Do not try this at home kids…

According to Britain’s The Telegraph, more than 6,000 citizens have been killed in Syria, since the uprisings began one year ago in March. More than 15,000 have been injured. And among the dead are foreign war correspondents Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer. It’s safe to say that Syria isn’t a place for amateurs. Yet, that didn’t stop William Gagan and Geoff Shivley from executing some citizen journalism from one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Gagan, 30, and Shivley, 29, two American Occupy Wall Street activists, recently tried their guerrilla media tactics in Syria and got a little bit more than they bargained for.

With no formal media training, and no big media group backing them the Shivley, a computer hacker and security specialist, and Gagan, a bartending college student, packed up some serious techno gear and marched off to the borderland between Turkey and Syria.

Gagan – whose only “reporting experience” has been live streaming the Occupy Oakland movement where one protester was shot in the face and riots erupted – said live streaming in California prepared him to live stream in the middle of a war zone in Syria. Here’s what he told the Guardian:

“All hell broke loose and I was in the middle of it every time,” Gagan said. “I’ve almost felt invincible and thought, ‘Screw it, go live stream from Syria,'” he explained. Over the course of two weeks, he laid out preparations to do just that. According to Gagan, he “organized it very quickly”.

Using Shivley’s computer security network the pair assembled an awesome high-tech tool kit to live stream- including a Samsung 4G phone, amd Spot Connect device were quickly tagged and tracked by the Syrian military shortly after their entrance into the country. Their visit lasted only between 10 and 15 hours but  they returned with footage from a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and interviews with rebels. (Their YouTube counts are less than 1,000 when we checked…)

From the footage it’s clear Gagan has watched a lot of news reports. In a wooden flat voice, Gagan walks around telling his viewers the obvious what he sees and what has been told. But there’s little else in his reporting. He has some interviews with rebels pleading for help. But that’s about it. A lot of the images we saw were of Gagan walking.  In the Guardian article Gagan fully admits he didn’t think studying Syrian history was “relevant,” for his journalism journey.

Which begs the question – is this journalism?

Gagan and Shivley both entered Syrian illegally, so of course they didn’t talk to the Syrian military. Their reports, from what I can gather, is pro-rebel, and they don’t include any defense of the Syrian military actions. Not that the Syrian Army should be defended but at least people should understand where they are coming from at least.

We are big fans of citizen journalists. We love that they have a passion for stories that sometimes the mainstream media can’t or won’t cover. The pair both have a lot to teach us about using technology to get stories especially in areas where Twitter feeds and Facebook updates are routinely block. (Gagan says they will have a sort of tech “academy” of sorts teaching others how to get around security problems that prevent live streaming).

But one look at “The Implosion,” in The New Yorker – an excellent piece on Syria by the way – shows you why training is needed in journalism. This nine-page article – so filled with history, context and research, paints a more nuanced picture from Syrian citizens who are not activists or military but merchants and businessmen caught in the middle. I learned more about Syria in this one article than I did in the 13- minute video  Gagan and Shivley made while they were actually in Syria.

The point is being there is not enough. Reporting is about communicating and communication takes more than presence. It takes understanding, context, knowledge of history and, well, facts. That’s why we offer training to our citizen journalists who want to do investigative journalism and not just report what they see.

It’s no surprise that Gagan and Shivley have been criticized for their Syrian trip. Some people call it reckless, others biased and not really journalism and others says what the duo did put people in harm’s way for no reason. But many have praised them as truth tellers in a place where little truth is being told. What do you say? Can two Westerners, with no background in the Middle East, no media training and no supervision offer news that you can use?

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