Tag Archives: journalism

Breaking the silence in Syria



Abdalaziz Alhamza

We’ve talked before on this show about the importance of a free press, but this week’s episode brings a whole new meaning to the term. In 2014, Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends started social media accounts to document the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their city of Raqqa. They called themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and their work quickly grew into a website and a social movement that garnered international attention.

RBSS brought the work of citizen journalists to a global audience and helped provide a counter to increasingly sophisticated ISIS propaganda. Their work was chronicled in the 2017 documentary City of Ghosts. Aziz visited Penn State for a screening of the film sponsored by Penn State’s Center for Global Studies, which is lead by friend of our podcast Sophia McClennen.

ISIS was removed from Syra last year, but that does not mean life in Raqqa has improved. Aziz and his colleagues are now working to report on the Asad regime and militias who are trying to take power from it. They are also working to empower citizen journalists in other countries and help defend the free press at a time when “fake news” has become a rallying cry for authoritarian leaders around the world.

Additional Information

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

City of Ghosts documentary

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How significant do you think groups like Aziz’s were in pushing back ISIS?
  • Given their access to information locally in the city, do you think they are a better new source than a foreign outlet such as CNN?
  • What was your initial reaction with Aziz mentioned that friends and family had been killed while trying to do their work as citizen journalists?
  • Does what they went through and are still going through change your view of journalists?
  • Does listening to the struggles of Aziz and his organization change your perception of democracy in America?
  • Would you be willing to take on the challenges and risks of covering the actions of ISIS if you were in Aziz’s situation?

Interview Highlights

[5:50] What has happened in Raqqa since the end of the film?

Aziz: A campaign began to defeat ISIS. However, this brought with it a lot of violence. Nearly 80% of the city has been destroyed. Most of the people have been displaced. The media stoped paying attention once ISIS was pushed out of the city. This is why we kept out campaign going to continue to share information about the city. There are still a lot of things happening in the city. For example, people are still being killed every day. They are still finding bombs in the city. Also, they are finding mass graves at different parts of the city.

[7:29] How have the conditions there changed the work that you’re doing?

Aziz: We do have more freedom now, but we still can’t do our work legally because we’re considered terrorists by some. If we can survive ISIS, then we can survive working around other groups. We have started an online program to teach people how to become activists and how to start their own movements.

[9:10] What was your motivation for starting this movement?

Aziz: Before the revolution, I wasn’t involved with politics at all. When everything started, I had that thing inside that motivated me to get up and do something. We started by filming protests. When ISIS started taking control they prevented media from covering what was happening in the city. At this point, we felt we had a duty to do something since we were all from Raqqa. None of us had any journalist education at all. We got some training, but now we actually work to train others to be journalists.

[11:20] How do you manage still covering Raqqa while also trying to expand your coverage beyond the city? 

Aziz: Cellphones are the magic. We can do most of our work remotely. They are both tools for communication as well as tools for learning stuff.

[12:46] What do you share with those you’re training to become activists themselves? 

Aziz: We have gone through many mistakes getting to this point that we try to help others avoid. We teach them how to handle a brutal regime or movement such as ISIS. For example, I went to Columbia to help activists there. They didn’t know what encryption was or the idea that the government could track their actions and communication without encryption. Some of the mistakes we’ve made have cost us the lives of friends, so we don’t want anyone to go through those mistakes like we did.

[14:30] Do you feel the work you did have an impact to ISIS ultimately being defeated in Raqqa? 

Aziz: The war with ISIS was not like a regular war with militaries. It was a war fought online. Therefore, they worked hard to shut us down.   They threaten us and killed family members. To get this reaction from ISIS showed us that we were doing something meaningful. They are still talking about us. To ISIS, we are the bad boys. ISIS didn’t want any other alternative media sources like us for the people to learn from. They just didn’t expect a group of teenagers being around and doing this stuff.

[16:27] How did you combat ISIS as they improved their propaganda efforts? 

Aziz: They spent way too much money on the media. For example, they spent millions on one media office in one city. Media was how they recruited fighters so they put a lot of money into it.

[18:25] Did you ever question if you were the right guys to do this? 

Aziz: Yes, at the beginning. However, this changed once our friends started to be killed. Since that, no one is second guessing this movement.

[21:50] How do you feel when you hear the term “fake news”? 

Aziz: It has become a huge problem even here in the United States. One network will say one thing while another will say the opposite. People get lost within all of these platforms and don’t know who to follow. We try to simply things and always provide evidence. I don’t think there is a way to kill fake news, but provide evidence is a good way to combat it.

