‘Officials say’, ‘officials say’, ‘according to an official’

Our last MediaShot ‘The false reality of news journalism’ – Reporting Palestine and the Mavi Marmara analysed reporting of the Israeli attack on the international aid flotilla destined for Gaza. The analysis focused on the broadsheet newspapers, the Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner, where we found a clear bias in favour of Israeli government sources.

Along with distributing MediaShots to subscribers we often send them to journalists and editors who we think might wish to comment on the criticisms made. Sometimes we hear back.

The following response was received from a senior journalist at the Irish Times:

David:

I did not manage to get beyond the second paragraph of this because of your self-serving selective quote from the report to which you refer. You say below: “An Israeli naval patrol killed at least four Palestinians…on their way to carry out a terror attack.”

But the Reuter report, as published on our breaking news service, said: “An Israeli naval patrol spotted a boat with four men in diving suits on their way to carry out a terror attack and fired at them,” an Israeli army spokesman said, adding that the patrol had confirmed hitting its targets (emphasis added).

We therefore anchored the claim of motivation firmly where it belongs – with an Israeli army spokesman. It is the duty of the media to report assertions of both sides, as we did in this case.

If you are going to throw stones, you’d need to do rather better than this.

[Name withheld] [Email, 5 July, 2010]

This is a sentiment the Editor of the paper would no doubt fully endorse. In the paper’s ‘Message from the Editor‘ Geraldine Kennedy states:

“We never go to publication without seeking both sides of the story. And if, in spite of our best efforts, we cannot get one side’s version, we make it clear in our report that we have made every reasonable effort to secure that information.”

The idea that reporting assertions by various sides constitutes impartial journalism clearly discounts the attributing of authority to one source over another and the potential bias involved in creating a hierarchy of statements simply by virtue of where they are located in reports. But even if we accept this limited condition, the Irish Times entirely failed to live up to it. The Palestinian source was simply used to confirm the deaths, the only “side of the story” reported was the Israeli side.

Subsequently, we contacted the Reuters journalist to find out why there were no reactions from Palestinian officials or eye witnesses, why one side had been excluded from the narrative. He responded:

“Information from Gaza political, securiy [sic] and hospital officials was — indeed, is always — sought but it rarely sheds significant light on events in the field, or in this case, under water.

Officials with operational details prefer to keep out of the limelight and their spokesmen only divulge information that is often of no operational significance.

As I recall, there were multiple claims of responsibility by Palestinian militant groups at the time for the action but nothing was unequivocal and if I am not mistaken, there was also some backtracking by at least one of the claimants.” [Email, 11 July, 2010]

We responded the same day:

“I can understand that, especially in the wake of an incident like this, solid information is hard come by. But I was thinking more along the lines of reactions to the incident from Palestinian sources – perhaps with regards to the legality of Israel killing what may have been armed or apparently unarmed militants in Palestinian waters.

Israeli sources appear to dominate the report, with Hamas officials only confirming the deaths. With no definitive evidence of an immediate threat, I would have expected some sort of Hamas denunciation.” [Email, 11 July, 2010]

To which we received the following response:

“Please note that probably in the majority of cases, our first source for reporting on military action is the Palestinian side, with Israeli confirmation coming later.

The Israeli military spokesman’s office is often more cumbersome and holds back on responding to queries until it feels it has received accurate reports from the field. The Palestinian side, to whom our Gaza team has excellent access are often first off the mark to give details of a clash that has just ended or is still in progress.

We treat both sides with equal deference.

But, for example, if the Palestinian side say Israel launched an air strike we will wait for the Israeli side to tell us what happened becase they were the ones who deployed the military hardware. In the same way, we will only trust a Palestinian source that can confirm a body has been found, so if the army says they identified hitting somebody, it doesnt necessarily mean that person is dead. Indeed, the army is often careful and uses the term “identified hitting x” rather than giving x’s condition in cases where they do not have access to those targeted.” [Email, 26 July, 2010]

Whatever about Reuters policies for reporting the who and the where, this forumla does not explain the obvious bias contained in the report in terms of context. Israeli violence is explained as a reaction to a threat, as opposed an act of aggression: “militants in Gaza frequently try to attack Israeli border patrols and sporadically fire rockets and mortar bombs at Israel” and “[i]n February, Palestinian militant groups in Gaza sent explosive devices, thought to be primitive sea mines, out to sea intending to hit naval vessels. At least three devices washed up on Israeli beaches and were detonated by sappers.”

