The Function of Truth: Operation Protective Edge and the Media

Originally published by Journal of Politics & International Affairs, April 2015.


Out of the 4,500 rockets Hamas fired from Gaza into Israel over the summer of 2014 during Operation Protective Edge (OPE), the western media did not capture a single launch on film.

“You can miss one, miss 100, even 200,” said Ron Prosor, Israeli ambassador to the UN. “But if you’re sitting inside Gaza and you weren’t able to show one missile being launched, that’s very strange.”

That summer, the world saw many images, mostly those of the tragic destruction in Gaza caused by Israel; ruined schools and hospitals, dead women and children. Yet there was a “lack of proportion between representing Israel as causing all this destruction, and no footage of [Hamas] firing from within mosques, hospitals, and schools,” Ambassador Prosor said. “And the amazing thing is that no one asks the question, ‘How come we don’t see these images?’”

This was not the only example of the media’s lopsided coverage of OPE. Through disproportionality, perceptional bias, and lack of context, the media failed to show the reality of a calamitous situation.

Disproportional reporting was evident in the amount of attention Israel received versus other regions. Even though there were more than 5,500 dead in Iraq and the UN had stopped counting the dead in Syria after 90,000 (70,000 more people died in Syria in three years than in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), the AP had 40 full-time news staffers reporting in Israel. That’s more staffers than they had in all the countries combined where the “Arab Spring” uprisings took place.

A New Yorker article dedicated to the “outbreak of violence and instability everywhere,” included only 36 words about Nigeria, 39 words about Ukraine, 102 words about ISIS, but 683 words on Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, wrote a public letter to her readers admitting bias in NYT coverage, and that “The Times place[s] so much emphasis on Israel.”

However, Joseph Kahn, The NYT top editor for international news, believes the subject isn’t overcovered. “We are following our best gut experience about what people are paying attention to,” he said. “We cover things that are most relevant to readers… We’re reflecting the intense interest that is there.”

But Kahn doesn’t specify why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more relevant to Americans than 500 Syrians killed by their own government, something The NYT hardly covered. Over the summer, The NYT wrote only 140 words about Saudi Arabia beheading 19 criminals, half of whom committed non-violent crimes. Kahn’s statement about the coverage reflecting readers’ “intense interest” is dangerous in that it allows readers to dictate the news. This can lead to tabloid journalism.

Selective reporting was also pervasive within the western press. In early November, American Military Joint Chief of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said, “Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.” He even sent a Pentagon team to Israel to learn how to reduce civilian casualties in urban warfare. Despite countless articles throughout the summer about Israel targeting and killing civilians, the only major American newspaper to pick up the story about Dempsey was The Washington Post, bearing the miscontextualized headline, “Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey undermines Obama administration criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza.”

Censorship is another form of selective reporting. According to the Jerusalem Post, a French reporter was threatened to be thrown out of Gaza, and Russia Today correspondent Harry Fear was told to leave after he tweeted about Hamas rockets fired from near his hotel.

Ambassador Prosor couldn’t remember seeing any footage of even one dead Hamas combatant. “The world didn’t see one Hamas terrorist, and Israel killed many of them,” he said.

Matti Friedman, an AP reporter who covered Israel for five years, attributes this to cameramen at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City being told to turn their cameras off and not film the arrival of wounded and dead combatants.

Matti Friedman further stated that when he was reporting, “the policy was, and remains not to inform readers that the story is censored unless the censorship is Israeli.”

Jodi Rudoren of The NYT reported in early August on Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was kidnapped and killed by Hamas. Two days afterwards, Rudoren published another article called “Military Censorship in Israel,” in which she claimed she was asked not to publish important biographical information on Goldin for security reasons. She obliged, but wrote about the censorship for the sake of “transparency,” stating that “any censorship is a huge compromise.”

Yet no article regarding Hamas’ censorship in Gaza was ever published in The NYT (or hardly elsewhere in the Western Media), despite that Rudoren’s deputy, Isabel Kershner, approved a statement made by the Foreign Press Association that journalists were “harassed, threatened or questioned over stories or information they have reported.”

Ambassador Prosor said, “Journalists couldn’t show this because they were afraid for their lives. But their reporting was distorted as a result. No one came out and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you have to take into account that reporting from areas with terrorist organizations is completely different.’”

Context is another important journalistic aspect that was missing from the Israeli-Palestinian coverage. After the operation ended, The Washington Post published that of the 1,890 Palestinians killed, 217 were “armed militants” and 1,396 were civilians, including 222 women and 418 children. The Post got their statistics from the West Bank and Gaza. The article stated that “Israel disputes the numbers provided,” but didn’t report Israel’s numbers, although they did offer a link to an IDF page with its numbers (“More than 1,000 terrorists killed”). It is legitimate to doubt the IDF’s numbers, given its potential bias, but there seems to be no distrust in the potential bias of the numbers supplied by Palestinians.

Captain Barak Raz, Deputy IDF Spokesperson to the foreign media in reserves, said it’s “almost like [the media] won’t believe what Israel has to say, but has no problem believing every last word that comes out of Hamas’ mouth or the Palestinian Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas. That should be of concern to people who take a look at journalism and how it’s being reported.”

The Washington Post also lacked context when it didn’t supply population demographics in Gaza to compare to civilian casualties. NYT analysts reported that men ages 20-29 are 9% of Gaza’s population but made up 34% of civilian deaths, while women and children under 15 make up 71% of the population but 33% of civilian casualties. But The Times did not analyze these numbers as to what they might mean: a possible rebuff to accusations made against Israel that it targeted civilians. If Israel had targeted civilians, one would expect civilian casualties to represent the demographics, or at least be close, when in reality there is a major discrepancy.

Sullivan of The NYT admits that the “coverage and handling of this fraught topic has room for improvement,” and suggests for the paper to “provide as much historical and geopolitical context as possible in individual articles.”

But Kahn points out that The Times only hears complaints of the lack of context from “people who are very well informed and primed to deconstruct [NYT] stories based on their knowledge,” and not from “readers who are merely trying to understand the situation.”

This makes sense since only people who have knowledge of the situation can be aware of the lack of context. But without proper context, there isn’t much hope that readers with little or no knowledge will really understand the situation.

The journalists’ role can’t be to only report the news. Their role has to include placing the news in context and within proportion so that the public is well informed. Otherwise, journalists fail in supplying readers with enough information to make up their own minds. Walter Lipmann said that the “function of news is to signalize an event,” and that the “function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality.” In this sense, the media succeeded in telling the news, but failed in telling the entire truth and showing a complete picture of Operation Protective Edge.

Photo: Russia Today


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