Just World Podcasts

SBS ep.12: Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israel-Gaza fighting

May 10, 2019 Season 1 Episode 12
Just World Podcasts
SBS ep.12: Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israel-Gaza fighting
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Just World Podcasts
SBS ep.12: Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israel-Gaza fighting
May 10, 2019 Season 1 Episode 12
Helena Cobban
Show Notes Transcript

This week’s podcast is Number Twelve in our multi-week “Story/Backstory” project, which explores Washington’s current policies in the Middle East, and the Middle East itself, in a broader historical perspective. It is a complement to a column by Just World Ed President Helena Cobbanthat ran May 8th on the Mondoweiss website, “Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israeli-Gaza fighting”, in which she drew on her own long background as a reporter in war and conflict situations. There's a handy "Checklist for anti-Palestinian reporting bias" that's posted on our blog, that goes along with this package, as well.

In this episode, Cobban delves even deeper into the matter of anti-Palestinian reporting bias in the U.S. corporate media, and starts to explore steps that can be taken to reduce or even (we hope!) eliminate it.

Helena Cobban:
0:12
Today, on Just World Podcasts: “Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israel-Gaza fighting”
Helena Cobban:
0:21
Hi, I’m Helena Cobban, the president of Just World Educational. This week’s podcast is Number Twelve in our multi-week “Story/Backstory” project, which explores Washington’s current policies in the Middle East, and the Middle East itself, in a broader historical perspective. The weekly podcasts in this project are all linked to written opinion columns that get published a couple of days earlier… This week’s column ran May 8th on the Mondoweiss website, under the title “Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israeli-Gaza fighting”. I urge you to go to Mondoweiss and read that whole article. It was a reflection on some of the extremely skewed reporting I found in the May 6th print editions of the New York Times and the Washington Post, of the clashes that had escalated the day before along the fence between Israel and Gaza—a fence, by the way, that is not an international border. I had been following those clashes and the resulting casualty tolls quite closely online over the preceding days, and I was pretty shocked when I dove into the skewed, anti-Palestinian way these two papers reported on them in their May 6th print edition.
Helena Cobban:
1:36
Actually, one of the first things I did, in my exasperation, was I created a tongue-in-cheek “12-point checklist” for how ambitious young journalists could get ahead in the U.S. corporate media by embedding anti-Palestinian bias deep into their reporting. You can find it on our website.
Helena Cobban:
1:36
But then, I went back and drew on my own experience as a journalist covering war and civil conflict under difficult conditions, some decades ago, to consider why the journalists for those two iconic and influential media outlets had performed the way they did in that reporting; and the first result of that reflection was Wednesday’s piece on Mondoweiss. A couple of commenters clearly thought I was too kind there, to the journalists concerned. But I think there were systemic issues involved, at a number of levels, that it’s worth understanding, for any peace-and-justice activists who want to intervene with the reporters and decisionmakers at various levels in these news organizations to try to improve their coverage.
Helena Cobban:
2:54
I think the “12-point checklist” I’d created can be a useful tool for people trying to identify and categorize the reporting and editing mechanisms through which anti-Palestinian bias gets embedded into so much U.S. corporate journalism. One suggestion I definitely have is for us to use the checklist in order to play “Anti-Palestinian Bias Bingo” when we read any reporting of Gaza-Israel clashes-- and maybe we could do that publicly, as a way of mocking those who engage in such bias in their reporting. Another thing we could do is use an inverted form of the checklist to engage with journalists at all points along the reporting stream, from on-the-ground reporters, through news bureaus, to central newsrooms. In the unscripted further reflection that follows here, I also suggest we should demand that people doing on-the-ground reporting from Gaza not be required to file their stories through the Israel-based “Jerusalem bureau” but that they file them directly to the central newsroom, or through other nearby news bureau, but just not the one in Israel.
