Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United Kingdom
Publishing organisation: The New Humanitarian
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-07-28
Language: English, Arabic
Authors: Annie Slemrod, editor
Zainab Chamoun, project manager
Rafik el Hariri, illustrator
Marc Fehr, web production
Whitney Patterson, production and audience engagement
Annie Slemrod is The New Humanitarian’s Middle East Editor. From 2010-2013 she reported on Lebanon for Beirut’s The Daily Star, where she focused on Palestinian refugees. After leaving Beirut, she worked as freelancer for The New Humanitarian, The Independent, and The American Prospect. Annie holds a Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Zainab Chamoun is a Lebanese freelance journalist and researcher based in Beirut. Her work focuses on community-led development, religion and politics, and interfaith issues.
WhatsApp, Lebanon? is the story of Afaf, Bassel, Mohamad, Roger, and Roza, told through the WhatsApp conversations they’ve had with their friends, family, and colleagues over the past few years.
During that time, their lives have been shaped by the tumult they and the other 7 million residents of Lebanon have been forced to endure as they navigated the country’s massive economic collapse.
This is what life over the past three years looked like for five young people in Lebanon, as they WhatsApped it. This timeline is their story, and it’s Lebanon’s too.
Our goal with this project was to raise awareness of a slow crisis for both mainstream and Lebanese/diaspora audiences, as well as those interested in storytelling. We wanted to create a sense of empathy between readers and people in Lebanon, allowing them to understand what it feels like to live through a crisis like this.
We believe we achieved this. The local contributors were the directors of the storytelling, the project manager and illustrator were both local as well and given much input. We published perspectives that pushed beyond victim-centric narratives, allowing participants to tell their own stories.
The story generated more than 12,000 page views, while time on page was higher than many of our more intensive interactives. Additionally, we were able to put this story across multiple platforms, including YouTube, Instagram, and Spotify, where we published a playlist curated by the story contributors. This story brought many new readers to our platform, including a large portion from within Lebanon.
We received a lot of positive feedback about this story, particularly from those in Lebanon and diaspora around the world, highlighting how this story travelled across the globe.
Social anthropologist Andreas Hackl said, “The New Humanitarian’s story on Lebanon based on WhatsApp conversations is now almost everywhere on my feed. This shows how investment into creative story telling pays off and can convey immersive experiences that make the average news report seem very out of date.”
AFP journalist Dene-Hern Chen said, “A really innovative way of showing the compounding misery of Lebanon, as the country goes through economic crisis, the Beirut explosion, COVID pandemic. Scrolling through the WhatsApp messages makes it a very intimate reading experience.”
The feature was also longlisted for the 2022 Information is Beautiful Awards.
When we began WhatsApp, Lebanon?, we truly didn’t know what to expect. We tried to create space for a free flow of ideas and emotions, between us and everyone involved. We wanted the people who opened their phones to us to share the chats and voice notes that were important to them, not the ones that we thought mattered. Building trust was crucial, so they knew their stories would not be distorted, and that their voices would truly be heard.
We asked a renowned Lebanese artist, Rafik El Hariri, to drive the visual direction of WhatsApp, Lebanon? You can see in his illustrations that he’s been living through the same crisis that he’s drawing.
This was the first bilingual interactive standalone story that we had ever done, which presented its own challenges, but we felt was worth the extra effort to ensure we were able to tell the story in the words of those who lived it, and connect with a wider audience than if we had only published in English.
We also partnered with local and pan-Arab news platforms to distribute the story, including Daraj, L’Orient Today, VICE, The New Arab, Sa’alouni El Nas (a newsletter for the Lebanese diaspora) and the “It’s Nice That” newsletter.
Context about the project:
It has been two years since a deadly explosion tore through Beirut’s port, destroying part of the capital, shocking Lebanon, and making international headlines.
The blast was devastating and, for a short time at least, it made front pages and home pages. But the truth is that it happened when Lebanon was already deep in the throes of an economic and financial crisis – a slow-burn catastrophe that the international media has really struggled to cover.
That’s something we have tried to change with our illustrated interactive timeline, WhatsApp, Lebanon? It looks at how Lebanon’s collapse has impacted the lives of five young people in Lebanon – Afaf, Bassel, Mohamad, Roger, and Roza – through their WhatsApp conversations.
Why WhatsApp? Well, because when journalists ask people questions, they know what story they’ve been assigned. They can’t help but drive the narrative. That’s just not good enough for complex and multi-layered crises like Lebanon, where traditional news stories fail to capture just how much every aspect of daily life has changed.
Over the course of around three years, Lebanon’s currency has lost 90 percent of its value, and the vast majority of the population has been thrust into poverty. But journalists aren’t usually there to witness late night feelings of despair when the power has been out for hours, nor are they waiting in hours-long petrol queues.
The great thing about WhatsApp messages is that they offer a locally rooted archive of history, of conversations that have already happened. As journalists, we can’t shape them, but we can – with the permission of our contributors – make them a valuable resource, and a jumping off point for inclusive storytelling.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
This sort of non-traditional collaborative journalism is an investment in time and resources, but we believe it’s worth it.
Journalism has a tendency to dramatise and simplify humanitarian crises, at the same time that it profits from them. People surviving in places like Lebanon are often called “resilient”. But there are so many layers, so many untold stories, behind their survival. We believe the people living through this can, and should, be the narrators of their own stories.