Judgemental journalism – a strong presence in today’s media – has met its nemesis in the Israeli-Gaza conflict. News outlets are being called on to choose sides of a circle.
Do they condemn Hamas for the deaths of Israeli citizens, or do they condemn Israel for the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza? Do they label the Israeli dead and kidnapped as victims of terrorism, but the dead and wounded in Gaza as casualties of war? Or should it be the reverse?
Around and around, it goes.
The problem with judgemental journalism is that it defines good and bad, right and wrong. Too much modern journalism is framed that way, and it is encouraged by the endemic practice of combining reportage and opinion. Journalists are encouraged to voice their preferences or judgements. They choose sides.
The problem with choosing sides in the Israeli-Gaza conflict is that it has existed for so long that one can find right and wrong, good and bad wherever one looks.
We are talking here about a conflict that can be traced back to the Romans, or to Jewish escape from the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, or to Britain’s Balfour Declaration in 1917 supporting a home for the Jewish people, or to the UN vote supporting the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, or to all of the foregoing. Let’s just say it is a dispute that has history.
There is a belief – certainly among nations of the Middle East – that western media have a systemic bias in favour of Israel and a widespread tendency to ‘dehumanise’ Arabs, particularly post 9/11. I think that is both a generalisation and an over-simplification of a complex environment.
It also fails to take account of the fact that the balance of reportage may change over time. For example, the facts are that last month Hamas forces launched a surprise attack on civilian settlements north of Gaza in which 1400 innocent people died and 240 were taken hostage. Hamas acted with unspeakable brutality, recording the attacks in order to spread terror in their wake. In retaliation, Israel launched massive aerial then land assaults in Gaza and killed thousands of innocent Palestinians, many of them women and children, in their hunt for Hamas forces. Many thousands were forced from their homes to seek safety in the south. Media have documented the suffering of innocents on both sides and, in the process, been caught in a complicated blame game that has shifted over the weeks since October 7.
First there were calls to condemn Hamas. Now there are demands that the media call out Israel for its “war crimes” in Gaza. It is not hard to find fault on both sides. In all of this, journalists try to find their way through the fog of war and active disinformation campaigns.
Hence there is danger in rushing to judgement. The New York Times was forced to publish a mea culpa after initially reporting that an explosion at a Gaza City hospital resulted from an Israeli air strike. It didn’t make clear that the claim – made by Hamas officials – was unverified. Later claims by Israel, backed by the United States and other international officials, blamed the cause of the explosion on an Islamic Jihad rocket that fell short of its target. Doubtless, other reports of what has transpired, and what is yet to come, will be revisited as facts emerge.
For journalists, the danger does not only lie in deciding who has the just cause. There are perils in trying to stay neutral.
Early in the conflict, the BBC was criticised for failing to refer to Hamas as terrorists. The corporation defended itself by saying it had a long-standing position that reporters should not use the term unless it was attributed to another party. A story on the BBC website quoted veteran foreign correspondent John Simpson: “Calling someone a terrorist means you’re taking sides”. It’s the old ‘one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’ argument.
That principled stand did not stop the UK Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, labelling the policy “verging on disgraceful” and calling on the BBC to locate its “moral compass”. It was rhetoric reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s war with the BBC over coverage of the IRA. Basically, he was saying that, because the British government labelled Hamas as a terrorist organisation, the media organisation it funds should do likewise. He was wrong on two counts: The BBC is entitled to its neutrality, and it is funded by the public not the government. The British red tops are all too ready to rush to judgement but a broadcaster like the BBC serves the public better by not doing so, even if neutrality has a price.
It is wrong to think that neutrality is an easy out. I was reminded of an editorial I once wrote on a homeland for Jews and Palestinians. I did not choose between Israel and Palestine but called for a peaceful settlement with, as a start, the placing of Jerusalem under United Nations control. I was roundly criticised by both sides.
What we are witnessing in the Middle East calls not for judgemental journalism but for neutral reportage in which facts are clearly separated from opinion.
There can be no doubt that Hamas carried out an act of terror on innocent people. Equally, there can be no doubt that innocent residents of Gaza have been terrorised by the Israeli military response. So how can media be exhorted to pick sides when they are witnessing horrors being visited on the innocents on both sides of the conflict?
I was sickened and saddened by an image of a 22-year old German-Israeli woman who had been enjoying a music festival in southern Israel. She was kidnapped by Hamas during the attacks, tortured, and paraded around Gaza before being executed. I was equally sickened and saddened by an image of a small Palestinian child in a Gaza hospital bed with her arm in bandages. She had the face of an angel and eyes that betrayed hidden wounds caused by the trauma of what she had witnessed and endured. They are the sort of reactions that I feel sure most of us – journalists included – are experiencing.
It is the role of the world’s media to bear witness to what unfolds in the Israeli-Gaza conflict so that, in time, others may judge.
To those advertisers that labour under the mistaken belief that I and my fellow New Zealanders start thinking about Christmas presents and Christmas dinner at the beginning of November. Their incessant television commercials are a form of aversion therapy that will guarantee I do not buy any of their products for the festive season.
Once again, New Zealand Geographic proves its worth as a record of our country’s natural triumphs and tragedies. Its November/December issue carries the winners of the 6000-entry Photographer of the Year competition (overall winner Becki Moss) but its other pages also carry some of the best photography you’ll see in print. And the words work, too. Who would have thought that the answer to our kina problem is to eat them?