November 27, 2020

Event Coverage Highlight

Jennings Award Winners Discuss Key Role of Citizen Journalism

Robert Friedman, upper left, talks to Raney Aronson-Rath, bottom left, and Waad Al-Kateab. Image via Zoom.

by Chad Bouchard

When the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011, Waad Al-Kateab was an economics student in her first year at the University of Aleppo. With violence gripping the city and the Bashar al-Assad regime denying responsibility for attacks, Al-Kateab reflexively started filming with her phone to record and bear witness to those events.

“I knew what I was doing was something very important, and that maybe it was the only way for us to participate in the revolution and to be part of that change.”

Her activism set her on a path of citizen journalism that stretched five years, eventually becoming a regular contributor to Channel 4 News in the U.K., shooting award-winning reports and footage that would form the backbone of a feature documentary of her personal struggle under siege, For Sama, which she named for her daughter.

The film garnered this year’s Peter Jennings Award for best TV, video or documentary about international affairs with a run time over 30 minutes, as well as an Oscar nomination, a BAFTA Award for best documentary, a Peabody Award and many other accolades.

On Oct. 7, the OPC hosted a webinar with Al-Kateab and Raney Aronson-Rath, the executive producer of FRONTLINE, PBS’ investigative journalism series. Robert Friedman of Bloomberg News, who served as head judge for the Jennings award jury, moderated.

Aronson-Rath, who worked with Peter Jennings, said Al-Kateab’s story had exceptional resonance for viewers because it allowed people to see what was happening in a new and intimate way.

“And I’ve been thinking about what Peter would think of this, that he would look at this story and say this is the most original story out of Syria that we can tell. I’ve been thinking deeply about how and why her film broke through,” she said. “It really didn’t have that wall that you’re used to with foreign correspondents. It had the actual experience of the people living it, so people could relate to it more.”

She added that this model could be a portend of future approaches to foreign coverage, where local journalists are given a platform to tell their stories instead of staying in the background as anonymous fixers.

Al-Kateab said she likes the term “citizen journalist,” because it gives her “a kind of space to express myself and tell my own opinion, and say things that in normal journalism people maybe don’t want to say.”

She said showing the humanity behind stories is “the least we can do to make the story more honest and more true.”

Aronson-Rath added that each component of the film still goes through the same editorial process and fact checking that a straight news story is subject to.

“It’s applying journalism to this new form,” she said. “It’s an important effort, because then you can say personal stories are vetted and true too.”

Friedman said during the judging for the award, the jury discussed whether something can be activism and journalism at the same time.

“And we decided that yes, it can be. It is an expansion of the definition and the boundaries of how we traditionally look at journalism.”

Al-Kateab recounted an incident during the filming when a woman whose child had been injured was shouting at the camera, “are you filming?” She said she was confused at the time about whether the woman was angry about exposing this painful moment on video, but then realized that the woman wanted the footage to be shown to the world so people would understand what was happening. She said people under siege often vacillate between hopelessness and desire to get the story out.

“There were so many times when I felt, in one second, this is very important to be filmed, but [the next] second I was feeling like ‘what’s the point of this? This will just be additional footage. The world will not do anything about this.”

Al-Kateab fled Aleppo in December 2016 with her husband and their two daughters, as well as several hard drives full of footage, first going to Turkey and eventually landing in the U.K.

She is currently working with Channel 4, and recently traveled to the Moria refugee camp in eastern Greece to report on the fire that displaced thousands of residents. She has also started work on a new documentary film focused on Syria through the eyes of a girl grappling with memories and her past. She said her daughter Sama started school in recent weeks, and is “over the moon” about it. “It’s so nice to see how she’s really happy and enjoying life here [in the U.K.],”

But Al-Kateab was quick to add that despite moments of happiness, she often thinks about children still living in Syria who are not yet free of violence, and hopes a change will come soon so that she can take Sama back to her home country and resume their lives.

You can watch For Sama on the FRONTLINE PBS YouTube channel here.

Click the window below to watch a playlist of video clips from the program on our YouTube channel.