[23:00] Do you videos that you use come from members of your group or do you get them from citizens? 

Aziz: They are mostly from our members, but we do get some stuff from other citizens. Even taking a photo is very dangerous. It is punishable by death. One of the first things ISIS did was try to scare people. They would have public executions in the middle of town. Because of this, people were afraid to gather information about them such as taking photos or videos.

[27:00] You have lost friends and family members through this effort. What is it like receiving that information? 

Aziz: It was scary when I would wake up and have to check my phone. I would wake up and pray to God that nothing bad had happened. I would feel powerless, but that didn’t last long because I knew there was something we should do about it. We knew that ISIS was killing us because they wanted us to stop our work. So we couldn’t stop and give them what they wanted.

[29:00] What does democracy mean to you?

Aziz: It means people being able to express themselves without being afraid. For those who are used to it, they don’t understand that people are dying around the world to try to get democracy.


Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump Voter



In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:

Salena Zito
Salena Zito

A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.

Salena Zito is trying to change that. She grew up in Pittsburgh and splits her time between small-town events and CNN’s airwaves. Along the way, she’s learned a thing or two about what caused parts of the country to vote for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She captures those stories in a book called The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, which was part of our democracy summer reading list episode.

We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.

This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.

Additional Information

Salena Zito’s book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Many of the voters Salena interviewed said that the 2016 election was about something more than Donald Trump. What were those bigger ideas?
  • Did Trump create the new coalition Salena describes, or was he in the right place at the right time?
  • What does the new coalition Salena describes say about the future of political parties in the U.S.?
  • Think about a time when you went outside of your comfort zone to attend an event or have a conversation. How did you feel and what did you learn?
  • Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

4:40: What motivated you to write this book?

Salena: We wanted to look and see if the Trump victory was a fluke or an example of a more significant change within the country. I went out to the five Great Lake states that voted for Obama twice then switched to vote for Trump. We wanted to get beyond the media stereotype of what a trump voter was. What we found is that these voters we much more complicated and diverse.

6:04: How did you get people to trust you enough to be willing to open up to you and explain their voting decision?

Salena: This is where my geography and upbringing helped me greatly. I live in Pittsburg. With this more Midwest background, I was able to connect with these people better than say someone who came to them from New York or Washington.

7:13: Did you have anyone skeptical of you and asking if you were part of the “fake news”?

Salena: The shocking thing I found was that democrats have the same misgivings about the news media as republicans do. They also have the same sentiments about larger institutions as republicans. I think this new populism is a healthy pushback to all things big across media and business.

8:08: Have you kept in touch with those you interviewed?

Salena: Yes, we have. Also, no one has changed their position on who they supported from 2016. An interesting development we saw was how these people reacted to the media’s coverage of events in the administration thus far. Specifically, I’m referring to Trumps tweets. What we hear from these people is that they’re sick of the cookie cutter politicians statements. While Trumps comments aren’t clean and crafted, they are more representative of how normal people actually speak. This is something that those we spoke with could identify with. I think sometimes my peers have a hard time understanding this largely because of geography. They aren’t from these types of places.

10:35: You sort of exist in both words by interviewing these people in middle America while also appears on CNN panels as part of the media cloud. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador for middle America?

Salena: I want to help people understand that just because someone consumes things different than you do doesn’t make them your enemy. They just have a different life. We don’t allow people to coexist.

12:25: Fox News was mentioned many times in your book. Is that something that came up a lot in your interviews?

Salena: There was a cross section of what these voters watched as far as news. However, most of these people get their news from their local stations.

14:30: We talk a lot about a split happening between classical liberalism and populism. How do people you speak with see the recent electoral developments in middle America?

Salena: I think those in this coalition see it as still the idea of classical liberalism that we’ve always see in American democracy. This is the first time we’ve seen a new major coalition form probably since the new deal amongst democrats. I think that coalition broke apart in 2012. This happened in part because of the push from the left of ideas like multi culturalism and the idea of global citizenship. People on the coasts simply missed this realignment.

16:52: What do you think these new coalitions look like?

Salena: The new coalition within the republican part has a lot of the old new deal democrats. This means that things like entitlement reform aren’t happening in this generation. The suburban voter is still in the republican tent. However, what matters here is where your suburb is.

18:22: Those who study democracy have been looking at Trump as a new sort of autocrat. Do the voters see him that way?

Salena: They don’t see that at all. While people in the press take him literally, the people I spoke with simply don’t. While they take him seriously, they don’t take him literally.

