Read Between the Headlines
by Omar Alhashani & Maya Gebeily
In late July of 2017, Khabar Keslan’s Omar Alhashani spoke to journalist Maya Gebeily, an Agence France-Presse correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon who writes about security, diplomacy, social affairs, refugees, jihadist groups, and other dynamics playing out in Syria, Lebanon, and beyond. More recently, Maya, along with fellow journalists Eric Reidy and Hugo Goodridge, began production on The Byline—a live speaker series. The Byline invites seasoned reporters in the field to take a step back and reflect on their experiences, bringing transparency and relatability back to a time of significant mistrust of news media. The live sessions of The Byline are recorded at Riwaq in Beirut, with additional studio recording by Jad Kas at Boombox Studios. Listen to the first episode on iTunes or Soundcloud.
Omar Alhashani: So what have you been up to? Last time we spoke, you were in Beirut covering the Syrian conflict.
Maya Gebeily: Yeah, I'm still doing Syria full time. Our bureau here at AFP covers both Syria and Lebanon, but we've just been following Syria developments day in and out. The past week has been kind of surreal doing Syria. When I first started going up to Arsal in early 2014, the main guy who was talking to journalists at the time was the former deputy mayor, Ahmad Fliti. He would pick up phone calls from us, give us any kind of information about the town, and facilitate our visits to the area. So you’d go up, see him, he’d take you to the refugee camp, he’d tell you what was happening in the town, etc. He was mediating between the army and some of the armed groups—because obviously not all of the guys that have weapons around Arsal are ululating, head-chopping jihadists—and an unidentified shell hit his car and ended up fatally wounding him. It was surreal.
OA: I'm so sorry… That's heavy news.
MG: Yeah. I mean, I didn't know him at all, I just met him a few times. But it’s just like, wow, this person you interacted with—makes everything seem closer to home.
OA: It made things more real? Or more detached?
MG: Well, both. As you step into the office every day, we're entering a war-by-proxy. You start building relationships with people. They tell you about their PTSD, or about people they've lost in their families, or what it's like in their day-to-day. For example, I get audio messages from my sources every day with chatter in the background. It's weird: Lebanon is not far away, but life here feels completely detached.
OA: Why do you think that is?
MG: A lot of people will answer with, "Well, the Lebanese people are resilient. They've been through so much that they can continue to live on and party and drink and have fun despite everything happening around them, whether it’s bombs in their own country or somewhere else." Personally? I think it's just... denial? [laughs] There's tension just below the surface. I think that war and violence affect people here much more than they're willing to admit. A lot of the tendencies towards being complacent or trying to insulate oneself from political developments inside and outside the country—it's just a coping mechanism.
OA: How does that affect the way people engage with civic life in Lebanon?
MG: You see it in the way that people typically get involved in Lebanon. There's the initial, powerful build-up surrounding a protest about something the government's doing, but then it fizzles away pretty quickly. It means that a lot of people are unwilling to commit to long-term activism or lobbying efforts, or any civic engagement at all, because they feel like it's going to go nowhere. Overall, the sense I get is that people here detaching themselves from regional, global, and domestic events is a coping mechanism for their belief that nothing they do will have lasting effects.
OA: Because if you feel like you can't control the local, how are you supposed to control anything else?
MG: Right. People will bring it up like, "Aw, man, it's really bad what's happening over there in Syria," and, "Oh, the refugees, you know, they're putting these constraints on Lebanon." They just become these kinds of half-hearted talking points that you can make. But the situation is not as tense as it was in 2013 when I arrived. People can get used to anything, and maybe that's what resilience is. Maybe it's not about carrying on despite everything and showing resistance by going out to drink and party, it's just people getting worn down.
OA: What made you want to start The Byline, then? Was there a catalyst?
MG: The podcast is not my own brainchild. It belongs to Eric Reidy, who is a freelance magazine journalist focusing mostly on refugee and migrant issues, but he has also written on governance and technology. He had worked on a long-term project called 'Ghost Boat.' It's about a boat of migrants that vanished off the Libyan coast in 2014.
