YouTube and the first casualty of war

“This is the dramatic moment a TV reporter was shot by a sniper as she reported live from war-torn Georgia,” according to the Daily Mail, MSNBC’s Clicked, USA Today, the Herald Sun in Australia and a whole host of others.

The problem? None of those media outlets address the possibility of the video being a fake, despite dozens of comments like this:

“Sniper ammo is about 2.3 inches long. A sniper round would have blown her hand off,” (YouTube)

“No mention of how we know it was a russian sniper and not say south ossetian. Anybody know where we can go for facts about this mess?” (Daily Mail)

“if a real sniper rifle with a large calibre bullet went past her arm her arm would of been torn off by the bullets sonic boom,” (Herald Sun)

Another on YouTube: “we don’t see anything really, we see a woman talking then we hear a faint sounds and the camera is being shaken. Then we see the woman in the car with a minor wound(maybe real, maybe not). Any1 saw any actual shooting at all?”

“Russians use the SVD with 7.62 ammo it would have taken that hand right off. Shrapnel or ricochet she wasn’t the target.” (Daily Mail)

Here’s the point: it doesn’t matter whether the video is real or staged. People are increasingly savvy and sceptical: they believe what they want to believe and they know that the first casualty of war is the truth. If you don’t respond to their comments asking about verification, or address the suggested ballistics explanations, then you have no claim to ‘the truth’: to them you’re just another desperate news pimp falling for a gory video.

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12 thoughts on “YouTube and the first casualty of war

  1. Nick Booth

    I imagine the traditional way of getting to the bottom of this is talk to the reporter, to the people who were there – report what they say/assess whether other evidence conflicts with what they say. The comments about the ammo etc may not help – she could have just been grazed by a bullet.

    It suggests a couple of things. First that the job of journalism is getting harder. If you expect to be paid for the information you share it must be of a higher quality than much journalism has been over the last few decades. It must actually meet the expectations we have of journalism.

    The other though is more a question. How helpful are networks of trust when it comes to verifying news? Could they be useful to journalists?

    Reply
  2. Steven

    Dominique Dhombres, journalist for French daily newspaper “Le Monde”, was wondering today what really happened to the Georgian journalist : http://www.lemonde.fr/opinions/article/2008/08/15/une-journaliste-blessee-en-direct-par-dominique-dhombres_1084165_3232.html?xtor=RSS-3232

    Here is a translation of an extract :
    “The war of images added to the war itself. Moscow and Tbilisi accuse each other of all kinds of atrocities. The Georgian television has broadcast an extraordinary sequence during which one of its journalists is a victim, live, a fire came probably one of many snipers, more or less irregular, which accompany the progress of Russian forces. The scene was repeated in a loop on LCI [French TV news channel]. It illustrates the alarming situation prevailing in these “grey areas” which are not occupied by the Russian army, but all traces of Georgian authority has disappeared and where these mysterious snipers operate freely. The band-like scrolls, in Georgian language, giving the time of the incident: 5:05 pm. The young journalist of the Georgian TV is in the immediate vicinity of Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, whose center is occupied by Russian troops. It is therefore in one of these grey areas when it is hit in the arm, live. “Oh, my God! What is it?” she says. It sees a few moments later, taken to the rear of a vehicle to be careful. “I have just been hit by a bullet. It is assumed that it was a sniper, because there has been all day,” she says. His injury is slight. “It is hard to see one around. I do not know who fired,” said the young woman. Another scene, also picked up by LCI shows Russian soldiers banning Georgian police access to Gori.”

    So… except the analysis of the scene, nothing more ! Perhaps one of the journalists who was there at this time will help us to know what really happened.

    Best

    Steven

    Reply
  3. Jonathan Walker

    It seems from the video that the journalist herself doesn’t know exactly what happened to her. People commenting on whether a Russian sniper shot at her are responding to the way newspapers have interpreted the video, and the way other commenters have interpreted it, rather than the video itself.

    I don’t think it would ever be possible to disprove the claim that it was a full-on fake in the sense of being deliberately faked by the journalist and her camera crew, or the Georgian/American/Israeli alliance as some YouTube posters claim. In theory, if it was fake then evidence to prove that might exist, but there’s no such thing as evidence it was real.