Helena Cobban:
4:18
Sending their stories out through the Israel bureau is inherently problematic. Keep on listening, to discover why… So before I switch to the freeform reflection I taped on these matters earlier today, let me make my standard disclaimer that all the opinions and analyses that I express in this “Story-Backstory” project are my own personal ones and do not represent the views of Just World Educational or any other body. But let me remind you that you can find a lot of great resources on our website at www-dot-justworldeducational-dot-org. On the homepage there, you’ll see a button that will send you to all the content we’ve now produced in this “Story-Backstory” project”… Plus, we’ve been putting some great new posts onto our blog in the past few weeks—including, most recently, the Checklist. There’s a handy tab at the top of the homepage that will send you to the blog... And another one that tells you how you can donate to support our work. Please consider doing so! I urge you to explore all the resources that we make available at no cost, online, through the website and through our lively Just World Ed accounts on Twitter and Facebook. So now, my further thoughts on the reporting on last weekend’s Gaza-Israel clashes that I found in the print editions of Monday’s newspapers…
Helena Cobban:
5:46
On Monday May 6, I picked up my newspapers in the morning. I read the New York Times and the Washington Post every day, and here were the headlines in the New York Times. We had Israel and Gaza in worst combat since war of 2014. Dozens killed in two days, a sniper attack devolves into an exchange of fire power. It's not a bad headline. This was the top story at the top right hand slot on the front page and the Washington Post had positioned the story in the same position. Washington Post headline was Israel, militants escalate clashes, deadliest fighting since 2014 war, more than 600 rockets fired from Gaza. So you'll notice a little bit of a difference. I read both of these articles extremely closely and carefully and honestly as I read them, I was using a red pen and I tried to pick out places where I could clearly see that the journalists were skewing the reporting.
Helena Cobban:
7:00
And this is not just the words, it's also the use and placement of pictures. So I actually have the marked up versions of these two articles, both of which went on for numerous column inches with a jump to the interior of the newspaper. And I was pretty mad, because I got a lot of friends in Gaza as I do in Israel and to have the losses and destruction that people in Gaza suffer reduced in this way and skewed in this way, just struck me as something that the US media does all the time. We're talking about the two flagship newspapers, daily newspapers in the US media. They occupy a unique position, I want to say in the US media environment, because they inform not only their readers in the two cities involved, New York City and Washington DC, but they also inform nearly all the rest of the media, including for example, national public radio or radio stations across the country, smaller newspapers across the country and media around the world.
Helena Cobban:
8:18
And therefore they have, these two newspapers which appear obviously both in print and online form, unbelievable power to shape public opinion in the United States and globally. And here they were using that power to reinforce stereotypes about several aspects of what's been going on between Israel and Gaza. So, as I said, I was pretty angry and I actually posted on Twitter, just one of these little mark ups that I had done near the top of the Washington Post article where it said four Israeli civilians were killed and 23 Palestinians died, you know, as though there was no agency involved in the Palestinians dying. So I just marked that up and I put it on Twitter and I got something like 1,300 engagements, which for me is a huge number of people, liking and retweeting and replying to and whatever. And I saw my little picture of the mark-up appearing all over the Internet in the days that followed.
Helena Cobban:
9:35
So then I actually looked at what these same reporters were all writing on the Monday and I noticed that it was, so I was reading it on the Monday online and then it was coming out on Tuesday, in the print edition. And it was noticeably less skewed and more fair in its reporting. Not Perfect, but not as bad as the Monday print editions had been. So that set me to thinking, and sent me to think back to when I was a crisis/war correspondent back in the 1970s and 1980s. I was working for the Christian Science Monitor and the London Sunday Times in Beirut covering not only the Lebanese civil war but a bunch of other things that were happening in the region. I also worked for a number of other news outlets in Beirut before I settled on those two, which were a nice combination to be working for.
Helena Cobban:
10:42
I worked for Reuters, I worked for ABC News radio a little bit. I worked for BBC radio a little bit. But I had a lot of experience covering war and civil conflict at that time and I know that it's not easy. So, then I wrote a column that appeared in Mondowise on Wednesday called "Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israel/Gaza fighting." And basically I was building on the sort of psychological insights that this guy called Daniel Kahneman had produced in a book about a dozen years ago when he said that when you're acting under a lot of pressure, you use what he calls heuristics, which I would call kind of very speedy rules of thumb, and you have to, because if you're writing a new story under pressure of deadlines and you're competing with the other news outlets and you have to get the story out onto the wires and you may be scared and you may be confused.
