Covering the Gaza conflict: Western media and the imperfect search for balance

You can’t be objective about innocent people suffering or being killed. No matter who they are or which “side” they represent. Their death is wrong. That’s a fact worth reporting.
Published October 19, 2023

When it comes to war, there is no such thing as objectivity. Seeing innocent people die has a powerful emotional impact — it’s as true for a journalist as anyone else.

You can’t be objective about innocent people suffering or being killed. No matter who they are or which “side” they represent. Their death is wrong. That’s a fact worth reporting.

It is the key reason why we heard such outrage and emotion in Western coverage of the Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7. That, and Israel’s historic ties to the US and the UK.

But objectivity and balance are two different things. Objectivity in the face of death may not exist, but for a good journalist, balance is critical. Fundamental to that is treating all innocent victims with the same degree of compassion and empathy. As a journalist, you are there to bear witness, not take sides in the larger conflict.

Is there a bias?

I have reported on massacres and unspeakable violence from Southern Africa to the slums of Beirut. I know firsthand that in the first hours of a crisis, you are there to report the breaking news. Context and analysis come later. In the “fog of war”, as bodies are being found and the first survivors are being interviewed, it is not the time to talk about history.

But now that is changing. Outrage in the Western media is beginning to shift from the complete focus on Israeli victims to the plight of Palestinian civilians under Israeli bombs in Gaza, and there is more discussion of the grim history that created this latest tragedy.

Still, I am hearing from many friends in the Middle East and South Asia complaining about what they see as biased coverage of the Gaza conflict. And there is plenty to complain about.

For example, Western news organisations quickly seized on unconfirmed Israeli reports that Hamas had beheaded babies — a claim that became so widely accepted that it was mentioned by President Biden, before the White House and the Israeli government backtracked.

Likewise, some American cable news hosts have eagerly waved the flag for Israel. And there are other troubling developments — the sacking of the respected cartoonist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper over a sketch of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu; the reported removal of three Muslim-American journalists from the anchor chair at MSNBC as the channel faced a ratings collapse after criticism of its coverage; a BBC report that labelled as “pro-Hamas” a demonstration in support of Palestinians in Gaza; and a CNN anchor referring to the Israeli-Palestine conflict as “good versus evil” after a fawning interview with Israel’s president.

All this comes in the context of a long history of distortion of the Middle East and Islam by Western policymakers and the media — I know, I have written books about it. But I have also seen many examples of critics of the Western media seeing bias at every turn.

A Pakistani friend pointed to a Reuters headline published a few hours into the crisis that talked about a “sea of bodies” in Israel and “scores of dead” in Gaza. A cynic might say it unfairly valued Israeli lives over Palestinians. A pragmatist might interpret it as nothing more than an editor on deadline scrambling for synonyms.

Media bias is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The BBC has received about an equal number of complaints about bias against Israel as bias against Palestine.

“Palestinians have been in the news for decades, yet it seems that only occasionally do journalists and news organisations get their story right,” according to one study.

“Media bias is a persistent issue that often surfaces when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … coverage is often selective, stories get framed in a misleading way, or certain perspectives go missing,” says another.

The first was written by the former dean of the Jordan Media Institute, the second appears on the website of the American Jewish Committee.

The social media ecosystem

In this era of social media bubbles, when our preconceived notions are constantly reinforced by like-minded ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, it is jarring to see reporting that counters our deep-seated views.

The uncomfortable truth is that everything Arab and Muslim critics say about US and British coverage of the current conflict, supporters of Israel would say about Al Jazeera and probably even Dawn. In fact, Israel’s communications minister is pressing for wartime regulations, aimed first and foremost at Al Jazeera, that would jail anyone spreading information deemed harmful to national morale or helpful to enemy propaganda.

“The search for truth, even if one finds it, should not involve rigidity,” Arab American scholar Shadi Hamid reminded us in a Washington Post column this week. “When it comes to Israel and Palestine in particular, we bring our own preconceptions to any debate.”

