New York Times creates new story form for ‘Watching Syria’s War’

Watching the video is almost unbearable.

But grasping the horror of what’s happening in Syria without watching it is almost unthinkable.

A Father’s Farewell,” posted Oct. 12 to a curation site maintained by The New York Times, appears to tell the story of a father clinging to – and praying for – a child killed during shelling in the city of Hammuria.

The post is among about 85 published by the Times on its “Watching Syria’s War” site, which the paper launched four months ago.

Videos shot by non-journalists have become an important source of information about fighting waged mostly beyond the reach of an international press corps barred from entering the country by Syrian officials.

The problem with the videos, of course, is the difficulty in verifying exactly what they show.

I’ve been researching the verification issue for a seminar in Cairo and consider myself a pretty close reader of The Times. So I was surprised when assistant managing editor Jim Roberts began describing “Watching Syria’s War” to a group of students I accompanied to the Times last month.

I’d never heard of it.

J. David Goodman, New York Times

I followed up a few days later with J. David Goodman, a Times reporter who has produced many of the posts. “Dramatic video can show what war is like to a certain degree,” Goodman told me in a telephone interview, “but we also want to underscore what is uncertain about the videos.”

Talking with the students, Roberts described the blog’s task as “half finding the material and half verifying it.”

A mix of what’s known and what’s not has formed the foundation for a new story form, a framework especially useful for facilitating the collaboration between journalists and non-journalists about important and often complex developments.

Instead of reporting about the video with a narrative account that includes description of what’s shown, along with discussion of such often uncertain details as time, place and identity of those filmed, the Times has created a format (see above) that includes:

  • A video hosted on YouTube or another third-party platform.
  • A 75-80 word summary of what the video appears to show, often including a brief description of the person, if known, who uploaded it.
  • A text box labeled “What We Know” that reports about 50 words worth of exactly that.
  • A text box labeled “What We Don’t Know” that provides another 50 words or so of unanswered questions.
  • A text box labeled “Other Videos” that describes and links to videos that appear related to the video under discussion.
  • Tweets related to the video
  • Links to related Times articles

The paper does not host the videos on its own servers, reflecting what Roberts described as the paper’s policy of posting only “those that we create or otherwise have the rights to, either through a news agency or a specific contract with the video-producer.”

Most of the videos embedded on the site have remained accessible on YouTube, Bambuser or other sites, but occasionally users can encounter a dead link when an account has been closed or the video has been removed.

The Times is clearly still tweaking the form. Earlier posts included invitations to follow up with the reporter via Twitter and email, but more recent posts do not. Earlier posts carried no byline; the most recent ones do.

The interactivity of the feature is limited by its lack of a comments app. Said Roberts: “I think it would be good to have comments; I’m always in favor of giving readers the opportunity to comment on our journalism. But many of our interactive templates were not built to accept comments. I’m sure they could be, with the devotion of additional resources.”

The site supplements longer-form verification work that Robert Mackey has been doing with the Times’ breaking news blog, The Lede, since 2008.

From earlier this month: a detailed assessment and deconstruction of video of an American journalist held in Syria.

Both initiatives exclude especially gruesome videos unless they have a journalistic purpose, and use graphic and text warnings when such footage is judged appropriate.

Robert Mackey, New York Times

In an email exchange, Mackey told me: “The issue with gruesome images is considered on a case by case basis, but we have both linked to and embedded clips that are very graphic and deeply disturbing. One of the advantages of presenting video like this in posts on a blog, as opposed to in the fixed format of an interactive graphic like ‘Watching Syria’s War,’ is that we can feature several clips, some less graphic than others, with clear warnings in text intros, to let readers decide for themselves how much of the horror they want to confront.”

He said his previous experience as a TV news producer provided a glimpse of “how much brutal but powerful video is routinely left out of broadcast TV reports.” He characterized the Times’ approach of “curated presentation of raw footage of violent news events” as “extremely valuable as a way of documenting these catastrophic events for our readers, and for history.”

Videos highlighted on “Watching Syria’s War” range from a soldier recording his thoughts just before heading into battle, pleas for help from a city under siege, and even a battlefield satire mocking the Syrian regime. The blog’s discussion of the satiric video includes credit – and a link – to reporting on the topic by journalist Jess Hill in the Australian news site, The Global Mail.

Sometimes, a video tips a staffer to something that, with further reporting, becomes a story in print as well as online.

Goodman spent time with the graphics desk to learn about reporting for images as opposed to words alone.

He said he tries to present the videos not as “what happened,” but rather as “a version of what happened.”

The paper’s transparency about what remains unknown, he said, “helps the reader have faith in you.”

He likes the tight format: “I’ve found it very liberating not having a lot of space. This design does not allow for long-winded stuff.”

Social media has been critical to the project, with Goodman and others scanning the Twitter feeds of activists, videographers and others alerting them to interesting new video.

“One of our major concerns is not becoming a conduit for propaganda,” he said, noting that videos are often posted to the site for quite different reasons than their creators intended.

In an interview with Lisa Goldman of TechPresident, Goodman offered some context: “Think of how the New York Times covered World War Two. We know more visually about this conflict than we did in real time during World War Two. But as we’ve seen, just seeing something doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s going on.”

The process of verifying the videos often includes:

  • Backtracking of the video, which may have been re-posted several times, to discover its initial online home.
  • Examination of the Twitter traffic about the video, conversation that sometimes yields contacts closer to the scene of what’s portrayed.
  • Inspection of the video for geographic landmarks that might support or challenge the location provided by the source of the video.
  • Checking with Times staffers and stringers in the region.
  • Staying in touch with services like Storyful.com that specialize in tracking and verifying user-generated content, and double-checking with the Twitter feeds and posts of bloggers like @Brown_Moses with specific interest in Syria and the Arab Spring.

Said The Times’s Mackey, who has posted more than 100 Syria-related videos to The Lede Blog: “Events that take place in front of recognizable landmarks are easier to verify through cross-referencing with archival photographs and video posted online before the uprising.”

Goodman had two suggestions for videographers interested in enhancing the credibility of their work before sharing it with a news organization:

  • Pan up and around occasionally to give a fuller sense of the location, which can yield details to be checked in Google Maps and Google Earth.
  • Include audio with the video that specifies such details as date and place.

Asked what lessons he’s taking from the blog to his next assignment (New York City cops), Goodman said he’s now more focused not just on what people say they know but how they know it.

He pointed to a story last month about a recently revived cold case involving the bones of a previously unidentified child. Interviewing police officers for the story, Goodman said, it was clear that a fundamental unknown in the case – how the child died – has prevented police from making a homicide charge.

Among the blog’s most significant contributions is its capacity to advance the story via social media, sometimes by surfacing witnesses closer to the action, more frequently simply by extending the impact of the video and Times reporting about it.

The post highlighting the video of the grieving father, reported by Christine Hauser, was tweeted by the Washington Post’s Liz Sly to her nearly 10,000 followers, by Jess Hill to more than 13,000 followers and by NPR’s Andy Carvin to a Twitter audience that exceeds 77,000.

“Just devastating,” Carvin tweeted. “No parent should ever have to experience this. http://t.co/0CUPAVmt #syria

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.