Eric had worked on this project for ten months, and he had been trying to track migrants who were trying to get to Italy but never got there. He spent months and months of his life on this, published a lot, but, in the end, the story was unresolved, and he was unable to find them. He had no leads, but had tons of recordings and things that he had never used in the articles. It got him thinking: "If I have all this material that I never got to use, and some stories still need to be told, what kind of platform can we create so that readers can see what work journalists put in their stories? How can journalists share a lot of those telling, colorful, and vibrant interactions that they've had that just don't end up in that final media product?"
That's basically how The Byline was born. It was created as a platform where journalists can share a lot of the stuff that doesn't make it into the final media product and where audiences who are not journalists can get a better idea of what it's like to pick up a story. So when he came to me and pitched the idea, I thought, "This is brilliant!" I had just gotten back from Iraq and realized that, while I wrote some cool stories from there, a lot of my friends and family were most excited about things that had nothing to do with news in particular. They were more interested in my interactions with Iraqi soldiers, elite forces, and paramilitary corps, in what I ate every day, where I'd sleep.
Also, Eric Reidy, Hugo Goodridge, and I are all based in Beirut—so are a lot of other journalists. We have people from The New York Times, BBC, The Washington Post, a lot of other magazines and radio stations. Lebanon is a great hub where journalists pass through, so we're able to catch a lot of interesting people.
We didn't only want to make a podcast, but a live event series as well. Storytelling in person is often so much more powerful than hearing it on the radio. We wanted to combine these views, which has proved to be pretty ambitious.
OA: Why are you doing it live first? Is it for purely practical reasons?
MG: Exactly. We don't have much experience with podcasts, so it's been a learning experience for all three of us. We thought about doing the events more closely together, but it takes more planning because we work with each speaker to develop their talks.
Each episode has three speakers who go for about 15 minutes. We don't want it to be a formal speech; it's narrative-driven. Our first event was about fake news: we hosted a Lebanese journalist, a Canadian journalist, and an American editor to talk about how fake news had affected their work. Our second was about conflict reporting: we had a Lebanese journalist, an Armenian-American journalist, and a Lebanese-American journalist. We had so many great anecdotes, like from AbdulRahman Orabi, who talked about how he had to hike across the border in Syria.
These stories show you that journalists are people. Thinking about the lens through which you're reading a story is important to understand how that story came about. In the episode titled, “But Isn’t It Dangerous?”, Wall Street Journal reporter Maria Abi-Habib had some of the most interesting reporting experiences across the region. She was first posted in a conflict zone in Afghanistan. She was telling her Lebanese family, "I got this job at The Wall Street Journal, I'm going to Kabul," and they're like, "Kabul? That's so dangerous! How could you even think about living there?" And she's like, "But you guys lived on the green line during the Lebanese civil war and never left..." Then her next posting was in Baghdad, so she gets there and the Iraqis are like, "You were just in Kabul? That's so dangerous!" It's mind-blowing.
OA: You touched on this point for a quick second—a running theme in all the episodes and the project—that journalists are people. Why do you think it's important to show people that journalists are people at the end of the day?
MG: I think there are a couple of different reasons. The main thing is that there seems to be a breakdown of trust. This feels especially pertinent when I read news stories from the US and even when I speak to family members of mine who are supporters of the current administration in the US. The prevailing thought here goes something like, "Ugh, journalists, they'll do anything just to get a scoop, they don't fact check what they're doing, and they're publishing whatever!" We want to show readers that we do our due diligence and that there's a lot that goes into the reporting that doesn't make it into the media product. As soon you show people that, they're going to trust you more.
I've heard a lot of journalist friends share this anecdote: someone they know who's reading and writing about Syria says, "Well, we don't know what’s really going on there, so how can anyone understand what’s really happening?" The journalist responds with, "Well, I report on this conflict, I can tell you! I've talked to people who said xyz," and, all of sudden, the person's understanding of where a news story comes from and how it's being built changes. I’m sure there are people who don’t know any journalists, and I don't know how they think the news is gathered, but it is important for us to show that we take our jobs very seriously. It's frustrating when people claim ‘fake news,’ since we spend a lot of time on these conflicts—whether it's Syria or not. We want to show you that we are like you: we work our butts off to get stories out there that are accurate, understandable, personable, interesting, and fair, so... try to trust us!
