Building trust is still key in conflict reporting – as concluded after an hour-long discussion at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. The issue was approached from multiple angles due to a refreshingly diverse panel, chaired by Lucy Marcus (CEO of Marcus Ventures). Panelists included Christopher Prentice, the British ambassador to Italy; Stefan Wolff, a professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham; Aine Kerr, managing editor of Storyful; and Clark Bentson from the American Broadcasting Company. They agree that the emergence of citizen journalism has changed all aspects of conflict reporting.

How to verify stories without jeopardizing our safety in a conflict zone? This question was raised at the beginning of the discussion. Bentson, who has no more than 90 seconds for each report on the evening news programme, believes that the mainstream media no longer dominates news reporting. In spite of frequently stumbling upon fake content, we increasingly rely on citizen journalism. „Even ISIS makes fantastic videos now. They understand that they can get their message out to people.” – Bentson says. How to tell authentic, validated stories in the age of social media?

According to Aine Kerr, digital news agency Storyful has the perfect formula. They work by identifying relevant social media content which is only churned into a story after applying a complex analysis to ensure its credibility. Storyful is structured around the idea of community: „our job is like looking at heatmaps to see what is happening in communities today”. The verification process can be incredible, from the digital footprint analysis of a potential source (what did they post on their Facebook or Youtube? Is it in line with their story?) to the scrutiny of dialects heard or even the local weather seen on videos to ensure their reliability. „This is the golden age of storytelling”, Kerr says. But although social media content is valuable on its own, journalism is what those in the newsroom do to turn it into a story. Traditional journalism skills still have to be applied on such content. The result is citizen journalism coexisting with professional journalism.

Expert opinions form an important part of conflict reporting. Stefan Wolff thinks experts would often rather not talk about things to avoid compromising the outcome of negotiations. „Sometimes there is a lot of pressure to go on TV and answer questions”, he says, „but often it’s just speculation. I can speculate due to my background knowledge, but I can’t pretend to have answers to everything. It’s not always as black and white as FOX news talking about a Caliphate in Birmingham.” How far experts can go in engaging with the media is a question of the particular circumstances. Viewers should place the story in a bigger picture and also apply their own background research. The point is not to „find” the truth, but to understand why people have different perspectives. For instance, what you hear in Donyeck comes from a very different perspective than that offered by the Western media. One cannot say Putin is right on something without beng labelled a Putin apologist. We have to understand different perspectives without immediate judgement.

Christopher Prentice, on the other hand, hardly has a choice to remain silent – an ambassador has to engage with the media. Having attended sessions with the Iraqi government with the UN Security Council, Prentice says there is a lot of insider knowledge that has to be protected. Yet it is important for diplomats to forge connections with journalists and decide on the trustworthy ones. Once trust is established, it is easier for a diplomat to share more – but this trust has to be mutual. It is not worth it for a diplomat to plant a misleading story. Diplomats are servants of the government, and governments are accutely aware of their media coverage. Journalists and diplomats can help each other deliver what their governments or editors need.

Julia Ronyai