Citizen-journalists are playing a greater role in showing conflict zones to the world and defining our understanding. What happens when they're wrong?
We might never know who first entered this photo into the social media currents, which sent it flying through Arabic- and English-language social networks (including my own Twitter account) until it landed on the BBC website's front page. Though it purportedly shows victims of Saturday's massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, sourced from the anonymous "activists" who have provided so many similar images throughout the Arab Spring, in fact it is from Iraq and nearly a decade old.
Its actual photographer, Marco Di Lauro, fumed on his Facebook page that "somebody is using my images as propaganda." The photo, he explained, was taken in Iraq in May 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. According to its original caption, it shows bodies being prepared for mass burial in the town of Musayyib, where they'd been killed in the early 1990s by Saddam's forces as punishment for a failed uprising.
It's easy to see why Di Lauro would be upset, but the BBC's error seems like an innocent one, and is in some ways an inevitable result of the changing ways in which international media cover conflict zones. Places such as Houla, where Syrian forces killed dozens of civilians including 32 children under the age of 10, are often too dangerous to cover first-hand. Even when journalists can make their way in, as with New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks' trip to Syria in February, the visit must be brief, and even the journey to and from can be enormously risky; Times reporter Anthony Shadid died on the trip.