But going back to the response to our MediaShot. Selective quoting is a charge we take very seriously, it is after all something we would be quick to criticise if it were found in the Examiner, Independent or Times.

In this case “selective quoting” suggests not that the quote was attributed incorrectly or that the meaning of the quote had been skewed by the way in which it was presented, but that the selection of the quote misinterpreted the substance of the piece. We are accused of inventing bias where there is none.

We responded:

[Name withheld],

That’s exactly the point made. As Fisk says further on in the piece: ‘officials say’, ‘officials say’, ‘officials say’, ‘according to an official’.

With regards the opening reference, clearly we’re reading different reports. The report leads with a two paragraph justification from the Israeli military. It is followed by a statement from Hamas officials confirming the deaths. The report then mentions the flotilla attack, before adding a short tit for tat and then concluding with the journalists own commentary, corroborating the Israeli official’s ‘claim of motivation’:

Palestinian militants in Gaza frequently try to attack Israeli border patrols and sporadically fire rockets and mortar bombs at Israel. In February, Palestinian militant groups in Gaza sent explosive devices, thought to be primitive sea mines, out to sea intending to hit naval vessels. At least three devices washed up on Israeli beaches and were detonated by sappers.”

I can’t imagine a situation where if Hamas’ military wing conducted assaults in Israeli territory killing a number of Israelis (military or otherwise) the Irish Times would publish reports leading with ‘claims of motivation’ from Hamas officials, followed by a short sentence from Israel confirming the deaths, followed again by a couple of paragraphs about, for instance, the number of attacks launched by Israel over the last couple of years or maybe reference to the number of Palestinians killed during ‘Operation Cast Lead’.

In the same way I couldn’t imagine a situation where if the Turkish military killed 9 Israelis the Irish Times would publish an opinion article by the Turkish ambassador 7 days before they published one from the Israeli ambassador.

Here’s another few examples. I’ve just plugged the words ‘palestinian’ ’attack’ ‘israel’ into the Irish Times archive:

5 Palestinian “militants” killed by Israeli troops. Only Israeli viewpoint sought.

5 Palestinian “militants” killed by Israeli troops. Confirmation of the deaths by both Israeli and Hamas officials. Context for the killing provided by Israeli official only: “Before the Israeli air strike took place, militants fired two rockets from coastal Gaza, both striking near the city of Ashkelon and causing no casualties, a military spokesman said.”

1 Palestinian “gunman” killed by Israeli troops. Israeli statement sought only. Context provided as follows: “Hamas has been urging smaller militant groups to refrain from launching attacks against Israel, which carried out a devastating military offensive in the Gaza Strip 17 months ago with the aim of halting cross-border rocket fire. Israeli air strikes targeted tunnels in the northern and southern Gaza Strip this morning after Palestinian militants fired two rockets that landed in fields inside Israel. The Israeli army says that some 350 rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip since Israel ended its military offensive there in January 2009. More than 3,000 rockets and mortar rounds were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip in 2008.”

1 Palestinian “militant” killed by Israeli troops. Israeli officials dominate report. Palestinian officials relegated to closing lines.

1 Palestinian “militant” killed by Israeli troops. Only Israeli viewpoint sought. Palestinian statement used to confirm deaths only.

1 Palestinian “militant” killed by Israeli troops. Only Israeli viewpoint sought. Palestinian statement used to confirm deaths only.

1 Palestinian “militant” killed by Israeli troops. Only Israeli viewpoint sought. Palestinian statement used to confirm deaths only.

2 Palestinian “militants” killed by Israeli troops. Only Israeli viewpoint sought. Palestinian statement used to confirm deaths only.

