Gaza and the limits of ‘objective’ reporting

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a lopsided affair. On 14 July, US satirist Jon Stewart highlighted the disparity in the ‘war’ between Israel and Gaza. Playing an NBC news clip, Stewart noted the clothing of the two correspondents. In Tel Aviv, Martin Fletcher wore a breezy polo shirt, while in Gaza Ayman Mohyeldin was equipped in a full flak suit.

‘He looks like an extra from The Hurt Locker!’ Stewart exclaimed, imploring his audience to comprehend the folly of trying to balance both sides of this particular story.

Speaking of Moyheldin, shortly after Stewart’s show aired, NBC mysteriously removed the Arab-American journalist from his post, only to bow to social media outrage and reinstate him two days later. Speculation was rife it had to do with Moyheldin tweeting about playing soccer on the beach with four Gazan boys moments before they were killed by an Israeli strike, which he described as a personal ‘low point’, a statement that could be regarded as a deviation from journalistic ‘objectivity.’

‘Objectivity’, of course, is the preferred method of mainstream US journalism, and although there have long been media organisations and individual journalists that advocate for either side, it is from within the constraints of ‘objectivity’ that western journalists have claimed to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Until now.

First, what exactly is ‘objectivity’? Leaving aside its wider conceptual meaning, journalistic ‘objectivity’ has a specific operational definition. The ‘objective’ journalist presents ‘just the facts’ without commenting on or slanting them. She employs a cool, detached tone, presents both sides of any contentious story, assumes moral neutrality, and relies heavily on quotes, particularly those from official sources.

The aim is that the reader, unhindered by the journalist’s personal biases, is free to make up their own mind. As the executive editor of The New York Times, one of the great bastions of ‘objective’ journalism said, ‘I have no idea what the foreign editor’s view of the Middle East is, and I don’t want to know.’

In practice, however, ‘objectivity’ is fraught with problems. Jon Stewart deftly highlighted the unfairness of treating ‘both sides’ equally in a dispute where only one side suffers heavy casualties. And now many journalists are following his lead.

The scale of the destruction in Gaza at the hands of an overwhelmingly superior fighting force has seen mainstream journalists, from the US to the UK to New Zealand, openly question whether ‘objectivity’ is ideal, or even possible, in such a skewed conflict.

When Channel 4 reporter Jon Snow returned to the UK from his stint in the besieged enclave, he made a heartfelt plea to his viewers:

(I)n a very densely packed urban area, if you decide to throw missiles, shells, and the rest, then you will undoubtedly kill children. And that is what [the Israeli government] are doing … We cannot let it go on.

Likewise Guardian columnist Giles Fraser wrote:

Being calmly rational about dead children feels like a very particular form of madness. Whatever else journalistic objectivity is, it surely cannot be the elimination of human emotion. If we don’t recognise that, we are not describing the full picture.

Snow and Fraser have hit upon another two of the key drawbacks of ‘objective’ journalism. First, it can it reinforce the status quo by favouring the more powerful side in any given conflict. Second, it is unrealistic to expect journalists to remain morally neutral in situations that demand conscientious objection.

In regards to the first point, the dominate news frame that identifies Palestinian violence as the cause of hostilities, and Israeli aggressions as acts of ‘retaliation’, ‘responses’ and ‘revenge’, has long failed to question both Israel’s blockade of Gaza (considered an occupation by the UN), and Israel’s disproportionate use of force. This permits Israel to continue attacking Palestinian civilians, which in turn leads to the deaths of children. Snow bluntly states that the press has been complicit in letting this ‘go on’.

Indeed, one of the key ways that the western, ‘objective’ media has covered this conflict is by following official US policy: that Israel and the Palestinians are equally responsible for finding a solution. Not only does this approach mask an implicit bias – the ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the US casts serious doubts on the US’s status as an honest broker – it also denies the reality of the conflict, positioning it as a disagreement between neighbours rather than a situation where one side occupies and dominates the other.

By failing to provide the public with enough information to construct an informed opinion, the media helps official US policy remain stagnant, something that advances Israeli interests. For, while Palestinians have much to gain from an end to the Occupation, Israel, which is determined to expand its settlements at the expense of a Palestinian homeland, has a vested interest in maintaining it.

