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Justin Vernold

July 14, 2012

You furnish the pictures, and I'll use my judgment

As a copy editor and member of The Daily Star's editorial board, most of my day-to-day work consists of writing and editing. But a large part of my day is also spent deciding how to use photos and graphics -- or "art," in journalism slang -- to illustrate stories that appear on our state, national, world and business pages.

I take this part of the job very seriously, and most readers are probably unaware of how much thinking this process entails. One story that demonstrates this is the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Daily Star's world news coverage relies on content produced by reporters and photographers for The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Bloomberg News, as only the largest U.S. newspapers can afford their own overseas bureaus. Unfortunately, the Syrian government has done everything possible to block journalists' access to the conflict's flashpoints.

Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times learned this the hard way in February when she was killed -- along with French photographer Remi Olchik -- by shelling from Syrian government forces after slipping into the besieged city of Homs. Syria's foreign ministry shrugged off the criticism of her killing, saying Syria wasn't "responsible for the deaths of journalists who sneaked into its territory at their own risk."

But this ruthless attitude doesn't mean Syria wants to expel foreign journalists altogether. In fact, the regime has tried to steer them into producing "useful idiot" coverage in a desperate attempt to persuade the world -- and perhaps even Assad himself -- that the government remains popular and legitimate.

In the heavily fortified Syrian capital Damascus, civilians have been coerced into staging large pro-Assad rallies to which foreign journalists have been invited. But in the smaller, rebel-controlled towns where anti-Assad rallies are held, the regime has blocked outsiders.

This means that the only verified AP or WPBloom photos to which I have access are those of the choreographed demonstrations that Assad wants the world to see. Such images are informative only as much as they illustrate the regime's ability to put on a show of normality.

There are, however, other photos available on the wires that are provided to Western news bureaus by intrepid Syrian citizen-journalists. But there are two reasons why I'm hesitant to use them. First, they're usually shot with whichever camera-phones the rebels can get their hands on, which makes for grainy, low-resolution images that usually aren't very compelling. But the more important reason I avoid them is the fact that they are provided to, but not produced by, the news services used at The Daily Star.

There are rare cases where I'm willing to use such unverified photos -- but only with a disclaimer in the caption stating that the photo was provided by a third party. As a voracious consumer of news from dozens of sources worldwide every single day, sometimes I'm able to verify what's happening by cross-referencing the images with what I've seen from other reputable news outlets to which The Daily Star does not have licensed access. Earlier this year, I became so familiar with the Baba Amr district of Homs -- where Colvin and Olchik were killed -- that I could actually recognize specific buildings based on what I'd seen in the BBC, Agence France-Press and The Guardian, among others.

So when the AP provided citizen-journalism photos of smoke plumes rising from buildings in the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr, I used them in The Daily Star, with the aforementioned caveat, but confident in my knowledge that this was what was really happening there. It's every journalist's duty to provide readers with the most accurate information possible, even if we have to work around a repressive dictatorship's obfuscation to do so.

One way to avoid this dilemma altogether is to use graphics, which are often more appealing to geography buffs like me, anyway. They can also be helpful for stories such as last year's Libyan civil war, where two battlefronts along the country's eastern coastline and the western Nafusa mountain range formed a pincer-like movement that eventually converged on the capital Tripoli. In a vast country that's larger than Alaska, the elaborate, town-by-town advances made against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces were often difficult to track without a map for reference.

The Libya coverage also benefited from the rebels' willingness to give journalists virtually unrestricted access. By letting outsiders see mass graves and bombed-out civilian neighborhoods, the unvarnished truth about what was happening during the conflict was revealed.

But that unvarnished truth turned out to be a double-edged sword for rebels who were angling for sympathetic coverage. The war's horrifying denouement -- in which Gadhafi's lynching by a bloodthirsty mob was telecast worldwide -- was certainly not the image Libya's rebels wanted to convey to the world.

This sort of ending, of course, was nothing new. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Romanian communist puppet Nicolae Ceausescu met similarly gruesome fates when they were overthrown. But this news was relayed to the American public in a more-sanitary fashion -- with text only, before the era of ubiquitous camera-phones.

In those days, readers could access the news only through a small number of publications and TV or radio networks. These outlets were ponderous but reliable, as they had reputations they couldn't afford to tarnish. Today's news junkies are faced with a flood of stories and images from a vast array of sources that maintain varying degrees of professionalism. Journalists who navigate this torrent skillfully can provide audiences with more immediate and informative coverage than ever before, but only if they exercise sound judgment.

Justin Vernold is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at 432-1000, ext. 216, or email jvernold@thedailystar.com.

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