    Even the type of thing that might convince most of us, such as an account from an apparently independent eye-witness or a doctor’s report stating her injuries are consistent with being grazed by a bullet could be part of the fakery, if one is inclined to believe that.

    Reply
  4. Graham

    Good question. I was, and have to be, equally sceptical whenever I post anything like this on the Frontline Club blog. I did post it:

    http://www.fromthefrontline.co.uk/blogs/index.php?blog=5&title=footage_of_georgian_tv_journalist_fired_&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1

    And that was some hours before western mainstream media. YouTube views were below 50 when I first saw it. However, I didn’t post it lightly. I read the comments on the original video, researched a bit about the commenter who claimed to be able to verify the authenticity of the video and chose to post it with careful use of language,

    “A Georgian TV journalist is APPARENTLY fired upon by a Russian sniper and injured while delivering a piece to camera. Fortunately, she’s soon patched up and back on with the job.”

    It’s “just” a blog post and my job is to point people to interesting stuff, but you can’t just post blindly. You can’t state this video is hard fact if you don’t know it is and absolutely not if you can’t easily verify a source before posting.

    I kept an eye on the spread of the video and I noticed Reuters picked it up some hours later and I added their link. The Guardian soon followed and I added their link to another post. Later I noticed the name of the TV journalist who was shot appeared in another report. I then felt happy to leave the post as I had originally posted it as I felt reasonably confident that what it puported to show was factual. The “apparently” language left it vague enough to draw questions from unbelievers.

    With a report like this you simply cannot blog it as fact unless you are confident you have independently verified it. However, linking to something after a degree of research and caveats can help the fact checking process along.

    Reply
  5. paulb

    Thanks for that. I found (some of) the comments more illuminating than (most of) the reporting. The key thing is, the two are being kept separate – there’s little point having a comments facility if you’re not going to engage with comments or benefit from them editorially (rather than just commercially).
    I also think it highlights the importance of looking at existing comments when you take a video from YouTube or any other UGC site – the comments on YouTube put forward questions the journalist should address when republishing on their own site.

    Reply
  6. knackeredhack

    The UGC, if you are lucky, may represent some diversity of expertise and provide some skepticism, but that is not greatly helpful in real-time, as there will be some kind of lag and it is, all things being equal, a random process. In constructing a newsroom, or news generating mechanism, the more real-time you attempt to be the more you’re going to get tripped up by complex subjects like war, and vulnerable to fakery or just incomplete information.

    I tend to believe that what passes for news judgement these days is rather binary. That’s not a good way to meet increased time pressures, although it may be a natural response to them. So, I’d argue some new heuristics need to be developed quickly if confidence in “serious” consumer-orientated news organizations is not to be eroded.

    Then there is also the consideration of what expertise a modern newsroom should contain and how it should be organized for real-time engagement. My guess is this challenge will get lost in the shuffle toward an online focus, when it is probably fundamental to both risk management and long-term competitiveness.

    Reply
  7. Mike Stucka

    I posted a somewhat lengthy response over on MediaNation after seeing this blog posting linked over there. The short version: The comments by skeptics here are made by people with little real-world knowledge of firearms, and may well be secret Counterstrike addicts. The wind will rip your arm off?

    As another MediaNation poster pointed out, what’s so unbelievable about a person getting shot in a war zone?

    Further, Graham, above, updated that Reuters had picked up the story — after Reuters helped patch up the woman. So unless Reuters was in some sort of scam, yes, they confirm it.

    Reuters also ran it in a story.

    Reply
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  10. paulbradshaw

    Thanks Mike – that’s a great response and another demonstration of the importance of comments. As I say, the problem isn’t necessarily the footage itself (which is almost certainly genuine), but the treatment and sensationalisation and disengaged nature of it, which results in reader scepticism.
    But re: your comment about ‘experts’ over there, you assume readers are, and they aren’t. They look to us for that, and if we don’t, then they’ll believe the comments of other readers who say “I knew someone who was in the SAS” (Yeah, right)

    Reply
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  12. The Worst of Perth

    There are skeptical comments like that on vast numbers of you tube videos, and many of these commenters are not going to convinced no matter what is said by other commenters or the poster. Interesting that many will turn straight to snopes to confirm validity.

    Reply

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