While there is plenty of reason to fault the Western media for its framing of the Middle East conflict and portrayal of Muslims in general, some critics who see an anti-Palestinian bias in coverage of this crisis ignore the fact that news organisations across the spectrum are churning out an unprecedented flow of reporting about the desperate plight of Gazans. CNN is just one example. Even as some of its hosts voiced overtly pro-Israeli sentiments, others have shone through in their attempts to provide a more nuanced perspective:

  • Becky Anderson reporting on the deaths of more than 60 Palestinians on the West Bank at the hands of Israeli settlers and soldiers;
  • Christine Amanpour interviewing an exhausted-looking UN relief official who reported “the entire healthcare system has collapsed” in Gaza;
  • A report by CNN’s investigative unit headlined, “They followed evacuation orders. Israel killed them the next day.”
  • A story that Gaza is being “strangled” by Israel’s week-long siege and aerial bombardment“ with “50,000 pregnant women currently in Gaza” facing “a double nightmare.”

And then there are the countless opinion articles appearing in Western media challenging the dominant narrative, such as veteran war correspondent Chris McGreal arguing in The Guardian that, “The language being used to describe Palestinians is genocidal”; The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg telling readers, “incitement against Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom have nothing to do with Hamas terrorism, is leading us toward somewhere even darker than where we are right now”; and an opinion piece in Time Magazine by the former executive director of Human Rights Watch arguing that “indifference to Palestinian rights does not justify Hamas’s war crimes. Nothing does. But … Biden is wrong to substitute outrage over this attack for a more principled defence of human rights, which is the best way to avoid periodic future outbreaks of such violence of despair.”

The explosion of alternative news sites, blogs, and social media “influencers” has also provided vastly more space for reporting and analysis of the crisis beyond the mainstream media. For example, numerous writers and bloggers have quoted an essay by Israeli novelist Ori Hanan Weisberg — which has also been forwarded countless times on Facebook by American Jews — in which he says, “I’m angry at Hamas for undercutting the struggle for Palestinian rights and lending credence to the caricatures of Palestinians as bloodthirsty savages who just want to kill Jews, which is far from the truth.”

But social media is also a toxic cesspool of dis- and misinformation about the crisis. One of the most widely shared pieces was a doctored video purporting to show CNN staging a scene involving Hamas shelling. Even India has reportedly waded into the fray, posting videos accusing Palestinians of faking war injuries or kidnapping babies.

Another example of the information war: A Twitter account purported to be that of an Al Jazeera journalist in Gaza. One of the channel’s top editors posted a warning that “This is a fake account, a bot, probably IDF misinformation. There’s no one at @AJEnglish with this name.”

A noticeable shift

Just as context in the Israel-Palestine conflict is important, so too is context important when discussing Western coverage of the region. There will be countless studies examining how many words were given to each side or what was the tone of the headlines. But I don’t need to sit in front of the TV 24/7 for a week or read every story to know there is a quantum difference in how conflicts involving the Israelis and Palestinians have changed since I covered the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 1981 and siege of Beirut in 1982.

In those days, our job was to keep any sense of outrage out of our stories. I vividly remember Tom Friedman of The New York Times screaming profanities after his editors ordered him to remove the word “indiscriminate” from his description of Israeli bombing of West Beirut, even though we were on the receiving end of those bombs.

Those were the days before live satellite feeds, so every word in every one of my scripts for the CBS Evening News had to be approved before I recorded them. They were carefully screened to eliminate any sense of perceived bias or anger, particularly when it came to Israel. But it was even true when reporting on the kidnapping of friends and colleagues by Islamist extremists acting at the behest of Iran. And our reporting was written in the third person. It was never about what “we” experienced – and certainly not what we thought.

Today, most television reporting is live, much of it littered with the word “I.” In this age of social media, when news organisations are competing with ‘influencers’ for ‘likes’ and emotional ‘sharing’ is all the rage, reporters are encouraged to reveal their human side, recounting what they personally experience and feel. That’s often a two-edged sword — reporters and TV hosts frequently tell us more about their political views than the news.

But when it comes to the Gaza conflict, that has meant we have heard the sense of horror and outrage on the part of reporters covering the massacres of Israeli civilians by Hamas, and we are now seeing their emotion at watching the suffering in Gaza and their anticipation of what’s next.

Yes, some journalists wave the flag for Israel, and will continue to do so, but we are also hearing from others like MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, a Kenyan-born Muslim, who reported last week from Israel and was back in New York anchoring live coverage on Sunday, and Egyptian-American Ayman Mohyeldin, who drew fire from Israel’s supporters for his reporting for NBC from inside Gaza in the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, and last week on MSNBC described the mental trauma of Gaza youth as “unfathomable.”

