Well before the United States weighed an intervention, Syria had become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Legacy media outlets have, understandably, sent fewer and fewer of their reporters into harm’s way—but the result has been a dearth of reliable reporting on the country's civil war. Helping to fill the journalistic void are not only intrepid freelance stringers, who reliably show up at any conflict, but also countless citizen journalists, nearly all of whom are activists who openly support the opposition. In fact, the Pew Research Center calculates that 73 percent of the journalists who have died in Syria were citizens, not professionals.
“In order to cover the conflict, there is no other choice than citizen journalists to get the images out,” says Soazig Dollet of the French NGO Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders, or RSF). “But that does not mean the conflict is properly covered: both, the authorities and armed opposition groups, are spreading disinformation. And despite the emergence of citizen media—usually pro-revolution—there are very few independent observers, and a very limited number of foreign correspondents.”
Syria’s activist journalists aren’t a uniform bunch. Some use extensive grassroots networks to triple-check the cause of each death and the veracity of every macabre photo; others inflate their grisly statistics to press for international aid. Below is a rough guide to the sources, out of hundreds working in Syria, whose names most regularly appear in the mainstream press.
Much of the news from Syria is transmitted through activists who have fled the country but maintain extensive contacts at home. Among these, a man based in England who calls himself Rami Abdul Rahman (a pseudonym he used to criticize the government long before the revolution began) has won the most trust from mainstream media. His Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has become The New York Times’s go-to source for the war’s rising body count and is often cited in Reuters, the AP, and others. According to a profile in the Times, “four men inside Syria help to report and collate information from more than 230 activists on the ground, a network rooted in Mr. Abdul Rahman’s youth, when he organized clandestine political protests.” Though Rahman is open about his politics, western journalists and human rights groups who rely on him say his sympathies don’t skew his figures. He told the Times, “I make sure nothing is published before crosschecking with reliable sources to ensure that it is confirmed,” and that if anything, the dead number many more than he has reported. In April, the total death toll he gave the Times was 62,550—below the United Nations’ estimate of over 70,000. The Observatory's latest count is 106,423, while the UN has raised its estimate to over 100,000.
Despite its cautiousness, the Observatory’s work has still drawn criticism, such as when it said this March was the bloodiest month of the conflict thus far—a claim disputed by James Miller, who writes about Syria and the region for The Interpreter and Dissected News. Miller points out that other groups found that some months in 2012 had much higher tolls than March 2013. One of the networks Miller used to question the Observatory’s March findings was the Violations Documentation Center, which, like the Observatory, is among the most cited sources in the western press. Miller says he likes the VDC because it strives for transparency, maintaining a public database—which, at the time of this writing, reports a total of 71,647 "martyrs," not including regime casualties—with information about each individual victim, such as name, age, cause of death, place of death, and even Facebook pages or videos of the fatal attack if available. Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch, which uses the VDC as a reference, says the group has described its method to her: “They basically endeavor to have more than one activist in a location, and the activists are not in touch. They collect info separately, and they use that separate analysis to corroborate the info they’re receiving.”
Similar praise goes to Syria Tracker, which worked with the MacArthur-winning nonprofit Ushahidi to make an interactive map of deaths. It pulls data from multiple other activist databases, including the VDC, and crowdsources reports on social media. Its team told the New Scientist that it “works hard to weed out duplicates by comparing the images, video and written statements associated with each event. It acknowledges that some will remain, but thinks that missing records are a much bigger source of error. ‘I think the total is an underestimate,’” in the words of one team member.
Other groups sacrifice some accuracy for a faster turnaround. The Shaam News Network, for example, heightened its profile this week when its gruesome photos were the first to convince western outlets that the chemical weapons attack had indeed occurred. According to CNN, Shaam, which is based in Damascus, “was founded in 2011, after the conflict began, by a man named Abulhassan Abazeed … Even [the organization’s spokesman] does not know how many people contribute to Shaam News. ‘There's no specific number of activities as some of them have been arrested, killed, or wounded the remaining volunteers are not dedicated to reporting to the network,’ he said.”
One of the other news aggregators that has kept its headquarters in war-torn Syria is the Aleppo Media Center, a group of 30-odd volunteers living and working together in that burned-out city. After an airstrike earlier this month, the AP pitted the AMC’s findings against the Observatory’s: While the UK-based group reported at least 15 dead and dozens wounded, the AMC counted 33 people who were killed and said over 100 had been injured. The AP wrote, “The different figures could not be reconciled.”
The lower reaches of the activist media universe are populated by anonymous bloggers, along with individual Syrians’ Facebook pages and YouTube channels. One of the most thorough, and virulent, is The Revolting Syrian, which publishes reams of sickening video footage with captions like, “This is what the world ignores. The murder of these young children in broad daylight for the world to see.” Miller says this blog, like many others, doesn’t seem to be run out of Syria. For on-the-ground news, he has taken to following opposition fighters’ YouTube channels. “All of those sorts of sources are great for finding information, but you’ve got to do the legwork to verify it,” he says. “The underlying question is always, what’s going on that’s not in the videos? Even if you can use some videos to establish trust in a story, you still don’t know what’s not being captured.” This is the problem: We have scattered images and disjointed clips of what’s happening in Syria, but few unbiased observers to fill in the gaps.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.