Reporting in Gaza: Striving for fairness

January 15, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

Let’s say it up front: Almost all of you will find something in this column to take issue with.

That’s because the subject is the conflict in Gaza and perceptions of bias in reporting on it. News consumers detect media bias on any number of subjects, but there is nothing like the continuing Mideast conflict to bring out the passions of partisans on all sides.

Here’s a small sample of some of the more restrained comments that have come in to the Reuters reader feedback line:

–“It seems like the whole world wants to condemn Israel for the war/actions it’s taking. Sorry Reuters but for me, I can see right through your pro Palestinian slant. Why don’t you investigate how a U.N. Camp was used as a staging area for Hamas rockets? …”

–“Your pro Israel reporting from Gaza makes one thing perfectly clear. Israel has some control over Reuters. You are in their pocket. Why else would you choose to slant information?”

­­–“Why does Reuters insist on letting someone such as Nidal al-Mughrabi cover the war on Gaza? His reporting is completely biased and filled with inflammatory rhetoric. Doesn’t Reuters have a reporter that understands both sides of the issue and that can JUST REPORT THE NEWS!! I consider such reporting on your part as an insult to my intelligence. Why must you participate in antisemitic propaganda?”

–“Your pro-Israel news coverage of Gaza is shockingly evil. Shame on you! I’ll get the real news elsewhere.”

All feedback is taken very seriously by the editorial leadership.

“A story as important to so many people globally always is scrutinised and criticised,” says Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger. “I take all the comments seriously, because getting it right and giving a true picture of the situation is fundamental to our mission and to the kind of news service I want to run.”

Reuters is not alone in catching flak on coverage. And we’re not alone in examining that coverage. The BBC and The New York Times have both looked at their coverage, concluding that, generally, it has been fair. But both organizations noted the difficulties of covering the conflict in Gaza, as does Reuters Jerusalem bureau chief Alastair Macdonald.

For the past two years, he says, it has been virtually impossible for Reuters staff in Gaza to leave the territory for training, rest or recuperation, as they are routinely denied exit permits by the Israeli army. The army has also prevented Reuters from sending Arabic-speaking staff based in Jerusalem or the West Bank to Gaza and more recently has banned foreign journalists from Gaza entirely. This means Reuters has been unable to send reinforcements or replacements to the Gaza bureau since the Israeli offensive began on Dec. 27. On Thursday, Reuters and other media were forced to evacuate their offices after an apparent Israeli rocket strike on the Gaza building that houses the bureau.

“Unlike many media organizations who complain that ‘there are no journalists in Gaza,’” says Macdonald, “we are very fortunate to have a team of up to 20 people working for us, led by professional journalists of long standing. Their resources, however, are greatly stretched and, aside from persistent fears for the safety of our colleagues and their families, we work in permanent anxiety that overworked equipment will fail and we will be unable to replace it.”

Within Gaza, says Macdonald, senior Hamas officials have generally accepted Reuters’ right to report independently.

“Hamas officials have largely disappeared from view since the offensive began, so they have not been in a position to restrict our reporting, even if they wanted to,” he says. Since Hamas took over, Reuters journalists “have occasionally faced problems with low-level Hamas police and other representatives who try to prevent us filming certain types of event. Such people are particularly reluctant that we should cover events that they see as evidence of challenges to their authority.”

However, Macdonald says: “We have had frank and open meetings with senior Hamas leaders when we have had concerns and are generally satisfied … We generally feel that (they) respect our independence and give us the freedom to do our jobs. We have reported incidents of official repression, including torture … and quoted people making serious allegations against the authorities.”

The Reuters team on the ground in the region is a mixture of Israelis, Palestinians and other nationalities. Reuters Politics & General News Editor Sean Maguire says most have worked for Reuters for many years. “All of them are well-versed in the need to be scrupulous in our use of language, attentive to our rules on rigorous sourcing and aware of our requirement to produce a balanced news file,” he says.

But in a story with so many different datelines, it’s up to the editing desk to pull the threads together, see though the “fog of war” and ensure that the coverage has balance and appropriate context. This team in London has decades of experience and includes several editors who have worked in the Middle East on assignment or have reinforced the Jerusalem bureau. Maguire and I agree that the editors are acutely aware of both the realities on the ground and the complex history of the region.