Helena Cobban:
11:58
So you just resort to using a lot of these little rules of thumb that Kahneman calls heuristics. And I think that's what these reporters were doing in the Washington Post and the New York times when they wrote on Sunday the things that we read on the Monday. And so I wrote this column in Mondowise called "Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israel-Gaza fighting." I really did find and have on several occasions found Kahneman's insights pretty helpful. So you have to go read the whole column there on Mondowiess. There's a couple of comments here. One is that crisis reporting of this kind is sort of a test tube or a petri dish? No, I think it's more like a test tube of what your sort of knee jerk reactions are, because you don't have time to be, to use nuance, you don't have the space to use nuance and you're in the column inches of your story.
Helena Cobban:
13:11
You just have to kind of bang it out really fast. And so you use the kind of the labels and the frameworks and the heuristics that that you've used before and it becomes almost intuitive how you refer to people. For example, you know, you can't exactly tell maybe whether somebody's doing something is from Hamas or from Islamic Jihad. So you would just say militants, but then you know, if Israel claims that they killed some Hamas militants, what does that term mean? It actually, it's not a technical term in international law, the two technical terms, the key distinction in international lawyers between combatants and noncombatants. So a combatants is somebody who is actually currently engaged in some portion of the war-fighting endeavor. And a non-combatant includes all civilians, but it also includes combatants when they're off duty, like when an Israeli soldier takes off his or her uniform, lays down his or her gun and goes home for the weekend.
Helena Cobban:
14:22
They would be a non-combatant or somebody who not actually fighting at the time, somebody who's a member of Hamas's political wing. Maybe one of the elected Hamas members of parliament? That would not under international law, such a person would not be classified as a combatant, although obviously the Israeli military spokesman may refer to that person as a militant and the Israeli spokesperson or legal people might think that such a person would be a valid target in some form of hostilities. And international law is quite clear that unless a person is actually actively taking part in combat, they are not a legitimate target. So that's a little bit of background. You know, just how this use of ,this use of different labels. You need to have a label to refer to somebody, but it can often be a label that on second or third thoughts ou find this is kind of misleading.
:
15:32
So the people who are writing these news stories are very powerful. They do help to shape public perceptions of what happened. And they're also in a sense, when they write, when they choose words, they have certain assumptions about their audience. So their audience, I would say for most people writing for the New York Times or the Washington Post would be members of the political elite in their respective cities, but maybe not taking into account that many of their readers, maybe Palestinian Americans or people with family in Gaza, people who would be horrified, who are horrified to see the skewed way in which this reporting takes place. So in my article in Mondowise, I was kind of urging that there are things that we can do to try to stop this anti-Palestinian bias that creeps so deep into people's reporting and into the way that the public in general understands events such as this one. I got an a little bit of criticism from one of the commenters on Mondoweiss who said, "Oh, they're all just Zionists. You know, you can't reform them." I think that's not correct. I think some of the people who work for these newspapers are Zionists. They are people who deeply believe in, you know, the justice of the Zionist project and Zionist endeavor in historic Palestine. But there are a lot of them who aren't. You know, people to whom we can and should appeal on moral and humane grounds, to say, look, you can't just treat people who are killed in combat in Gaza as people who died. You can't do reporting that gives extensive names and biographical details about every single Israeli casualty while the Palestinians are not even mentioned by name at all, which we've seen many, many times in the past as though an Israeli, a person who is killed in combat, who is an Israeli is somehow more worthy of our concern and our attention than somebody who was killed in combat who is a Palestinian.