21:11: You’ve been able to get to a deeper level of dialogue with these people by cutting under the rhetoric at the national level. What is your advice to those who wish to do the same?

Salena: Challenge yourself by exposing yourself to something or a situation that you aren’t familiar with and that you don’t know. First, step back and just be an observer. Then watch how people interact with each other. This gives you a better understanding of people and who they actually are. This will help prevent a snap judgment about them.

24:10: Do you think that anyone you spoke with would vote for a democrat?

Salena: As the party exists right now, no. They would have to make some fundamental changes. The thing about this coalition is that they simply don’t feel welcomed by the current democrat party.


Facebook is not a democracy



Matt Jordan

We have access to more information now than at any other time in history, but we trust that information less than ever before. A Gallup survey recently found that 58 percent of respondents felt less informed because of today’s information abundance. As with a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing might not be so good after all.

If you’ve followed any of the recent news about Facebook — from Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about Holocaust survivors to the decision to ban InfoWars — you’ve probably heard the company make claims about giving its community a voice and other things that sound very democratic. However, as Matt Jordan explains in this episode, that is not the case at all.

At the end of the day, Facebook is a company and its goal is to make a profit. The result of that, Matt argues, is an algorithm-fueled avalanche of information that mixes news with opinion and fact with fiction to reinforce existing thoughts and feelings rather than exposing us to new ideas and perspectives.

Matt has also spent time studying the history of the term fake news and found that it goes back much farther than Donald Trump. He talks about how fake news in 2018 looks different than it did in 1918 and what responsibility journalists and news consumers have to push back against it.

Matt is an associate professor of media studies at Penn State and co-director of the Social Thought Program. For a look at how journalists are working in this media landscape, check out our interview from last season with Halle Stockton of PublicSource, a nonprofit news organization in Pittsburgh.

Note: This episode was recorded before Alex Jones and InfoWars were banned from Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, and other platforms.

Recommended Reading

Matt’s article on the history of fake news

How can democracy thrive in the digital age? From the Knight Foundation Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think that Facebook’s mission of building community is a cover up for collecting and selling data?
  • Have the scandals surrounding Facebook and other social media over the past year changed your view of the platforms or how you use them?
  • What role should social media play in a democracy?
  • Do you think we’ll ever move away from a scenario where people use social media as their primary news source?

Interview Highlights

[3:23] How did you get drawn towards studying the concept of fake news or fake information?

Jordan: I’m always looking to see how structure of media are impacting cultural conversations. This concept of fake news has become a coercive presence in our media that has continued through 2016 and into 2018.

[4:20] Has the impact of fake information and news continued to today?

Jordan: It has continued through the body of the car into the interior.

[4:35] Can you tell us about your work chronically the history of the term “fake news”?

Jordan: Despite Trump claimed the credit for creating the term, which is a very “Trump” move, it actually came about with the end of the 19th century as a way to lie in media. It was a creation of the muckrakers who used misleading and fake information in the media to impact how the conglomerates at the time controlled media. They came up with this term to discredit both completely fake reporting as well as reporting that left out important information on a particular report. Therefore, the label of “fake news” became something that liberals and progressives used to discredit the large for profit news sources.

[6:00] Are there examples of the use of fake news in this manner today?

Jordan: I think you can look at Fox News and use the label of “fake news” to describe what they do. For example, they often times omit important information from their daily coverage. There will be a major story of the Mueller investigation but Fox will spend their time covering a small student protest on a college campus and the push back they got from liberals as an example of liberals not allowing free speech on campus.

[7:40] Media has changed considerably over the last one hundred years. What impact has sea ranch engines like Google had on the development of fake news?

Jordan: One example of how these creations have impacted our media consumption is a term that Mark Zuckerberg likes, which is information that is “relevant to us”. This is information that we would be predisposed to believe gives our personal sensibilities and opinions. This creates feedback loops where we’re just being exposed to information that we tend to believe or agree with ideologically. The new profit incentive is to keep us interacting.

[10:41] How do media outlets balance this dedication to the truth while allowing all people to access their platform?

Jordan: Facebook is shrewd enough that all of their talking points are related to democratic ideals. For example, their use of the term “voices” referees to the democratic ideal that we should allow more voices into the public discussion on an particular issue. This is a struggle for people to talk about democratic theory. While we say we are going to have “voices” involved in a conversation is not to say that this is inherently going to lead to a fruitful or productive conversation on a topic just because more sides are represented. Do we need more wars? Do we need more Alex Jones out there? Probably not. It is important to remember that outlets like Facebook benefit form having more Alex Jones type characters getting people going emotionally. This makes the media more sticky. It is interesting when they use these democratic ideals of “voices” to cover up their own interests, which is to create more emotional news which increase their profits.