Several readers have written to say they see bias in Reuters coverage because they have seen stories, like this one, that don’t tell them directly why Israel launched its offensive on Dec. 27, after Hamas militants ended a six-month truce and started firing more rockets into southern Israel. A search of our stories on the Gaza conflict shows that, while there have been stories that have lacked that context, most have included it or similar explanations of the roots of the conflict.

“We are a real-time news service so we are continually tweaking and improving the news file, hour by hour,” Maguire says. “Some stories with new developments have to be moved very quickly to ensure our customers have the latest information. To do so they need to be short, so they will not contain all the background. However, such stories are quickly updated and lengthened to include the appropriate context.”

Other readers have suggested that stories focusing on the conditions in Gaza reflect a bias against Israel and call for more coverage of the hardships Israelis are suffering in the face of continuing rocket attacks. The focus of the coverage has certainly been within Gaza, because that’s where the story—and the bulk of casualties and destruction—has been.

Still, Reuters has made strong efforts to document the situation in Israel. Macdonald wrote movinglyabout how the shadows of history hang over Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz within sight of the smoke of the Gaza conflict. And Douglas Hamilton reportedon the strong resolve of residents of Sderot, a southern Israeli town that has borne the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks. The townspeople’s advice to the Israeli forces in Gaza: Keep it up. This coverage, in turn, has drawn criticism that it too readily accepts an Israeli view of the history of the region.

Even user-generated content is not immune to charges of bias. Reuters Your View, which solicits photographs from Reuters.com users, was accused of imbalance in publishing pictures of anti-Israel demonstrations, but none from the other side. In the Jan. 2 showcase of Your View pictures there were 10 images of anti-Israel protests from six locations and seven different photographers. No pro-Israel or anti-Hamas pictures were received that week. On Jan. 9, there were images of seven anti-Israel protests from four locations and six photographers. There was one image of a rocket attack on Israel, selected from three pictures that were sent. Again, no pro-Israel demonstration images were received that week, reports Leah Eichler, editor of the online newsroom.

Other readers have suggested that journalist Nidal al-Mughrabi’s first-person accounts from within Gaza, such as this onein which he describes the horrified reactions of his children during an Israeli raid, disqualify him from reporting on the conflict. Some readers have suggested that it’s impossible for a journalist to set aside his feelings and report objectively. However, I think a close reading of the article shows that while al-Mughrabi’s first reaction was to make sure his family was safe, he quickly set about the journalist’s work of filing a complete, accurate report of what was going on. “That is what you would expect from a seasoned and responsible reporter of Nidal’s high caliber,” says Maguire.

“I think first-person accounts bring to life the drama and the horror of this conflict,” says Maguire. “Journalists are human beings as well, and it is honest of our reporter Nidal to acknowledge his concern as a parent and the fear of his children when they found themselves under bombardment.”

Indeed, all journalists are called on almost daily to set aside their personal feelings or politics as we objectively cover wars, elections and other stories. Some partisans will never believe it’s possible for journalists to do that. Thankfully, I see it happen every day.

Editor-in-Chief Schlesinger puts it this way:

“Reuters News has journalists from 80 different nationalities working around the world, sometimes in their homes and often in other places. There are certainly times when events affect them and their families personally. But our professional ethics and our company’s Trust Principles mean they try their utmost to put their personal feelings aside in the interest of telling the story truthfully and without bias. As an organisation we have our standards and editing procedures in place to safeguard our report. As editor-in-chief, I take my responsibility for maintaining our standards extremely seriously, and will not tolerate willful breaches. ”

So—has Reuters News given people reason to believe we might be biased against Israel? Perhaps, if they believe a journalist can never separate his reporting of what he sees from what he may feel. And, yes, there have been stories—not many, but some—that have lacked context and have seemed imbalanced. We need to be more vigilant in making sure that all our stories carry appropriate context, as we can’t assume that every reader has read every one of our stories and thus can see our overall lack of bias.

And what seems to be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli reporting to readers on one continent may not raise any eyebrows on another. It’s also fair to say that articles from different news organizations have differences in tone. That’s good. Who would want one big, bland news source for the world? Reuters News is produced for a global audience and there are bound to be different reactions in the United States, Europe and other regions.

But has there been systematic bias against either side? No. I believe Reuters journalists–-the text, photo and video journalists on the ground and the editors who pull it all together– have, by and large, produced journalism that is fair and as complete as possible under the most difficult circumstances. Can we do better? Surely. Will we satisfy the partisans on both sides? Probably not.

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