The changing landscape

It is also important to distinguish between cable TV hosts in the US and reporters on the ground in the conflict zone.

The critical challenge for the war correspondent is walking that fine line between expressing compassion for the victims and voicing their personal feelings about those who carried out the violence. If the news story morphs into a protest speech, the reporter loses all credibility and his/her ability to have an impact.

The late war correspondent, Marie Colvin, who died covering the Syrian conflict, once said: “What I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars.”

The shifting ethos of Western coverage of Israel and Palestine is also reflected in the overall balance of coverage of the current conflict as decided by editors in places like New York and London.

The New York Times offers a snapshot. It is arguably the most influential news organisation in the world. It has also historically been accused of pro-Israel bias. On Sunday, October 15, the lead story on its homepage detailed the horror on the ground in Gaza. There were also side-by-side articles on how the massacre has shaken Israeli society and on the impact of the violence on children in Gaza. Both pictures showed scenes from Gaza — one the bombing of a building, the other, Gazan children looking up at the sky as they ran. There were duelling opinion articles from a conservative columnist and a noted Palestinian American author and academic.

That safe space for more balanced coverage is the result of shifting opinions in the US. As President Biden’s trip to Israel demonstrates, there is a powerful bond between the US and the Jewish state. That is not likely to change in our lifetimes.

But what has changed are attitudes toward Israeli policy. For the first time, more Democrats are sympathetic toward the Palestinians than Israelis. In a poll earlier this year, 49 per cent of Democrats said their sympathies are with the Palestinians and just 38pc said Israelis. That’s a huge leap from a decade ago, when just 23pc supported Palestinians.

Likewise, the American Jewish community itself has become much more critical of hardline Israeli policies and supportive of a realistic solution for the Palestinians, while retaining its close affinity to the Jewish state itself. Emblematic of that — rallies by American Jews in New York, outside the White House, and on college campuses demanding a stop to the Israeli assault on Gaza. Said one participant, “none of us are willing to have the genocide of Palestinian people done in our name.”

All this has come at a cost though. In just one of these instances, members of Harvard University’s student groups, who co-signed a pro-Palestinian letter, faced a doxxing attack. Days after the letter had gone viral, a truck displaying the names and faces of students allegedly affiliated with the groups circled the school’s campus.

What next?

Critics can rightly argue that Western media in those first days after the massacre of Israelis did not provide sufficient context about the historic suffering of the Palestinian people. And that the Western media has too often ignored the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

But when it comes to coverage today, as the Israeli assault on Gaza ramps up, the balance of reportage is shifting from the suffering of Israelis to the suffering of Palestinians, and it will continue to shift as Israeli troops move into Gaza with reporters in tow, some of whom are likely to give their lives covering the conflict.

As I write this, at least 15 journalists have been killed so far covering the story in Gaza and South Lebanon, all of them Arabs. Many were providing coverage to Western news organisations, whose correspondents have been banned by Israel from entering Gaza.

Their colleagues continue to provide Western viewers and listeners with a very personal perspective on the violence. “This is my community,” a tearful BBC reporter Adnan Elbursh said on the air after he found his own friends and relatives among the injured and dead at a hospital. “Today has been one of the most difficult days in my career. I have seen things I can never unsee.”

As the Washington Post reported, he was just “one of many journalists trying to report the news while fleeing for their lives.”

Anas Baba, a producer for the US National Public Radio (NPR), told an anchor that he was struggling to find safety for his own family. “Where am I going to hide them?” he wondered aloud on NPR. “Is there any safe place in Gaza?”

CNN’s Ibrahim Dahman answered that in his own piece, aired on the cable network. “I know deep down no building is safe,” he said, as he drove his family through the streets of Gaza with explosions on all sides.

A few decades ago, not only would such personal perspective have been left on the cutting room floor, but Palestinians — or any Arab — would not have been allowed to report for a major Western news organisation.

How we in the Western media cover the tragedies of the Middle East is getting better, but — as the past week has shown — there is still a long way to go if Americans and Europeans are to better understand the roots of the violence, the impact of their governments’ actions (or inactions), and the dangers of what may still come.