[12:33] Given that, what do you see as the path forward?

Jordan: Whenever you have an explosion of new media formats and sources of information, you’re going to have an explosion of misinformation and fake news. At each time this has happened in history, the government has had to come in and regulate who can use the platforms to spread information. Therefore, those who say that the market can help clean up these news sources are simply wrong. Mostly because the markets have little financial incentive to limit certain sources of media as part of cleaning it up.

[15:36] In the Trump administration, do you see a place where government oversight can take place?

Jordan: The only way this would happen is if the democrats sweep in the midterms and the Trump administration ends up on the back end of the national mood. This would mean they would want to limit messages to try to get on the right side again. I simply don’t see this happening. The right has done a good job of making people think that regulation is simply bad across the board. It is going to be a difficult battle to get people to warm up to the idea of introducing government regulation to current mass media platforms like Facebook. The system we have today of fact checking media simply can’t keep up. For example, I heard in a recent sort of ad hoc way that we receive more information today than those alive in the 15th century would receive in an entire lifetime.

[19:17] What responsibility do journalists have in these situations?

Jordan: They have a huge responsibility. The purpose of freedom of the press has always been to limit the ability of those in power to get away with lying to the people. However, in order for them to get the public’s trust back, they have to show that they are working to find the truth rather than to protect the interest of their shareholders. The future for these journalists is at the local level. People really love their local news. While national coverage is an emotional wrestling match, it is the coverage of local affairs that people can relate to which gets them to come out and get involved in government. I think local media that can inform people of things that directly relate to them in their communities is how journalism can lead the fight against the current media climate that fake news is flourishing in.


Fake news, clickbait, and the future of local journalism



Can philanthropy save local journalism? Are the calls of “fake news” from Washington impacting the work of journalists in other parts of the country? We discuss those questions and the role of the free press in a democracy with Halle Stockton, managing editor of PublicSource in Pittsburgh.

Halle Stockton
Halle Stockton

PublicSource is a nonprofit journalism organization in the style of ProPublica, funded primarily by Pittsburgh’s foundation community. Halle talks about how PublicSource’s funding model impacts its reporting, ways that the organization is breaking the fourth wall to engage with readers, how the team responds to allegations of “fake news” while doing in-depth reporting, and why they’ll never write clickbait.

Halle is a Penn State alumna and was the 2018 Hearst Visiting Professional in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What is PublicSource and what is your role there?

Public Source is a non-profit independent, digital first media organization, so in human speak that means that we are focused on in depth and investigative journalism in the Pittsburgh region.

[7:37] How does PublicSource fit into Pittsburgh’s media landscape?

Public Source is fitting in in a way that people are seeing it as a more straightforward platform for the type of news that they’re not getting elsewhere and the type of voices they’re not getting elsewhere.

[8:48] What role does the community itself play in that, in terms of feedback you get?

We engage with the community quite a bit via social media but also in person. A couple of the ways that we interact with people, are one, through educational events we call citizens tool kits.

[13:35] How do you strike the balance between catching people’s attention and writing hard-hitting stories?

We’re never going to fall victim to clickbait. That’s just something that we’ve decided we cannot do. We firmly believe that people’s stories, seeing other people going through things is catchy enough.

[14:50] Are you and your team feeling the impact of the attacks agains the media that are coming from Washington?

Surprisingly enough, even in Pittsburgh, it started off as sources kind of laughing about it like “oh are you the fake news?” but even in the past few months when we’ve had some really important stories drop, those institutions who we’ve pressured in those stories through our reporting, we have heard rumors about them trying to cast us as fake news.

[16:38] What role do foundations play at PublicSource?

There’s a firewall between, just like in newspapers, between business and news, there’s a firewall between foundations and news, although it’s not totally the same.

[19:06] What impacts have you seen from your reporting?

One of the most recent ones was with Chatham University, it’s a small university in Pittsburgh, it used to be all female, and recently moved to co-ed, and we reported on a policy in their honor code. It was a policy that treated self-harm as a disciplinary matter. The stories of students who had been expelled or dismissed from campus housing for incidents of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts , those had been never told.When we put tit [the story] out, within 24 hours the university launched a task force to review it [the policy].

[21:18] Where do you see PublicSource going looking forward?

There are a lot of opportunities. Right now, we’re really focused on the Pittsburgh region. I think in the future there’s opportunity and possibility that we could have somebody in Harrisburg covering state governmental issues in the Public Source way.