Reporting conflict in Syria
Some months ago, I reflected on the difficulties of reporting from Syria. The deaths of Marie Colvin and a dozen other journalists in the country so far this year has given us cause to think long and hard about the very real dangers there. But so too does the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, and the need to try to separate fact from fiction.
Damascus prides itself on being the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world. It also has the longest history of rumours passing for fact.
I spent three days in Syria earlier this week, talking to all sides involved in the current conflict. Waking up on my first morning, social media was alive with reports that the mobile phone network was down. True enough, I could access the hotel wi-fi but not place a call. On Twitter and Facebook, people claimed the phones had been turned off as the precursor to a major military assault. The truth it seems was more prosaic. It's the high school exam season in Syria - diplomats claimed the real reason was the phone network had been turned off to prevent students cheating. Even in a conflict zone, good grades count for a lot.
In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear. Whatever the cause, officials fear the attack marks the beginning of the sectarian aspect of the conflict.
In such circumstances, it's more important than ever that we report what we don't know, not merely what we do. In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings - or why.
Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white - often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as "brilliant". But he also likened it to so-called "psy-ops", brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.
A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist - never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high - all may not always be as it seems.
Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.