OA: You're saying there's this huge trust breakdown between journalists and audiences, but, here at Khabar, we're also dissatisfied with the way that mainstream media covers the region and has been for a while. I wonder if you can talk a little about what kind of safeguards there are, when you do journalism, to make sure that you're covering things responsibly. I imagine that, when covering war-torn countries, it can become easy to sensationalize things. Yet, reading your journalism, you avoid that.
MG: I don't think that spectacle journalism is a responsible way to tell a story. Let me start by saying that I didn't study journalism—I did international relations. Regardless of our educational backgrounds, what drives us as journalists is being able to tell stories fairly. I chose the word ‘fair’ several times already because I'm not saying the word 'unbiased.' We shouldn't pat ourselves on the back for being unbiased, since, sometimes, being unbiased makes you overcompensate certain things.
When you take Syria, for example, you have a death toll on many sides of the conflict that is huge and that far outweighs the death tolls and the atrocities that are being committed by a multitude of other parties. If being 'objective' means that you report on all those things as if they are on the same level, then you're not fair. I want to convey the reality as much as I possibly can, and the reality is that death tolls in airstrikes led by the US-led coalition in Syria over the past couple of months have been a lot higher than death tolls of civilians via airstrikes by the Russians and the Syrian regime. I'm not going to report on those two things equally. There are civilian death tolls on both sides, but it wouldn't be fair to equate them at this time.
We have some tools to help ensure that we are responsible: double checking everything, finding second sources, looking up maps, reading the history of the place, asking somebody who's from there, etc. The idea here is making sure you understand the context as much as possible, which will, in turn, help you determine the accuracy of what you're reporting. It's a skill you learn over time. It takes a while to understand that you can't take what people say at face value all the time.
OA: Can you give us an example?
MG: I covered the Iraqi offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group last year. We would be in a neighborhood in Mosul, and our office would forward me an official statement from Baghdad saying that Iraqi forces had liberated the area. I'd take a quick look around and... Well, it was clearly not liberated by Iraqi forces. I could hear explosions and mortar fire in the distance, that kind of thing. But the official government line does not always line up with what you see on the ground. I take reporting on Syria and issues of liberation and control with a grain of salt, because it's not always going to be precisely what's happening. A lot of people who were on The Byline will say the same thing!
OA: So far, we've both referred to journalists as one general group. As someone from 'the inside,' what kind of differences do you see in journalists in the field?
MG: There are a couple of ways you can break this down, such as by industry. I was in Astana earlier this year covering the 'peace talks' sponsored by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The attending parties were negotiating while also going back and forth with both the present rebel and Syrian government delegations. I remember seeing the different organizations and their needs at these kinds of conferences. A TV station had to go live three to four times a day and present some new thing that they could explain to their audience. Wires also were included, they had to provide updates every three to four hours on what was happening. The newspapers, especially the ones based in the US and the UK, had the most chill experience since they just had to give a big wrap up at the end of the day on what had happened—they didn't have to provide updates throughout the day.
More personally, I see that different personalities and different reporting styles succeed in different situations. There are a lot of skills that work across the board. Being personable, kind, following up with your sources, things like that, are essential to any journalist. But people have different ways of doing their job. Magazine journalists, freelancers, TV, newspapers, people who have had decades of experience in the region versus people who have just been here for a few years. Everybody has different reporting styles, and that's refreshing because that means everyone looks at a story differently. You'll have people with different skill sets and experiences who provide different angles on a single story, which gives you a more textured and complete picture.
At the same time, however, I don't expect readers to read fifteen stories on Syria every day. I want to give people the most accurate and comprehensive picture of what’s happening every day, but I know they're not going to spend three hours of their day putting everything together.
OA: Who has shown interest in The Byline so far? People who spend three hours of their day putting things together?
MG: In a sense. I think we're facing a bit of an unexpected challenge here, in that a lot of our audience members over the three episodes we've done have been journalists. That's fantastic, because it means that there's interest in this on the journalist side, but I get especially excited when I see that there are non-journalists in the audience. It means people want to learn where their news is coming from; they want to hear those anecdotes and funny stories. I've had a lot of friends reach out to me from the US as well, which gets me excited, because if they are interested in this halfway around the world, then we must be doing something right!