Helena Cobban:
18:12
So, you know, I think we can and should appeal to journalists in these kinds of grounds. So what else do I want to say about this? I actually have quite a lot more to say. Okay. Just a couple of more examples of the sort of skewing and disproportionate way that these things were reporting. I'm just taking these two articles and the way that they were presented in the print editions of these newspapers on Monday, May 6, as an example. I mean, to me they are almost a textbook example. So, okay. Getting back to, for example, where are we? Oh, goodness, can't read. Okay. Yeah. The, the lead paragraph of the Washington Post article says, deadliest bout of fighting in nearly five years as Palestinian militants launched a barrage of more than 600 rockets and Israel responded with air-strikes on more than 300 targets.
Helena Cobban:
19:16
So, you know, you can read that quickly, and you think, well, there are a number of things you may think. First of all, the barrage of 600 rockets sounds really scary, especially when you combine it with just air strikes on 300 targets, you know, so that's more rockets, more Palestinian rockets than there were Israeli targets in Gaza, But of course they're not at all comparable. The Palestinian rockets are, some of them, most of them, have little more destructive power than a bottle rocket you might let off, you know, on July 4th. Some of them are quite a lot more damaging than that. But compared with the kind of ordinance that's dropped from Israeli war planes when you're talking about air strikes is from the Israeli air force. These are like 500 pound. These are 200 pound. These are precision guided, extremely destructive missiles that they are dropping.
Helena Cobban:
20:31
And one of them as, as I mentioned, very, very low down in this article. It says in Gaza, Israeli strikes toppled buildings as high as seven stories. So you know, the disproportion between this idea of one Israeli air-strike being perhaps equivalent to one Palestinian rocket is very misleading indeed. So another couple of things here in this, in that little lead paragraph, you had Israel responds, so like the Palestinians launch more than 600 rockets and Israel responds with air-strikes. Well, no, it wasn't quite like that. I mean there were things that went on before-hand, including the things that I mentioned at the beginning, like Gaza being under foreign military occupation, like the siege, like all the killing that has occurred in the past, like the killings that occurred last Friday. But no, here it seems to be very clear that the Palestinians start this by launching a barrage of more than 600 rockets and then Israel responds.
Helena Cobban:
21:41
So there's a question of who started it and who is responding. Nearly always in the mainstream media here in the United States, Israel is only responding to something that the other side did first. And as soon as you scratch the surface of that assertion, it's quite clear that there's a much longer series of antecedents. And then the last thing just about this lead paragraph, they say air-strikes on more than 300 targets. So there's always a lot of mention and reference to the fact that Israel targets things. By contrast, the Palestinians, if they target anything at all, they are said to target civilians, but the truth of the matter is that they have very, very primitive targeting capabilities. Sometimes they do target military targets, when they're able to, and sometimes they hit them. And you will not see that reported in the mainstream media, because all these reporters are under Israeli military censorship.
Helena Cobban:
22:50
And that's another thing that is not mentioned in these kind of articles. So, I actually, after I read these articles, and I was like, oh my God, this is, this kind of skewed reporting has been going on as long as I have been involved with the US mainstream media. Maybe I should just make a little checklist for ambitious young journalists who want to get ahead in the US corporate media. This is how you do it if you're reporting on Gaza. So the checklist has 12 items and number one is "always described Israel's military action as responding to some prior Palestinian action." Number two, "use skewed ways to report the casualties on each side." Number three, "deploy any humanizing details regarding casualties in a way that emphasizes that each Israeli person is worth a lot more of your reader's attention than each Palestinian person."
Helena Cobban:
23:56
And so on. I had a checklist of 12 items and I actually put this on our website on Just World Educational.org. You can read it on our blog there. And I did the whole thing in a sense, in a tongue and cheek way. Although obviously the issues are deadly serious, but sometimes one effective way of dealing with serious issues is to like bring a touch of Levity or even mockery of the, the people who act like this. That is the reporters who act like this to start mocking them a little bit. But then I also thought I've got this 12 point checklist. The rest of us could be using this checklist to actually play anti Palestinian bias. Bingo when we are reading the US mainstream media. And as I said in my article on Mondowise, probably this Washington Post article would be a full house of I've got all 12 of these anti Palestinian bias indicators, check, check, check, check, check.
