Lara Setrakian: Syria story ‘shouldn’t be buried’ by media

Founder of Syria Deeply website explains how she wants to tell the story of the civil war differently

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

Lara Setrakian thought the mainstream media wasn’t covering Syria in the right way, so she decided to reinvent journalism in order to tell it better.

After a five-year stint as a reporter in the Middle East, Setrakian gave up her job to found Syria Deeply, a website entirely devoted to the conflict.

Given that the site focuses on just one issue, Syria cannot be overshadowed by the wrangling of U.S. domestic politics, the stock markets or celebrity world. Here, neither Obama nor Miley Cyrus can push Syria off the news agenda.

Syria Deeply gives “what’s missing from the picture” in the mainstream press, Setrakian says.

“With the U.S. media, you find interest in Syria comes and goes; most of the time it’s buried in the middle or back of the newspaper,” she said.

“We didn’t believe the Syria story should be buried in the back pages… You do have people in the U.S. who are very interested, they just can’t seem to understand it.”

The design of the site was created with the user experience in mind, in an attempt to give meaning to the mass of fragmented news snippets coming from Syria.

The Syria Deeply website
The Syria Deeply website

It’s a kind of “dashboard” on Syria, with a running counter of the length of the conflict – today is day 1051 – and boxes with latest commentary, tweets and news from other sites.

It is a model that News Deeply – of which the Syria site is part – hopes to replicate later in the year.

“We do see ourselves launching new ‘Deeply’ platforms in partnership with local journalists, foundations and think-tanks,” Setrakian says.

“We are looking at Iran Deeply, Oceans Deeply, Arctic Deeply, Myanmar Deeply, Congo Deeply,” she added. Other ideas include sites devoted to Egypt, Libya and Iraq.

“You see all of these issues that have basically been forgotten. And we’d like to create a model that can help pretty much supplement what’s out there in news,” Setrakian says.

Setrakian, an Armenian-American based in New York, told Al Arabiya News how her site attempts to delve more ‘deeply’ into the Syrian conflict.

Q&A with Lara Setrakian, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Syria Deeply

Lara Setrakian, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Syria Deeply
Lara Setrakian, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Syria Deeply

Q. You’ve said previously that you think “the news is broken”. Can you elaborate?

Here in the U.S. it’s pretty straightforward. There’s basically a breakdown in the supply chain around not just international news, but in-depth reporting in the United States. We’ve suffered [from] the commercial pressure on news organizations. With an absence of bureaus and foreign correspondents, you basically had a massive drop in the supply of foreign news reports on U.S. television networks and newspapers.

That meant that Americans were not getting the full sense of the story when it came to what’s happening around the world. People often make this generalization that Americans don’t understand what’s happening on planet Earth or that they’re not interested or they are just really self-centered. But the truth is they haven’t really been given a chance to understand what’s happening outside their own borders, because there are so few journalists relative to what we used to see.

Syria Deeply
Syria Deeply

Q. Can’t media companies use newswires like Reuters or the Associated Press to tell the Syria story?

Newswires are never going to deliver enough to put the Syria story consistently in an evening news broadcast. It’s the same for regional newspapers that used to have foreign news reporters but which no longer do. It’s not just a matter of supply but also of diversity. If you have practically everyone posting the same article from the Associated Press, it doesn’t give you much depth beyond that single article, you don’t get to go beyond the headlines.

Q. How does Syria Deeply aim to fill that void?

What we set out to do is innovate the way we collect and display information. You get everything out there on one central location, so everyone can come and understand what’s happening on a given day. [We work] with Syrian journalists on the ground who bring us stories and we just apply a bit of active coaching and editing help get them up to speed and get their pieces strong enough to run in an international news outlet. We have had a really good time of mixing in Western and Arab journalists on the same story.

Q. One problem mainstream media have in covering the Syria story is verifying footage and reports. Does your news service suffer from that?

We’re very clear about what is our own solid reporting or contributions from people we know on the ground, versus an unverified piece of content. There are all sorts of technology tools being developed that can help us verify video. There are rudimentary methods like checking the weather report against a given video, to see if it really was raining in that town on Tuesday, to more sophisticated technology tools analyzing metadata that are being developed.

Q. What have you been able to report that the mainstream media hasn’t?

What we’ve done that has been truly distinct is the civilian story, civil society in Syria. All that took was just an active commitment to keep our eyes out for how the average person in Syria is getting on. That has been something we’ve been very committed to. So we have spoken to teachers, architects, aid workers, all sorts of people who are just average Syrian citizens trying to get by in this war.

We have had people reporting from places during the internet blackouts - we miraculously had people still connected and able to tell us what’s going on; we did an exclusive Google Hangout with John Kerry before he went off to negotiate with the Russians in Geneva [last year].

Q. How is Syria Deeply funded?

We made a decision very early on to not make money from advertising. We didn’t think it was even going to be possible to make money off of advertising because Syria is not the story that advertisers really care about. We’ve received grants from the likes of Columbia University, Rice University, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Asfari Foundation, the Dorothy Ann Foundation [among others]. We set ourselves one rule for funding, which is just that we would not accept any government funding.

I’m definitely not out to outsmart the news. But I do think the news needs to be smarter!

Q. One headline declared that ‘Syria Deeply Outsmarts The News’. Is that something you agree with?

That’s nice of them to say! We didn’t see ourselves as competitive; I’m not a competitive person, I’m definitely not out to outsmart the news. But I do think the news needs to be smarter! Here in the U.S., news outlets don’t seem to have an easy time of doing anything innovative, and sometimes there are clearly things that need to be tried.

When I did this 18 months ago everyone was obsessing over the U.S. election, which is just fine. But I was obsessing over the people of Syria. And I thought there was enough room on the internet for both. Maybe there isn’t enough room in a one 22-minute newscast, but there is certainly enough room online.

Q. So what lessons are there here for the mainstream media? Could they adopt any of these ideas?

We’ve been talking to major news organizations about partnering with them, precisely because this is a model that you can plug in to any news outlet. I won’t name names but we are in talks with some. You can imagine a business publication doing ‘Euro-Debt Deeply’, or a sports organization doing ‘Olympics Deeply’.

Q. You left a high-flying job at Bloomberg TV to launch Syria Deeply. Why did you decide to take the jump and was it a good idea?

I don’t regret it for a minute. Sometimes in life you come across something you just know you have to try. But it was a really significant jump. My parents thought I was crazy; by and large people don’t understand when you give up time on camera for anything. I really believe in Syria and I really love the people in Syria, and I have some family roots in Syria and I don’t want that to be forgotten.

Q. Does Syria Deeply have an allegiance to one side of the conflict or another?

I tell everyone our website is outcome neutral: we don’t take a position in the conflict, we did not take a position on [last year’s debated] U.S. strike, we don’t run editorials condemning this or that. If I have any position as a person, as a journalist, it’s that I don’t want people to suffer either side. I’m very committed to following the story until Syria puts itself back together some day; as a Middle Eastern American I feel very committed to helping Americans understand what’s happening in Syria.

The more I know Syria the less I have an opinion about anything

Q. So the site is not pro-Assad or pro-opposition. What is your personal view?

To tell you the truth, the more I know Syria the less I have an opinion about anything. It’s a very complicated picture. We now have crimes against humanity on both sides of the fight. I don’t personally have an opinion except that I would like to see a ceasefire as soon as possible.