On the second point, the absurdity of moral neutrality is highlighted in the unacceptably large number of child casualties in Gaza. At what point can, or should, journalists object to the indiscriminate killing of children?

The problems with neutrality and balance go even deeper when it comes to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reliance on quotes and the tendency to balance one side’s claims against the other often sees the statements of Israeli government officials weighed against those of ordinary Palestinians, to the detriment of the latter.

Even when Palestinians clearly identify the Occupation as the source of their grievances, their claims have rarely been supported in media coverage, despite being validated by international law and consensus. This 2013 New York Times article by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, for instance, argues that Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank throw stones purely out of ‘boredom’ and mentions the Occupation only once, through the words of a Palestinian youth.

In so doing, Rudoren reduces the Occupation to something that exists only in the minds of Palestinians. No wonder then, that so many Americans think Palestinians are inherently violent.

It is for this very reason that decades of cross-disciplinary academic literature has criticised western reporting of the conflict. Both European and US researchers have repeatedly warned that the lack of historical and legal context given to Palestinian grievances has left news consumers grossly uninformed.

One major study by the Glasgow Media Group in 2004, found that British viewers were largely ignorant of the military Occupation, thinking it merely meant that people were living in Palestine. In some cases, viewers assumed it was the Palestinians (who are overwhelmingly portrayed as the aggressors) occupying Israeli land. Crucially, researchers found the more that subjects were informed of the nature of the Occupation, the illegality of the Jewish settlements, and the lack of rights afforded to refugees, the more likely they were to be sympathetic to Palestinians.

It appears that the current situation in Gaza has had a similar effect on journalists. A recent Australian 60 Minutes report by Allison Langdon pulled no punches in presenting the Occupation as an intolerable injustice. But the most damning condemnation of the skewed nature of the conflict, and the most obvious departure from ‘objectivity’ I’ve seen from a mainstream journalist, comes from New Zealand’s Rachel Smalley:

I can’t report the situation in Gaza with balance anymore because there simply is none. Israel’s conflict should be with Hamas, but it’s not. It’s with the Palestinians. Almost two million people live in the Gaza Strip, entrapped and caged in an area that is 40 kilometres long by ten kilometres wide. The bombardment of Gaza is akin to caged lion hunting in South Africa. There is no escape – only terror as bombs and bullets rain down.

While such a statement is likely to be met with derisive accusations of bias, it is actually closer to the conceptual meaning of objectivity than the pretence at balance and neutrality. Abandoning preconceived ideas and expectations, Smalley has made a judgement call based on available evidence. While she certainly gives Israel a serve, it is not criticism based on ideological bias but on verifiable facts.

Perhaps most surprising of all, this new trend has even reached the pages of the New York Times. While Rudoren continues to adhere to the he said/she said tradition (for example, never mentioning words like ‘blockade’ or ‘occupation’ unless directly quoting a Palestinian), other correspondents such as Anne Barnard are finally beginning to fill in the gaps in the Times’ long-running coverage by referencing the stifling constrictions placed on Palestinians not only through their own words, but as observable facts.

Given the media’s role in public opinion formation, it is vital that journalists provide the public with all the information they need to construct a meaningful opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades the academic literature has shown that the conflict cannot adequately be covered with journalistic ‘objectivity’ as it has traditionally been practised.

It’s taken many years, but much of the western media appears to be catching up to the critical research. In doing so, it may finally be paving the way for a just and lasting solution to one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Ruby Hamad

Ruby Hamad is a freelance writer appearing regularly in Fairfax's Daily Life and ABC's Drum. She is a convener for Macquarie University's Global Leadership Program where she runs a workshop on objectivity and bias in Western media coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

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  1. Excellent! Thanks Ruby. You are helping to keep journalism unfettered by notions of neutrality in a situation crying out for truth.
    The unevenness in the Gaza war is palpably clear. The future for young people in Gaza (who have so far escaped death and serious disabily) will be unimaginably difficult! May the world’s increasing awareness of the lopsidedness of this conflict lead to positive action from the USA and Australia on Palestinian’s behalf.

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