The Syrian ceasefire: Seeking balance in the news
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The Syrian ceasefire: Seeking balance in the news

July 9, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Ceasefire in southwest Syria begins Sunday

A ceasefire, or “de-escalation agreement” for areas in southwest Syria went into effect Sunday at noon local time (0900 GMT). The agreement, which was negotiated by the U.S., Russia and Jordan, applies to Deraa province, which borders Jordan and Lebanon, and Sweida and Quneitra provinces. The U.K.-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that no airstrikes or fighting had taken place in the area since the ceasefire went into effect.

The agreement was first announced Friday after U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Hamburg, Germany, during the G20 Summit. The Associated Press (AP) reported the talks followed weeks of private discussions in Amman, Jordan’s capital. The three countries have not announced any mechanisms by which the agreement may be enforced.

The Syrian war, which developed after 2011 protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 470,000 people, involves multiple parties. Russia and Iran support Assad’s government while the U.S. and Turkey support rebel groups that oppose Assad, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (or SDF, a Kurdish and Arab alliance). Both Assad’s government and the SDF oppose the Islamic State (IS) group.

IS is not part of the ceasefire. Assad’s government was reportedly not party to Sunday’s ceasefire. An unnamed Syrian official told Reuters that Assad’s government approved of the agreement. Israel, which borders Syria, also supports the agreement, The Washington Post reported.

A new round of peace talks sponsored by the United Nations (U.N.) is scheduled to begin Monday in Geneva, Switzerland.

Distortion Highlights

  • The term “balanced” is often used to refer to an ideal form of news. But how do you know if a news report is balanced?
  • The coverage of the Syrian ceasefire mostly debates whether the agreement will hold or not.
  • But a true solution to the conflict might address the root causes of why these people are at war in the first place. Exploring that in the news could provide true balance.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Crumbled

    However, several ceasefires have crumbled since the onset of the conflict. (Reuters)

  • Crucial

    A senior State Department official involved in the talks said further discussions would be necessary to decide crucial aspects of the agreement, including who will monitor its enforcement. (Reuters)

  • Hope

    The guns fell silent well ahead of a noon deadline for the implementation of the truce in the two southern provinces that are covered, local residents said, lending hope that it would work at least for a while to quell the violence. (The Washington Post)

  • Inch closer

    US and Russia inch closer to cooperating on Syria, but long road lies ahead. (CNN)

  • Hostile state

    Russia, Iran and Turkey have set up what’s called the Astana process, in which the US has not been involved and of which Syrian rebels are very wary, regarding Iran as a “hostile state.” (CNN)

  • Footprint

    The US and its main regional ally, Israel, want Russia to help reduce the Iranian footprint in Syria. (CNN)

  • Extremism

    Russia certainly doesn’t have the resources to carry it out, but extremism is likely to breed again if much of the country remains in ruins. (CNN)

  • Swaths

    Large swaths of the city have been reduced to rubble by government artillery and Russian air power. (AP)

    Gradually, they have pushed ISIS out of large swathes of territory, aided by hundreds of coalition airstrikes, and are now inside Raqqa — ISIS’ ‘capital’ in Syria. (CNN)

    Western-backed rebels control swathes of Deraa and Quneitra, which are home to tens of thousands of people and form a center of the insurgency south of the Syrian capital Damascus. (Reuters)

Balance. Reporters strive to achieve it, and news outlets claim to have it, but what does it actually mean? How do we know if news is balanced? Usually, we think of it as including both sides of an issue. If you quote a Republican, you should also cite a Democrat, for instance. If you present a view that’s pro-Brexit, follow it with one that’s opposed. But is that enough?

Balance ideally brings in alternate perspectives, not just opposing ones. The way that science deals with this is by testing or questioning underlying assumptions and variables. This helps us gather more data and gain a greater understanding of the world.

Consider the coverage of the Syria ceasefire. Most of the articles we looked at led with an optimistic view, suggesting this new ceasefire could succeed at reducing the violence–or at least it has a greater chance than previous efforts. Balance, then, would be to present the opposite perspective, that the ceasefire may not hold, right? Somewhat.

Inherent in the main point of view voiced above is the assumption that a ceasefire of this nature can reduce the violence in Syria. The sense is that it could do so if the parties involved can just enforce it correctly. What perspective would balance this? The possibility that an agreement of this sort may not be capable of truly addressing the violence.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 52% Spun

  • 59% Spun

  • 67% Spun

  • 73% Spun

Granted, a ceasefire has many merits, the greatest of which is stopping the bloodshed, and it could be the first step to lasting peace. On the other hand, it’s possible warring parties could put down their guns without having resolved the reason they’re at war, particularly when such a detente is imposed by external powers. In this case, the underlying problem would remain unsolved and in time, violence would surface again.

