Citizen videos can provide as many questions as answers. Lara Setrakian of Syria Deeply discusses how to contextualize citizen reporting and avoid information overload. 

Editor’s note: The Human Rights Channel‘s Citizen Video Blog Series discusses citizen video reporting with leaders in the field. The explosion of citizen reporting has led to more—and more immediate—information for reporters, but it also poses a central challenge: which information do you include, and how do you best make sense of it? Journalist Lara Setrakian, founder of the news website, Syria Deeply, has taken this challenge head-on. The Human Rights Channel’s Madeleine Bair asked her how to contextualize content in a world saturated with information.

By Lara Setrakian, Syria Deeply Founder

Madeleine Bair: What does contextualization mean to you?

Lara Setrakian: Contextualization is a good faith effort at providing as many degrees of an issue as possible, even when you just present one piece of information. If we’re talking about one data point, like a video from Idlib, or a rebel in Latakia, how much more can we put around that data?

Syria Deeply's Google Hangouts provide an opportunity for in-depth chats with reporters, experts, and policy makers.
Syria Deeply’s Google Hangouts broadcast in-depth discussions with reporters, experts, and policy makers.

A guiding principle at Syria Deeply is to provide more and to leave less on the cutting room floor. The same applies to our Google Hangouts. Whenever possible I’d rather share an interview whole and run it live on YouTube than pre-record and just clip thirty seconds into a piece. That leaves out reams of information and insight that could otherwise serve and educate our audience.

MB: How do you best convey this body of information?

LS: To truly capture context—to convey more of the vitals, the information that really counts—requires a mix of technology and human interaction. As digital storytellers, we’re in the early days of figuring out how to master that balance.

We’ve started down the path of mapping information and visualizing relationships between key people in the conflict, and institutions that can shape the future of Syria. Subject matter expertise—our depth of knowledge around the story and the region—guides us in building the tools and layouts we need to put the news in context. That took a mix of traditional and digital reporting that we then conveyed visually with the help of a great designer.

MB: What about information overload, when the sheer amount of information detracts from, instead of adding to, an issue?

Syria Deeply combines news articles, maps, videos, original reporting and social media.
Syria Deeply combines news articles, maps, videos, original reporting and social media.

LS: The question gets at a fundamental fact: the Syria story has a big data problem. It’s not just video, it’s all kinds of user-generated content from the ground. One bombing, one battle, or one speech by Assad yields dozens of articles saying roughly the same thing, and television pieces with the same one or two clips.

The first step towards making sense of it is understanding the conflict as a whole, and then seeing where a single new piece of information fits in. We’ve written about the rise of protests and kidnappings in Sweida, a Druze province that had remained neutral during much of the conflict. Because we knew Sweida’s importance in context, when a YouTube video came in showing those demonstrations we knew they were especially significant – worth flagging on our data map.

One example is Social Media Buzz, our weekly multi-media mash-up of highlights from Arabic-language social media. Mohammed Sergie has the expert eye and bilingual voice

Syria Deeply contributors curate, translate, and contextualize social media.
Syria Deeply contributors curate, translate, and contextualize social media.

to comb through a wealth of insights, early alerts, and breaking news in private Skype rooms, Facebook feeds, and the open press.

MB: What online tools, social media, websites, and methods do you rely on to find source material for Syria Deeply?

LS: From the start we knew we wanted to integrate feeds from Twitter and Google News – a Syria list on the former, and a Syria query on the latter. Then we fit them into our modular dashboard design. In the case of Twitter, we’ve handpicked Tweeps we’ve found to be reasonably reliable over two years of conflict.

MB: Contextualization used to be a well-reported news article—is that obsolete?

LS: I think traditional journalism is a definitely due for a redesign. News articles are just one design for comprehension, engagement and the packaging of information. On Syria Deeply, we play with format from Question and Answer to straight first-person narrative to data visualizations, Google hangouts, and the traditional news article. Let the form fit the function.

I have wild and crazy ideas for new news formats – I call them my “Sci Fi News Dreams.” From timelines to interviews to social conversation, they are entirely interactive and drastically immersive. It all feels like being on the frontier. It takes a mix of technology and editorial savvy — truly knowing the story – to push that frontier forward.

Lara Setrakian is the Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Syria Deeply. She’s spent more than five years as a foreign correspondent, and was widely acclaimed for her groundbreaking use of social media in covering Iran’s 2009 election protests and the Arab Awakening of 2011. You can follow her @Lara.

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