Helena Cobban:
25:08
You know, when I was doing this kind of thinking about how to write the article and how to do this bit of media criticism in Mondowise, I actually found myself reacting fast and slow at different stages. My first reaction, you know was when I was really mad at the way I was reading this thing and I was furiously marking it up with my red pen. And then as I sat back and thought about it a bit more and made my checklist and thought about how am I going to write this article, it was a much slower and more reflective process in which I think I, kind of both learned and conveyed some new and interesting points of view. So, you know, we're all susceptible to doing this fast and slow thing. So one of my key takeaways after thinking about this and writing the article is that it's both, it remains both possible and necessary to intervene with these media outlets and with these journalists and to just constantly call them to account.
Helena Cobban:
26:29
Do you really think that one person in Israel who was killed in a clash is more valuable and has more rights and more claim on our attention than one person in Palestine? And if there are 23 casualties in Palestine, do they not deserve each and every one of them, and specifically the civilians, perhaps you want to leave out the people who are known to be fighters. Some of these people were known to be fighters, some of them were alleged to be fighters. But you know, there was, there were I think either one or two mother and baby combos who were killed. There was a pregnant woman who was killed in Gaza. How about these people get some dignity and some equality and some humanity in the same way that an Israeli would. And if a seven story building in Gaza is completely leveled, like, shouldn't that be near the top of the story than just buried down about 65, 70% of the way down in the story?
Helena Cobban:
27:44
And I also, as I was thinking back and thinking about the endeavor of journalism, the practice of journalism and how this reporting was done, I made a few key observations. So it's useful to go back to these articles now. I think I'll post them on the website somewhere to see how they are presented. So the New York Times article had, both of them have a Jerusalem date-line. Now that's something we can go into. Do these two newspapers both really think that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Why do they give a Jerusalem dateline rather than a Tel Aviv dateline? But anyway, each of these stories is constructed in the following way. Each of them has input from people both on the Israeli side and on the Gaza side, but the person on the Gaza side evidently has to submit or file or send his report to the people in the Jerusalem bureau.
Helena Cobban:
29:02
In the Washington Post, the person on the Gaza side actually gets a byline, Hazem. So it's listed here by Loveday Morris, Ruth Eglash and Hazem Balousha. That's the byline. And at the end it says Balousha reported from Gaza, Paul Sun in Washington contributed to this report. I guess I can find out what he might've contributed. And then in the New York Times article, the byline does not give byline credit to the reporter from Gaza. But the byline is just by David M. Halbfinger about Kushner. And then down at the bottom of the jump it says David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem and Isabel Kushner of Ashkelon Israel. Iyad Abuhiwileh and Ibrahim Al-Mughrabi contributed reporting from Gaza City. So just let's step back here for a minute. Imagine being a reporter in Gaza under such an onslaught.
Helena Cobban:
30:17
I mean the reporters in Gaza are at much greater risk to life and limb than anybody on the Israeli side, but the reporters in Gaza have to file their stories to the people on the Israeli side who then just really mix and match their bits of reporting. You know, thing about the seven-story building or some quotes maybe from, do they have any quotes from Hamas people? Yeah, Washington Post has right at the end has quote from Basim Naeem. Well, we can get onto the disproportionate use of experts and political actors who get quoted and how their quotes get presented in a very uneven way later. So the people in Gaza are doing some, you know, complex reporting under difficult circumstances. And then they have to send their stories to the Jerusalem bureau where they get the little shards of news they report get mixed and matched and put into a news product that comes out with the Jerusalem dateline.
Helena Cobban:
31:33
I was thinking about this, I mean I've thought about it a lot because it happens a lot that these big newspapers will report all kinds of stuff from Jerusalem that is Palestinian news or sometimes Jordanian news, sometimes Lebanese news, Syrian News. And it all comes out from the Jerusalem bureau with the Jerusalem dateline. You know, my mother's family lived in London under the blitz and if you were reporting on the blitz as a third party American in the 1940s and reporters in London had to file their copy to a reporter in Berlin who is subject to German military censorship. And so what you're reporting from London would just be a tiny bit of the story that comes out of Berlin and gets read. You just wouldn't do that in the New York Times. Now I know that a lot of the pro-Israel people around the world are disgusted by any mention of like comparability between Israel and Nazi Germany.
