Michael Georgy and Maha El Dahan on exclusive on Syrian wheat crop falling short of gov't forecast
In June, Reuters exclusively revealed that the Syrian government had vastly overestimated the size of the country’s wheat crop, indicating that a population that has endured unrelenting war could struggle to feed itself this year. A large part of Syria’s agricultural heartland in the north has been under the control of Islamic State since 2014, when the ultra-hardline jihadist group swept through the area and established a de facto capital in Raqqa. The Syrian agriculture ministry’s wheat production forecast puts the 2017 crop at 2 million tonnes, but officials in the Raqqa Civil Council say the actual figure will be around half the government’s forecast. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, correspondents Michael Georgy and Maha El Dahan offer a behind-the-scenes look at how they reported the story.
Q. How did you score this exclusive?
A. Keeping close track of figures released by the government on wheat every year meant we immediately noticed when the figure was vastly inflated, especially because conditions had not improved, so we started asking questions.
Q. What types of reporting were involved in the story?
A. Syrian government estimates of wheat production seemed high given they indicated a vast improvement over last year in a country devastated by war. So we began digging with traders inside and outside Syria. Interviews with local officials and farmers indicated a grim picture. Asking why wheat silos were empty revealed how corruption was also a big factor that undermined wheat reserves.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting the story?
A. The nature of the war in Syria is that every side will have a different story to tell and so the challenge is trying to get the most accurate version of events by talking to people at all levels. Getting the officials at the wheat silos to admit they were empty and a government source to say that the figure was inflated were important to prove the story.
Q. Why did you think this was an important story to tell Reuters customers and readers?
A. Most reporting is about fighting in countries like Syria. Exploring wheat supplies highlighted the risk to strategic commodities that the government needs to keep supporters happy in areas it controls. It offered a unique and important angle.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. Talking to people from all walks of life and following an interesting story through to the end.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. Between us we cover commodities and conflicts and other issues in the Middle East. Finding an angle that sets us apart from other journalists is very rewarding.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. Maha: My rewarding moments come when I know that the stories I put out are eagerly sought after by readers. One of the best moments last year was when a local news outlet in Egypt said that Reuters had “owned” the most important story in commodities that year. Balancing what you can and can’t use in a story to protect sources in difficult situations is challenging.
Michael: Spending months on an extremely difficult and sensitive story and overcoming many obstacles to nail it is the most rewarding part of the job. The most difficult part is losing colleagues and friends and watching ordinary, helpless people suffer in conflicts.