When It Comes to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, a Little Context Goes a Long Way

Posted by Michael Getler on

On the Dec. 24 edition of the PBS NewsHour, veteran correspondents and co-anchors Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill opened the broadcast as they usually do by providing a rundown of the day’s top news headlines. Ifill started with the aftermath of extreme weather around the country and Woodruff followed with this: “Elsewhere this day, Christmas Eve festivities unfolded around the world. In Bethlehem, Christian pilgrims and tourists alike flocked to Manger Square, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Other celebrations were canceled, as four more Palestinians died in clashes with Israeli forces.

The italic emphasis above is mine and is meant to call attention to how a brief snapshot of news can generate—in fact, is guaranteed to generate—a fair amount of email to an ombudsman when the subject has anything to do with Palestinians and Israelis.

I have been at this ombudsman business for a long time now, first at The Washington Post and then PBS, and I can tell you that nothing is fly-specked more by certain readers and viewers for alleged or perceived bias in reporting—especially by those who perceive such bias when it comes to Israel—than coverage of clashes in the Middle East. So accuracy, care and presentation matter.

Here’s What Happened

First, here is what happened that day, according to a Reuters report: “Israeli forces killed four Palestinian assailants in separate incidents in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, the army said, as a 12-week surge in street violence showed no sign of abating. In the latest in a wave of almost daily assaults, a knife-wielding Palestinian hurt two guards on Thursday near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and was shot dead, the army said. In other locations in the West Bank, another Palestinian was shot dead while trying to stab a soldier with a screwdriver, and a third after injuring a soldier in a car-ramming, the army said. Near Qalandia in the West Bank, Israeli troops carrying out an arrest raid shot two Palestinians who fired at them from within a crowd of rock- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters, the army said. Local medics said a Palestinian was killed and six wounded. The army said two soldiers were hurt in the incident.”

A Two-Letter Sample

Here are a couple of the eight or so letters and phone calls that I received immediately after the broadcast. The first is from a viewer in Baltimore, Md., and I sent it to the NewsHour as a sample of the mail I was receiving. No comment thus far, but I think this is worth writing about for a couple of reasons.

Here’s what the Baltimore viewer wrote: "Four more Palestinians dead in clash with Israeli troops." For throwing stones? For rioting? No, for attempting to murder Israelis. But this isn't mentioned. Really inadequate reporting that betrays bias. I don't care about the bias, but it leaves out vital information, thereby slanting the news. Hardly up to PBS standards. Response requested.”

Here’s one from Louisville, Ky.: “As a regular viewer I was shocked when tonight's commentary only mentioned that 4 Palestinians were killed but failed to mention the stabbings and lawless behavior that caused this action. Fair and balanced reporting is essential! Please make greater efforts to present all the facts. In today’s world we require clear and accurate facts to promote a more peaceful World!”

My Thoughts

This episode brings to mind a couple of points that strike me as important in assessing this kind of challenge.

 First, what Woodruff reported, in a top-of-the-broadcast news wrap-up that is routinely made up mostly with quick headlines and snippets, was not wrong. Four more Palestinians did die in clashes with Israeli forces that day. And my guess is that people who follow the news, and the NewsHour, are more than likely to be able to supply their own context.

Nevertheless, this was short-hand and it would have been a lot better—for context, accuracy and credibility in the well-known, hot-house environment surrounding coverage of this unending conflict—to have added just a few words. For example, something like how Reuters succinctly put it: “Israeli forces killed four Palestinian assailants in separate incidents in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, the army said, as a 12-week surge in street violence showed no sign of abating.” That would have taken about five seconds.

So, those who wrote critically about the way this was presented have a legitimate editorial point, in my view.

But a few of the emails and calls I received did not just stop at what they considered “inadequate reporting,” as one of the letters above put it, but rather saw these few words in a news summary as “a shocking example of bias,” as a viewer in Canada put it, or as displaying a “shameful and disgraceful lapse” in the mind of an emailer from Los Angeles.

My second point is that charges of bias are unfair in this case, as I see it, and are reflective of the absolutist and, frequently, combative and accusatory reaction and commentary that characterize much of our national disputes these days. I said earlier in this column that “my guess is that people who follow the news, and the NewsHour, are more than likely to be able to supply their own context” to that brief mention on Dec. 24.

I say that because the NewsHour actually has probably reported more often, and in more depth, on this new form and campaign of violence against Israelis than any other broadcast news operation.

A Solid Record of Coverage

Here is a list of links put together by our office, which may not be complete, of those reports in the past three months, several of them lengthy segments and others included in news summaries.

Oct. 9: (news wrap) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/news-wrap-gun-rights-protests-greet-obama-roseburg-visit/

Oct. 10: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/israeli-palestinian-tensions-soar-gaza-rocket-lands-israel/#transcript

Oct. 13: (news wrap) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/news-wrap-pentagon-says-u-s-russian-jets-close-encounter-syria/


Oct. 14: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/palestinian-fury-fuels-random-attacks-skirmishes-israeli-forces/#transcript

Oct. 16: (news wrap) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/news-wrap-violence-flares-middle-east-iran-violates-sanctions/

Oct. 18: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/israel-responds-deadly-wave-knife-attacks-new-police-powers/#transcript

Oct. 19: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/wave-terror-attacks-widen-gulf-palestinian-israeli-authorities/

Oct. 22: (news wrap) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/news-wrap-paul-ryan-wins-key-support-speakership/

Oct. 26: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/tale-two-teens-caught-violent-mideast-divide/

Nov. 24: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/why-20000-israelis-are-suing-facebook-over-palestinian-attacks/

Dec. 24: (news wrap) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/news-wrap-killer-storms-blast-the-south-with-tornadoes/#transcript

So there is, in my view, no bias here. Yes, it could have been done better in the Dec. 24 news summary, but it wasn’t wrong and it should not convey any larger insight about the NewsHour. There is no advantage to any large news organization, other than those few who many choose to come at things a certain way, in being biased or in appearing to be biased. It alienates readers and viewers for no good reason and that doesn’t make sense. Journalists also have their name on their work, so bias or the perception of bias is also not a great career move.

Posted on Jan. 5, 2016 at 1:26 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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