Helena Cobban:
32:54
So let's take another example. Let's look at Saudi Arabia's extremely destructive and lethal military actions and siege against Yemen, which have resulted in more than 70,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of people facing starvation and cholera. And you can't believe how terrible the situation is. So every so often a very intrepid reporter gets into Yemen to do some reporting. Imagine if that reporter had to send his or her report to the capital of Saudi Arabia where it would get processed through the Saudi military censorship system and then came out with a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia dateline. To me, that's a very good analogy as well. So why do these reporters in Gaza have to file their copy through the Jerusalem bureau? Why can't they file it direct to New York or Washington and work directly with the editors there? Why can't they file it? If that doesn't work for whatever, like I don't know, time difference reasons, they could file it through a bureau in Cairo or in Amman, but to have to file it through the Israeli bureau.
Helena Cobban:
34:19
And you know, where the reporters in Israel are not only subject to Israeli military censorship, which is very seldom mentioned in this reporting by the way, because by enlarge, I have worked in Israel as a reporter and by enlarge to keep your credentials, you self-censor; you know, you don't do anything that questions what the military spokesman tells you. You know, if a report came out of Gaza from your correspondent in Gaza that said, you know, that actually two mothers and babies were killed, and these were the circumstances of the killing. And the Israeli military spokesman was saying, no, we we're only hitting, you know, valid military targets. You're not going to be able to report the story properly from Jerusalem. So that's one thing. And I think we should, in the interventions we make, with the mainstream media, we should look at structural issues like this, like how the reporting stream actually functions.
Helena Cobban:
35:28
But we can intervene at a lot of different points too. I mean I think anybody who has a fundamentally egalitarian of the human condition that all human lives are equally valuable and that if there is a distinction to be made, it should only be a distinction between competence and non-competence. And that should inform the way that you structure a story. It should inform the way that you structure the presentation of a story along with the accompanying photos. So, we can intervene, we can write letters to the editor, we can, write letters to the ombuds person, if these newspapers still have them. We can do, you know, online media criticism of the kind that I did. We can use anti-Palestinian bias checklist and do some public mockery of this kind of reporting. And I think we should also look at, as I said, the structural issues of, you know, like why should a reporter from Gaza have to file his story through the Jerusalem bureau? And not to mention why is the bureau in Jerusalem anyway. So, guess we're coming near to the end of this. I had, as I said, produced this checklist and I think I'm gonna go ahead and make it into like a Bingo game that we can all use and that we need to stay vigilant and just stress two things, I would say. One is the equality of all human persons with the only valid distinction in combat in civil conflict being between competence and non-competence.
Helena Cobban:
37:29
And then the applicability of international law to all aspects of stories like this. So, you know, that distinction between competence and non-combatants is one aspect of international law, but also reminding readers that Gaza is a territory under Israeli military occupation. It's mentioned no way here, as though this whole thing comes, you know, just out of the blue and reminding readers obviously about the siege and the inhumane situation conditions of life, reminding readers that two-million people in Gaza have like 70% of them, more than 70%, are actually refugees from 1948 who have rights that are enshrined in international law. None of that stuff gets mentioned in this news reporting. Now I know you can't always mentioned the whole historical background in a news report, but you can refer to it in a report of the length of these two reports that came out in these two newspapers on Monday. You can definitely mention things like the status of Gaza as an occupied territory and the existence of the siege and it's really, I think, doing readers a huge disservice and continuing to shape of view of the world in which there are irrational Palestinian militants launching barrages of rockets. All I can say is that, you know, the people who write these reports, the people who edit them, both in Jerusalem and in the newsrooms back home in New York and Washington, are people that we can and should find ways of dealing with and get them to do a better job. Thanks.