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Project Looks At A New Way To Report On Syria

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with Lara Setrakian, founder of the news website SyriaDeeply.org, a digital media project led by journalists and technologists, exploring a new model of storytelling.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now, to Syria. Reporting the conflict in Syria has been a challenge. The borders are often difficult to penetrate for journalists, access to any place, especially those caught up in the fighting, is tightly controlled by the Assad government. So getting reliable information out of Aleppo and Damascus and the smaller villages, which have been taken rebels and retaken by government troops, is difficult.

Lara Setrakian is the former ABC news correspondent who's come up with a new way to try to report this crisis. She is the co-founder of a website called SyriaDeeply.org, a digital media project led by journalists and technologists, trying to explore a new model of storytelling. She joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

LARA SETRAKIAN: Scott, it's a pleasure.

SIMON: So how do you report the news out of a place that is in many ways closed to the news industry?

SETRAKIAN: Well, the first order of business is to organize what information we have, whether it's Tweets, access to some officials, sources on the ground telling us what they know from specific locations - Aleppo, Tartus, Idilb. And what we've done with SyriaDeeply.org is really create space for each kind of information. What's coming to us from social media, what we're doing in the old hard news journalism model, visualizations of members of the regime, members of the opposition, a data map showing the refugee outflows. Just taking what information does exist and organizing it better.

SIMON: Let's offer some illustration if we can. This is a clip of, I believe, speaking with George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council, and he's talking about running with his son as a sniper fires.

GEORGE SABRA: He's running and running and the guy's a sniper. Every second I expect a bullet in my back or his back, but I prefer to be in my back. Five hundred meter, it was 50 years. But we survived.

SIMON: And yet of course you realize it must be asked how do we know to trust that account?

SETRAKIAN: Well, just as well as we could ask anyone to give their personal account of what they've been through, we trust that this George Sabra's experience. I do put an empathizes, for example on what are the metrics that we can start to collect where there is less opportunity for manipulation or bias. I want to know, what is the street value of the Syrian pound. What is the price of tomatoes? And when it comes down to those kinds of micro stories, there is less of a margin for distortion than if we're asking a clear activist what's happening in the battle for Aleppo, how much of the city do the rebels control?

SETRAKIAN: I'm very wary of statistics like that. We have to be especially careful.

SIMON: And may I ask, are you able to talk to people on the government side that might give a different view from what you hear from the government?

SETRAKIAN: We haven't had as easy a time getting answers back from the regime side. That creates an access bias that I know is very relevant. We need to keep an eye on Assad's support base. It's just as much of the story. We just don't hear as much of it.

SIMON: How is SyriaDeeply.org different than, say, just logging into Twitter or for that matter one of the news agency sites that is carrying stories out of Syria?

SETRAKIAN: Well, the mission was foremost to fuse traditional journalism and the new tool of technology and to take pieces like Twitter and say, OK, we may not trust any one tweet that says something about Syria, but collectively if we pick the right group of people, they have predictive value and they have a track record.

These are the tweets that we've come to trust over 20 months. Great. Put them together, put them in a box and you have had professional journalists with their standards going through a universe of information and trying to make sense of it and add context to it. And what we hope people walk away with is just a more nuanced experience of the Syria issue, so that when they hear the next radio or television piece, they have something in their minds to go back to; an image of a person, an experience, a visualization of the map so that they'd understand how to put it all together themselves.

SIMON: Is this changing the way we cover civil conflict?

SETRAKIAN: I think it already has. We've gotten amazing feedback, folks who want us to do North Korea deeply, Congo deeply, cancer deeply. I hope we can expand to all those topics or at least guide people in how to structure information best so that we can hopefully, at least start to fix the deficit of foreign policy literacy in the United States.

SIMON: Have you thought about what happens to SyriaDeeply.org if there is a change?

SETRAKIAN: What we've envisioned from the start is a kind of pop-up store, like a boutique in lower Manhattan that just pops up as needed. So we imagine that this will stand up, serve well on Syria, follow the stories through finality. We do hope to scale to other issues and we'll know how to do this very fast. We built this in just about two months. We can stand up another platform.

We can stand up HurricaneSandyDeeply. We can find all sorts of ways to take that template and apply it quickly and deploy to stories that need that kind of organization of information.

SIMON: Laura Setrakian, co-founder of SyriaDeeply.org, thanks so much for being with us.

SETRAKIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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