The Trouble With Syria

It’s easy to say that coverage of the unrest in Syria may not be getting all the attention it deserves in the U.S. solely because of media time spent on potentially flashier—and easier— stories, like a mud-slinging GOP presidential candidacy race or a oncepopular, troubled singer succumbing to her demons.

But the truth is covering the well-past-the-boiling-point civil unrest in Syria is much more challenging for American news outlets than just deciding to send a few crews overseas. U.S. network executives overseeing foreign coverage say access is a massive roadblock, and while foreign correspondents are used to dangerous situations, Syria has become that and more for journalists.

The unrest in Syria, of course, is not a new story, as the revolution in the country began last March. But it gained steam in recent weeks with the government’s assault on Homs and the United Nations adopting a resolution condemning Syria, then releasing a report last week that “gross human rights violations” had been ordered by the Syrian government.

And the story also took on ancillary weight in media circles, as they tend to do, when journalists lose their lives. And that was the case in Syria, first with New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid dying of an apparent asthma attack, and then American Marie Colvin (a Sunday Times of London reporter who appeared on CNN’s AC360 hours before her death) and French photographer Rémi Ochlik killed by attacks. At press time, multiple journalists had also been reported injured since those deaths.

Beyond the safety concerns that are simply a reality of the job for many brave journos, Syria has editorial roadblocks that affect coverage, according to U.S. television news executives.

For one, access to Syria is extremely difficult for foreign journalists, meaning only a handful of TV correspondents have been able to sneak across the border and report from the ground first-hand.

CNN had two correspondents in Syria, Arwa Damon and Ivan Watson, which allowed the network to cover the story more closely than the other cable news channels. (CNN last week pulled both staffers out of the country.)

“Some of this gets easier because of the big stories that we’ve had and the high-profile talent,” says Tony Maddox, managing director, CNN International. “Even if it’s a story that people don’t really know that much about or aren’t that familiar with, they still want good reporters doing good reporting on their shows.”

The shortage of compelling live video footage affects how much the Syria story can be covered on television, with reporters often having to stand on the border of neighboring countries, in stark contrast to the images of ABC’s Christiane Amanpour and CNN’s Anderson Cooper getting roughed up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square a year ago during the unrest in Egypt.

“If Richard [Engel] were to get in, just by virtue of being there in a place that we don’t have normal access to and the danger that it poses to our people for being there would probably force its way high up into our network shows,” David Verdi, NBC News VP of worldwide newsgathering, says of the network’s chief foreign correspondent.

And though social media has made access to amateur video readily available to news organizations, every network would rather get in-country to report the story first-hand, to make a connection for their viewers.

“If you don’t have people in the country and on the ground, it is very difficult to tell a story from a neighboring country using shaky YouTube video,” says CBS News foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward, who was in Syria earlier this month. “A huge part of what we do is trying to transport the viewer or the listener or the reader to the place and give them a sense of the humanitarian crisis in this situation.”

More Houston Meant Less Syria

In the week of Feb. 6-12, Middle East unrest took up 15%-16% of the news hole on network and cable TV as measured by the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index. In the week ended Feb. 19, that fi gure dropped to 4%-6%, less than half the amount of coverage devoted to Whitney Houston’s death.

“It’s not insignificant in an ongoing basis, but it’s somewhat episodic with ebbs and flows, particularly with Syria,” says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of PEJ. “The idea that there would be maybe a quick and dramatic resolution to this crisis, as that fades, it’s harder for news organizations to sustain coverage on a week-in-and-week-out basis.”

As the presidential election moves past the primary stage, it will increase its share of attention, though executives say where international news can be linked to election-year issues, that’s actually a boon for them. In particular, stories like nuclear tensions between Iran and Israel and the Greek debt crisis play well to an American audience because they directly impact prices at the gas pump and the U.S. stock market, respectively.

“Sometimes, our audience needs reminding that you might not care about issues in certain parts of the globe, you may not care about a bailout in Greece, or the nuclear program in Iran,” says Tom Nagorski, ABC News foreign editor. “But even if all you care about are the basics of your paycheck-to-paycheck life, you ought to care about it.

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