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Just Journalism on the Reporting of the Gaza Conflict

We have spent the last month meticulously reading, watching, listening to and analysing what the UK media had to say about Israel’s operation in Gaza (within the limits of our scope of monitoring). Our objective has been to see whether … Read More

By / February 6, 2009

We have spent the last month meticulously reading, watching, listening to and analysing what the UK media had to say about Israel’s operation in Gaza (within the limits of our scope of monitoring). Our objective has been to see whether the coverage was balanced, impartial and factually accurate. Had any lessons been learnt since Lebanon 2006 when, in the eyes of many, the media got it so wrong?

Here’s a brief selection from our findings.

Our first observation concerns a key failing across the BBC and the broadsheets: a virtual absence of communication to audiences about who Hamas actually are and what they represent. We ran a simple index looking for mentions of facts such as:

· Hamas does not recognise Israel · Hamas calls for Israel’s destruction in its Charter · Hamas refuses to renounce violence against Israelis · Hamas has a history of violence against Israelis · Hamas does not accept previous peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians

The results are startling. Only 5% of news articles in the broadsheet newspapers made any reference to any of these indicators. Of 18 reports on the Today Programme, one made reference to Hamas’ Charter and the rest made no mention of any of the other indicators, and of ten programmes on the BBC Six and Ten O’clock news, only one included an interview excerpt with Tzipi Livni saying that Hamas ‘cannot accept my right to exist’. This was the only mention of any of the indicators by a quoted source or BBC correspondent. These findings indicate that the journalists behind these reports simply did not view these facts as relevant to the conflict.

Looking at the images in the media, only 4% of all the photographs published about the conflict in the first week depicted Hamas militancy and only one photograph of a rocket launcher appeared in the broadsheets. And in cartoons, more than 75% of all editorial cartoons published over the three-week conflict period depicted Israel as the aggressor, whereas only a quarter even featured depictions of armed Hamas fighters.

Another key failure specifically relates to our national broadcaster. The BBC consistently failed to make the crucial distinction between opinion and fact. The source of the confusion, to a significant extent, is the still highly ambiguous role of Jeremy Bowen: the Middle East ‘Editor.’ As an editor, Jeremy Bowen is permitted to ‘editorialise’ the news, which he does by rendering his reports highly personalised. All of which is fine, as long as any kind of editorialisation is clearly marked as an opinion piece. But this is not what the BBC does. In his daily Gaza diary on the BBC website, the Middle East Editor was given free reign to publish his own partial and emotive opinions. These demonstrated a clear sympathy with the Palestinian case and clear hostility towards Israeli perspectives. For example:

‘Back on 6 January I wrote in this diary about one of the most affecting pieces of video I had seen coming out of Gaza. For me, it is still the most memorable single image of the war. It showed a young Palestinian father kissing his dead baby son goodbye. He was murmuring farewells to his boy and I defy anyone to view it and not be profoundly moved. I was frustrated that I did not even know the names of the man and his son…But I wanted to know more about the man, much more. After a couple of days in Gaza I can tell you a great deal about him…And I am glad that I can finally put a name to a face.’ 23rd January 2009.

As well as a preponderance of entries focusing on personal stories of Palestinians, there was an unmistakable cynicism displayed towards Israel running through the series. On numerous occasions, he made reference to the ‘Israeli narrative’ and ‘Israeli message’, but never once referred to a Palestinian ‘narrative’ or ‘message’. The implication here is that Israeli positions are ‘versions’ and Palestinian positions are reality.

‘Israel has been able to put across its narrative, that it is acting in self defence and doing all it can not to kill civilians. But it has been countered by the sheer weight of images of suffering from Gaza, which have inspired protests across the world.’ 12 January 2009

‘I’m struck by the constant Israeli message that ‘any other country in the world would do the same’. Would they?’ 13 January 2009

Not once in all of the TV coverage we monitored did Mr Bowen tell the personal story of an Israeli. And nowhere in his diary was it made clear that this was his personal opinion and not that of the BBC.

The BBC Editor also slipped personal opinion into some of his news reports. For example, in the late night news on 27 December 2008, he made the assertion in the middle of a news report that

‘Hamas has not been part of the last year of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The talks have largely ignored Gaza, which is a fundamental diplomatic failure.’

Whether the exclusion of Hamas (regarded by the EU and US as a terrorist organization) from last year’s negotiations constitutes a ‘fundamental diplomatic failure’ is a matter of opinion and not of fact.

And on the Ten O’Clock News on 5 January 2009:

‘Israel says it tries not to hurt them – all this is the fault of Hamas. Try telling that to the people in Gaza’s overwhelmed hospitals.’ Here, the use of the phrase ‘try telling that to’ is a subtle but effective way of conveying to the viewer that Israel’s assertions should be treated with suspicion or indifference.

Both of these examples constitute breaches of the BBC Editorial Guideline on impartiality:

‘Our journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgments but may not express personal opinions on matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal views of our journalists and presenters on such matters.’

To their credit, the BBC’s news journalists did regularly report what life in Sderot was like and show images of rockets falling, one landing perilously close to Jeremy Bowen himself. Paul Wood especially deserves praise for his balance and detached perspective.

However, there was one other area where the BBC did not manage to convey crucial information to audiences: in acknowledging the deaths of Hamas terrorists as part of the overall casualty rate. Despite understandably heavy focus on Israel’s media ban, there was no mention until after the ceasefire of the danger that Hamas might be influencing the statistics and sources coming out of Gaza. And so each night, the BBC reeled off casualty figures sourced from ‘Palestinian medics’. Only on one occasion did the BBC TV evening news programmes break the figure down into civilian versus non-civilian casualties. 11% of broadcasts on the Today Programme broke down the figure. In contrast, of the 48 broadsheet articles which gave a figure for the number of Palestinians reportedly killed, 40% attempted to make the distinction. So the general impression made was that all casualties were civilian, rather than a combination of civilian and Hamas.

Improvements in coverage were certainly detected in some areas: in the amount of time and space allocated to quoting Israeli spokespeople; in the overall stance taken by the UK’s broadsheets in their editorial pieces (34% were classified as ‘neutral’ about Israel’s operation in Gaza, 32% took a ‘less favourable’ stance and 34% were ‘more favourable’) and in the BBC’s coverage of both perspectives of the conflict in its news reports. It was principally in Jeremy Bowen’s opinion pieces that the BBC did not provide balance

However, when it came to arguably some of the more influential areas of reporting, we detected serious shortcomings, particularly at the BBC. We have seen the privileging of reporters’ own opinions at the expense of a full presentation of the facts and issues. As a result, core journalistic principles have been compromised.

To view our full report, go to www.justjournalism.com

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