Programming

The Trouble With Syria

American media executives sound off on the challenges of covering the country’s civil unrest from the front lines 2/27/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

It’s easy to say that coverage of the unrest in Syria may
not be getting all the attention it deserves in the U.S. solely because
of media time spent on potentially flashier—and easier—
stories, like a mud-slinging GOP presidential candidacy race or a oncepopular,
troubled singer succumbing to her demons.

But the truth is covering the well-past-the-boiling-point civil unrest in
Syria is much more challenging for American
news outlets than just deciding to send a few
crews overseas. U.S. network executives overseeing
foreign coverage say access is a massive
roadblock, and while foreign correspondents
are used to dangerous situations, Syria has become
that and more for journalists.

The unrest in Syria, of course, is not a new
story, as the revolution in the country began
last March. But it gained steam in recent
weeks with the government’s assault on Homs
and the United Nations adopting a resolution
condemning Syria, then releasing a report last
week that “gross human rights violations” had
been ordered by the Syrian government.

And the story also took on ancillary
weight in media circles, as they tend to do, when journalists lose
their lives. And that was the case in Syria, first with New York Times
correspondent Anthony Shadid dying of an apparent asthma attack,
and then American Marie Colvin (a Sunday Times of London
reporter who appeared on CNN’s AC360 hours before her death) and
French photographer Rémi Ochlik killed by attacks. At press time,
multiple journalists had also been reported injured since those deaths.

Beyond the safety concerns that are simply a reality of the job for
many brave journos, Syria has editorial roadblocks that affect coverage,
according to U.S. television news executives.

For one, access to Syria is extremely difficult for foreign journalists,
meaning only a handful of TV correspondents have been able to sneak
across the border and report from the ground first-hand.

CNN had two correspondents in Syria, Arwa Damon and Ivan Watson,
which allowed the network to cover the story more closely than the
other cable news channels. (CNN last week pulled both staffers out
of the country.)

“Some of this gets easier because of the big stories that we’ve had and
the high-profile talent,” says Tony Maddox, managing director, CNN
International. “Even if it’s a story that people don’t really know that
much about or aren’t that familiar with, they still want good reporters
doing good reporting on their shows.”

The shortage of compelling live video footage affects how much the Syria
story can be covered on television, with reporters often having to stand
on the border of neighboring countries, in stark contrast to the images
of ABC’s Christiane Amanpour and CNN’s Anderson Cooper getting
roughed up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square a year ago during the unrest in Egypt.

“If Richard [Engel] were to get in, just by virtue of being there in a place
that we don’t have normal access to and the danger that it poses to our people
for being there would probably force its way high up into our network
shows,” David Verdi, NBC News VP of worldwide newsgathering, says
of the network’s chief foreign correspondent.

And though social media has made access
to amateur video readily available to news organizations,
every network would rather get
in-country to report the story first-hand, to
make a connection for their viewers.

“If you don’t have people in the country
and on the ground, it is very difficult to tell a
story from a neighboring country using shaky
YouTube video,” says CBS News foreign correspondent
Clarissa Ward, who was in Syria earlier
this month. “A huge part of what we do is
trying to transport the viewer or the listener or
the reader to the place and give them a sense
of the humanitarian crisis in this situation.”

More Houston Meant Less Syria

In the week of Feb. 6-12, Middle East unrest took up 15%-16% of
the news hole on network and cable TV as measured by the Project for
Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index. In the week ended
Feb. 19, that fi gure dropped to 4%-6%, less than half the amount of
coverage devoted to Whitney Houston’s death.

“It’s not insignificant in an ongoing basis, but it’s somewhat episodic
with ebbs and flows, particularly with Syria,” says Mark Jurkowitz, associate
director of PEJ. “The idea that there would be maybe a quick
and dramatic resolution to this crisis, as that fades, it’s harder for news
organizations to sustain coverage on a week-in-and-week-out basis.”

As the presidential election moves past the primary stage, it will increase
its share of attention, though executives say where international
news can be linked to election-year issues, that’s actually a boon for them.
In particular, stories like nuclear tensions between Iran and Israel and the
Greek debt crisis play well to an American audience because they directly
impact prices at the gas pump and the U.S. stock market, respectively.

“Sometimes, our audience needs reminding that you might not care
about issues in certain parts of the globe, you may not care about a
bailout in Greece, or the nuclear program in Iran,” says Tom Nagorski,
ABC News foreign editor. “But even if all you care about are the basics
of your paycheck-to-paycheck life, you ought to care about it.

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com
and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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