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How internet connectivity, YouTube and amateur footage is changing international journalism

26 May 2016

By Caroline Lees

Internet connectivity, YouTube and amateur footage from citizen journalists have helped to create a new form of journalism that has enhanced international reporting, especially of the current conflict in Syria, according to Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor for Channel 4 News. However technology can never replace a journalists' primary role as an eyewitness, Hilsum said. Connectivity has had a particularly significant impact: reshaping global communications and transcending national boundaries. “The world is being remapped in terms of connections,” Hilsum told an audience at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford last week. Quoting Parag Khanna, author of Connectography, Mapping the Future of Global Civilisation, she said there are less than 500,000 kilometres of borders across the world, but more than one million kilometres of internet cables. More efficient international connectivity means that journalists can verify information, reach contacts and find potential sources very quickly, often instantly. It also means there is wider awareness of news and information nearly everywhere. Hilsum said better access to information was evident when covering Europe's refugee crisis, both for journalists and refugees: "I spent last summer in the Balkans with refugees. Little dinghies would arrive on the beach and the first thing everyone would ask, often before they took off their lifejackets, was ‘where is the nearest wifi?’ They wanted to let people at home know they had arrived safely and to share information about their journey. It is this connectivity and flow of information that has made this refugee and migrant movement possible,” Hilsum said. “Everybody in Syria knows exactly what is going on with the refugees and Europe," she added. Hilsum referred to a recent comment by Matteo Renzi, Italy's prime minister, about the refugee crisis. Renzi said he believes man-made borders are becoming irrelevant in a digital world: "How long do you think a wall might last in the internet age? How can you defend a border when terrorists are born and raised in our cities?" “The point is that there is a digital caliphate, that is what governments are failing to understand," Hilsum said. "As journalists we have to understand and explain that. This flow is not going to stop - everyone knows everything now, because of connectivity….” In another example she described how, while in Greece, she tweeted that she was boarding a ferry in Lesbos. “A friend on Twitter saw my post and at the same time noticed that a friend of his, a refugee from Erbil, had posted on social media that he was also getting on a ferry at Lesbos. He tweeted this information to us, as well as a picture of the refugee and within minutes we found him on the same ferry. It is extraordinary how you can make these connections instantly now,” she said. Social media helps reporters in other ways, Hilsum said. “It is a useful tool for checking things. We had some footage from Syria although we did not know much about it. I tweeted a question asking for help in verifying it. The answer came back straight away.” But connectivity has also made reporting more difficult and sometimes more dangerous. “It works both ways, when I started in this game, you could fly into [a place like] South Sudan and you could write what you wanted, and get interviews because nobody knew what you were writing. Now everybody knows what western journalists and local journalists do. Now people are far more aware of how to manipulate journalists, or how to use their own propaganda instead of talking to journalists.” YouTube and citizen journalism have also changed the way reporters cover international stories, especially conflicts. Few news organisations now send staff to Syria because of the risks, nor will they buy stories from freelancers working in the country. “It has been a disastrously dangerous war to report. YouTube has become an incredibly important part of how we report it," Hilsum said. She referred to a comment once made by Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times journalist who was killed while covering the siege of Homs, Syria in 2012. "Marie used to say sometimes she felt she was the only reporter left in a YouTube world." YouTube and amateur footage helped in reporting the recent bombing of al-Quds hospital in Aleppo. “We all had to report the bombing without being there ourselves, but then a clip taken from a security camera at the hospital was released. It showed the very moment the bomb hit. It was extraordinary footage because it showed the last moments of the doctor who was killed. It illustrates the power of security cameras and YouTube in reporting,” “Sometimes you cannot get over the border into a country, but now it is possible to get original footage to show what has happened.” Hilsum acknowledged the danger of receiving and broadcasting film footage from unverified sources. “Sometimes a clip doesn't tell the whole story,” she said. “People putting footage out often have an agenda.” She explained that Channel 4 News has a staff member whose job is to verify footage received from external sources. YouTube will never replace first-hand reporting, Hilsum added: “As a reporter, I am an eye witness. If I am not there I cannot smell it and I cannot feel it,” she said. “The most important role of a journalist is being there.” Hilsum described a recent visit she made to to the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. She was one of the first western journalists to visit the site, which had been largely destroyed by Isis. News of the murder of the Keeper of the Monuments, 82-year old Khaled al-Asaad, had already been widely reported, but Hilsum uncovered the story of another execution in the city by Isis. A passing comment from a government minder led Hilsum to learn about Fatima, a young woman who had been tried by the Islamic Court set up by Isis in the basement of Palmyra’s museum. Fatima’s mother showed Hilsum a tattered piece of paper on which the court’s judgement was written. It read: “Sentenced for apostasy, all belongings to be confiscated. Death sentence, no appeal.” Fatima was executed the same day as the Khaled al-Asaad. “The story became about a famous man and the unknown woman who both dared to defy the Islamic State. It is not the kind of story you find without being there,” Hilsum said. “I felt I made her live again for four minutes, for that very brief moment of time this unknown woman became famous. I feel that is part of what we do as journalists.” Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4, was speaking at a Business and Practice of Journalism seminar at Green Templeton College on Wednesday May 18, 2016.