2018-06-06 / Mideast

For reporters covering Gaza, charges of bias overshadow the stories they witness and tell

By SAM SOKOL JTA


Wounded protesters outside Gaza’s main hospital, in Gaza City, May 14. JTA photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images. Wounded protesters outside Gaza’s main hospital, in Gaza City, May 14. JTA photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images. JERUSALEM—Of the more than 60 deaths that occurred during the recent clashes between Israel and Palestinians at the Gaza border, none was as divisive as that of Layla Ghandour.

Ghandour, an 8-month-old girl, died after an uncle, himself only 12, brought her to the edge of the protest zone, where she was reported to have inhaled Israeli tear gas. Palestinians immediately raised Ghandour as a symbol of Israeli oppression, elevating the infant to the status of martyr and blaming the Israeli army for her death. Many Israelis, meanwhile, countered in angry social media posts that it was irresponsible to allow a child into what essentially was a war zone. Both Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces issued statements, even as reports filtered out that the child had suffered from a preexisting heart ailment that may have contributed to her untimely death.

Prominent newspapers such as the Los Angeles and New York Times ran long features on Ghandour, probing the circumstances surrounding her death, describing how she had become a symbol and laying out the arguments of both sides. Others, especially tabloid papers such as Great Britain’s Daily Express and The Sun, didn’t hesitate to take sides, publishing headlines such as “Drones drop lethal canisters” and describing Israeli tear gas agents as “toxic gas.”

Ghandour became a pawn in a by-now-familiar game played whenever Israel and the Palestinians clash. Flare-ups follow a pattern in which initial impressions—and condemnations—are replaced by a more nuanced understanding of events as more information becomes available. Next come bitter partisan battles over what actually happened. Finally, among pundits, media critics, spokespeople and social media users, the discussion shifts from what happened to the credibility of the press itself.

“I wouldn’t say that the dispute over facts disappears from the conversation after a while,” said Christian Baden, senior lecturer at Hebrew University’s Department of Communication and Journalism, “but it becomes subordinate because the main story then is about how do we need to interpret and how do we need to react to events.”

Baden added: “It shouldn’t really be that difficult to determine what is happening and…it shouldn’t be that difficult to determine what is objectively the news, but it turns out that it is actually quite complex.”

The recent clashes were a case study in split-screen journalism—literally. On May 14, cable news channels around the world juxtaposed footage of happy, smiling Israelis celebrating the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem with images of Palestinians running away from Israeli gunfire through the clouds of smoke.

According to Baden, such events follow a general pattern in which one or two days of confusion are followed by three to five days of interpretation, after which the “meta-debate kicks in” and “the question of what really happens on the ground becomes secondary because we are no longer debating facts, we are debating stories.”

After every development here, pro- Israel media watchdog organizations are usually among the first to wade into the debate. This wave of media criticism usually comes in response to the “knee jerk reaction” of “hold[ing] Israel responsible for whatever happens,” said Simon Plosker, managing editor of HonestReporting, whose stated mission is “defending Israel from media bias.”

Plosker blames what he sees as skewed coverage on a mix of bias, parachute journalism by inexperienced or under-informed reporters and editors abroad who approach the conflict with “a certain level of preconceived framing” already in mind. Plosker said the narrative presenting the Gaza protesters as peaceful “was skewed from the very start.”

Experts on media ethics, however, have a slightly different take. Alan Abbey, a former journalist and adjunct professor of journalism at National University of San Diego, said real-time coverage of conflicts, even by the best reporters, is “incomplete at best, simply because details are continuing to emerge, outcomes are unclear, sources have agendas and a complete picture of a complicated situation is impossible to obtain. The coverage of the violence at the Gaza border was no different.”

Abbey, who lives in Jerusalem, said media watchdogs, on the left and right, are usually quick to “assign blame, generalize and ascribe baked-in, conspiratorial bias where none may exist.” He added that a “laser-like focus on individual headlines or even stories misses the sweep and breadth of a news organization’s ongoing coverage of people, places and events,” which taken together give a more accurate picture of an outlet’s approach. 

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