A true solution might address the root causes of why these people are at war in the first place. Exploring that in the news could provide balance in a deeper sense, as well as a greater understanding of the issues at hand.

For example, there’s this line in The Washington Post:

“Details remain vague, however, and it is unclear whether the agreement will lead to other convergences on ways to find an enduring solution to Syria’s six-year-old war.”

This sentence doesn’t just express the point of view that the ceasefire might not work. It suggests “other convergences” may be needed to find a long-term solution. In other words, a ceasefire in itself may not be enough.  

Or, there’s a long section in CNN’s coverage that details a number of factors to be considered to find a long-term solution. The outlet discusses “the question of Iranian involvement on the side of the regime, “the future of President Bashar al-Assad,” “the question of what happens to US allies on the ground,” how a “process toward stability” would be handled, and how the “task of reconstruction” would be addressed.

Add to that many other factors that might need to be addressed to find a long-term solution. Some are likely related to the reasons the war started, which author William Polk details in his 2013 piece on Syria in The Atlantic:  

  • Conflict between various religious and ethnic groups has persisted in Syria for centuries. The current war is in part rooted in a decades-long conflict between Muslims, who are the majority of the population, and the Assad government, which is affiliated with Alawi and Christian minorities.
  • Some observers believe there are more than 1,000 rebel groups that are not only fighting the government, but are hostile to each other, which has made them “very difficult to engage in negotiations,” according to Polk.
  • Various foreign countries give aid to both the government and the rebels.
  • There are economic issues as well: population growth, a lack of arable land and a severe drought led to social discontent over a lack of food and water that contributed to the start of the war in 2011.

Today’s coverage doesn’t mention any of Polk’s points above. Instead, outlets mostly debate whether the ceasefire will hold or not. While exploring how it might fail, the outlets present perspectives that imply that the ceasefire could work. For instance, The Washington Post says Iran “might work to scuttle a deal” or Israel may not “accept Russian enforcers along its border.” A resident of the Syrian city of Daraa is quoted saying, “We’ve entered the cease-fire but there are no mechanisms to enforce it. That’s what concerns people.” Again, these comments still support the assumption that the ceasefire is the way to go, if only it were executed correctly.

The media’s traditional approach to balance has its merits and has likely helped society progress in many ways, such as giving voice to minorities and their beliefs. But it can also be binary and oppositional, and that can be limiting and too simplistic for an issue as complex as the Syrian war. In its efforts to be balanced, journalists may instead want to seek out data and points of view that help people think more deeply and consider more effective solutions for overcoming the challenges of our world.

Fiction
or
Fact

CNN

The ceasefire “will be a test case for future collaboration” between Russia and the U.S.

There’s a ceasefire.

The Washington Post

“A new Syrian truce goes into effect, testing Trump’s relationship with Putin.”

A Syrian ceasefire agreement negotiated by the U.S. and Russia went into effect.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts included in all sources

The agreement, announced Thursday after a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the first initiative by the Trump administration in collaboration with Russia to bring some stability to war-torn Syria. (AP)


AP inaccurately reported that the announcement was made on Thursday after a meeting between Putin and Trump. Trump and Putin met on Friday.

“What makes this effort different, however, is that the peace efforts are now being driven by Russia, which took the lead in the international diplomacy after the defeat of the Syrian rebels in their Aleppo stronghold in December.” (The Washington Post)


The Post doesn’t mention an announcement by the U.S. in October 2016 that it wouldn’t continue bilateral talks with Russia on Syria. Readers may see the reasons Russia “took the lead” in a different light if they know this.

Previous attempts at establishing ceasefires in the Syrian conflict have not resulted in lasting ceasefires. (Reuters, The Washington Post, Associated Press)


CNN doesn’t mention this. By not including past attempts at ceasefires, the outlet gives less context with which to evaluate the likelihood of the success or failure of the current ceasefire in Syria.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Informative, specific and concise! AP’s headline specifies that the ceasefire applies to a portion of Syria (not the entire country), and communicates the news without importing opinion.

Doesn’t say what the news is (that the ceasefire went into effect). Instead, vague language like “inch closer” and “long road lies ahead” give impressions of how the U.S. and Russia might affect the conflict, without stating what actually happened. Also, the word “but” may emphasize the “long road” over the cooperation, giving the impression that the ceasefire is more likely to fail than succeed.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • The ceasefire is likely a path to peace in Syria.
  • Improved relations and cooperation between the U.S. and Russia may help end the Syrian Civil War.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The underlying issues in the Syrian conflict. Helping readers understand the causes of the conflict may help contextualize the potential effectiveness, or lack thereof, of this ceasefire and other efforts to end the conflict.
  • Improved relations between the U.S. and Russia may be helpful for negotiations and coordinating efforts in Syria, but in order to achieve peace, it may be necessary for the Syrian people themselves to find solutions to the conflict.