3 Palestinians killed by Israeli military. Israeli statement comes first, followed by Palestinian statement. The Palestinian statement is broken by commentary: “Palestinian medical workers said three workers in the tunnel, part of a system used mostly to smuggle goods and weapons into the Gaza Strip, were killed and six wounded when the tunnel collapsed in the attack.”

No one is throwing stones. The Times’ record speaks for itself.

Best wishes,

David [Email, 5 July, 2010]

A closer look at these reports serves to reinforce the argument made in our MediaShot, that “Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets are depicted as random acts of violence, with no mitigating or explanatory considerations whereas Israeli attacks are predominantly reported as responses to a Palestinian threat.”

This is best demonstrated by the last of the reports listed above:

“Israeli aircraft bombed a tunnel under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on today, killing three Palestinians inside, medical workers said.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said aircraft attacked the tunnel after Gaza militants fired rockets into southern Israel yesterday, slightly wounding one soldier.

Palestinian medical workers said three workers in the tunnel, part of a system used mostly to smuggle goods and weapons into the Gaza Strip, were killed and six wounded when the tunnel collapsed in the attack.

Gaza’s smuggling tunnels, which still number in the hundreds despite air attacks and an Egyptian crackdown in which some have been blown up or flooded, are a frequent target of Israeli retaliation for attacks by Gaza’s armed Palestinian groups.

Smugglers send weapons and goods through tunnels to Gaza to circumvent an Israeli-led blockade.

The level of cross-border violence between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, had been relatively low in recent weeks.

In January, Israel ended a devastating three-week military offensive into the coastal territory aimed at ending Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel.” [Israeli aircraft kill three Palestinians, August 25, 2009]

Here we have a report of the deaths of three Palestinians, killed by the Israeli military in Palestinian territory. They were working in one of the many tunnels constructed in order to “circumvent an Israeli-led blockade” and used to bring goods into Palestine. According to the report the tunnels are used for “smuggling“, the Palestinians are smugglers and the items being smuggled are “weapons“. They are therefore engaged in criminal, potentially violent activity, which by definition invites some sort of authoritative response.

There is no mention of the fact that, according to Amnesty International, “much of the available food [in Gaza] is provided by the UN and other aid agencies, or smuggled in through tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border.” Also unmentioned is the fact that the blockade or siege has been described by the United Nations as “collective punishment“, a “crime against humanity” and a “war crime.”

But the attack on the tunnels is not just framed as a pre-emptive security operation, it is of course a response to Palestinian violence, coming only “after Gaza militants fired rockets into southern Israel.” The tunnels are a “frequent target of Israeli retaliation for attacks by Gaza’s armed Palestinian groups.”

And, lest we missed the message, the closing line states emphatically that Israel’s “devastating three-week military offensive” into Gaza, which claimed over 1,400 lives, was carried out on the grounds of self-defence, since it was “aimed at ending Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel.”

Yet the Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, often referred to as the Goldstone report, states in its conclusions:

“The Gaza military operations were, according to the Israeli Government, thoroughly and extensively planned. While the Israeli Government has sought to portray its operations as essentially a response to rocket attacks in the exercise of its right to self-defence, the Mission considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole.”

“In this respect, the operations were in furtherance of an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience and for its apparent support for Hamas, and possibly with the intent of forcing a change in such support.”

“When the Mission conducted its first visit to the Gaza Strip in early June 2009, almost five months had passed since the end of the Israeli military operations. The devastating effects of the operations on the population were, however, unequivocally manifest. In addition to the visible destruction of houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other public buildings, the sight of families, including the elderly and children, still living amid the rubble of their former dwellings – no reconstruction possible due to the continuing blockade – was evidence of the protracted impact of the operations on the living conditions of the Gaza population. Reports of the trauma suffered during the attacks, the stress due to the uncertainty about the future, the hardship of life and the fear of further attacks, pointed to less tangible but not less real long-term effects.”

So instead of stating the findings of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission the Irish Times offers the Israeli Government narrative as fact.

And this in a report about the killing of three Palestinians attempting to bypass a crippling siege.

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