature review, in-depth interviews with 19 media practitioners, academics, activists and commentators; and, a content analysis of the news and current affairs output of BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera Arabic, focusing on three major events at different stages of the Syrian revolt.
The study examines these questions:

  • How did the stations verify user-generated material?
  • How did the news organizations manage the heavy use of user-generated content and social media while being true to their editorial guidelines?
  • How did the news organizations inform audiences of the materials’ sources, considering the role of activists in producing and distributing the content?

The report concludes that given the heavy reliance on user-generated content, Al Jazeera Arabic and BBC Arabic were not initially fully transparent about the sourcing and context of the material that they used. As the conflict deepened, this information was not just crucial to meet the editorial standards of both organizations, but also important in helping audiences understand the complexity of the conflict and the political agendas of the sources of the material being provided.

Detailed verification policies are in place, but there remain some issues with clear communication with audiences as to what they have been able to verify and what remains unverified, contrary to their editorial guide­lines and also in contrast to their English sister stations.

Not only has the challenge of covering Syria had a profound effect on ethical and verification policy development, it has also affected newsroom organization and workflow practices.  To more effectively use user-generated con­tent and information from social media sources for Syria, BBC and Al Jazeera Arabic have both set up dedi­cated Syria Desks.

This Syrian case study provides a rich opportunity for further study which could explore the ways in which information ecology is transforming, the role of the activists in building a grassroots alternative media service and by extension, the ethical issues arising from the relationship between activ­ists and mainstream news broadcasters.

The study was initiated by Jamal Dajani, Internews Vice President for MENA designed and commissioned by Internews’ Center for Innovation and Learning working in collaboration with the  Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The studies’ authors are Juliette Harkin, Kevin Anderson, Libby Morgan, and Briar Smith at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Download a PDF of the report, Deciphering User-Generated Content In Transitional Socities: A Syria Coverage Case Study