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Standing up for good journalism can get you sidelined

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Israeli artillery firing into Gaza, May 18, 2021. Image credit: Israel Defense Forces/Wikimedia Commons

Several Canadian newspapers carried an Associated Press news story on the carnage in Gaza a week ago. It described the root cause of the conflict between Israel and Hamas this way: "The week of deadly violence, set off by a Hamas rocket Monday, came after weeks of mounting tensions and heavy-handed Israeli measures in contested Jerusalem."

Such descriptions in news stories are often called "background," but they more accurately serve to put the latest events in context for readers, so they know what's really going on and who caused it. The context here, in the AP story, seems to be that one rocket fired out of the blue by Hamas triggered the massive Israeli air attacks that levelled buildings, including medical facilities, and killed more than 200 Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip before a tentative ceasefire was agreed upon.

That framing of the conflict was simplistic and, by all accounts, misleading.

It's the kind of journalistic bias that caused more than 2,000 Canadian journalists and others to recently sign what they called "an open letter to Canadian news organizations," calling for more accurate and inclusive coverage of Middle Eastern conflicts.

They really seem to be asking news organizations to simply follow their own standards for good journalism.

It's proven to be controversial. Pro-Israel media watchdogs are calling the letter antisemitic and asking the news organizations to bar anyone who signed the letter from reporting on Middle Eastern affairs. That pressure appears to be working. At least three journalists who signed the letter have already been sidelined from such coverage by their employers, two of them by the CBC.

This is wrong. The letter does not take sides in the political and military dispute between Israel and its Palestinian opponents. It merely reminds Canada's news executives to stick to universally recognized journalism principles of fairness, accuracy and context.

Yet in an email to staff sent late last week, Brodie Fenlon, editor-in-chief of CBC News, said the letter violates the section of the broadcaster's journalistic standards and practices that states journalists "won't take a public position that 'affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.'" Fenlon's email was obtained and published on The Intercept, an online news site.

One CBC employee, who signed the letter and was barred from contributing to coverage of Israel and the Palestinian territories, said the CBC's perception seems to be "anyone who signs that letter is biased because they've now become an advocate." 

That flies in the face of what the letter advocated, which said "all the tenets of journalism should apply to Canadian coverage of Occupied Palestinian Territories moving forward. Fair and balanced coverage should include historical and social context, reporters with knowledge of the region and, crucially, Palestinian voices."

The letter pointedly notes:

"Unfortunately, newsroom leaders are skittish, fearing the deluge of complaints that often follows coverage. The deep reluctance to cover the ongoing nature of the Israeli occupation leads to urgent breaking news coverage that never includes the context that surrounds the issue. This content almost always centres around Israeli politicians and organizations, and representatives of the Israeli government and military; rarely are Palestinian voices ever centred or featured."

The letter cites some Canadian style guides that "still ban the use of the word 'Palestine' in coverage," and points to a May 6 Al-Jazeera column that reported that only two Canadian publications covered a Human Rights Watch report last month which found Israel guilty of "crimes against humanity" against the Palestinian people, including those of apartheid and persecution.

This bias spills over into local news coverage. Last week Toronto newspapers and TV stations reported that Palestinian protesters in Toronto had assaulted an older Jewish man. What they did not report, according to Maclean's columnist Andray Domise, who also signed the letter, was that the older man had been armed and had joined a group of pro-Israeli counter-protesters who instigated the fight. So instead of being framed as a "hero" story, it was one of Palestinian hoodlums assaulting a presumably innocent Jew.

Such sins of omission -- or bias -- are certainly not new. They have been documented many times by those who analyze Canadian media coverage of Mideast conflict. Elizabeth Leier, a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal, recently wrote a critique for Ricochet, an online commentary site.

Her analysis pointed to "an intentional distortion of facts -- one that notably presents Israel and Palestine as equal opponents who have stumbled into armed conflict as a result of ambiguous tensions. Most accounts have chosen to highlight the Palestinian armed response as the initial show of force, thereby skewing the timeline of events."

"Readers are thus led to believe that the escalation in violence began with Hamas, when in fact it was responding to Israel's armed repression of Palestinian civilians."

That was the case with the current conflict. A more accurate summary of its causes would centre on Jerusalem. The militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, fired its rockets into Israel just minutes after the passing of its ultimatum for Israel to withdraw its security forces from the Jerusalem compound which is home to the Al-Aqsa mosque, and from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in the city's east. Earlier, Israeli police had fired tear gas and stun grenades into the Haram al-Sharif compound, site of the Al-Aqsa mosque, a provocative act that raised tensions significantly given the huge historical sensitivity over the site, and the fact it occurred during the Holy month of Ramadan.

Leier's analysis also said:

"Moreover, by framing events in this way, the press implicitly presents the violence as proportional when it is not. Palestinian rockets are improvised devices, whereas Israel's military is supplied by top-rated weapons manufacturers, some of which are in fact Canadian. Israel also has a defence system to protect its civilians from Palestinian rockets, whereas Gaza and the West Bank are entirely vulnerable to Israel's bombs -- which explains the disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties."

According to Gaza's health ministry, 248 Palestinians were killed in Israel's latest offensive, including 66 children. More than 90,000 others were displaced from their homes. On the Israeli side, 12 people were killed by Hamas rocket fire.

As a former newspaper editor, I know that news coverage of the Middle East has for a long time been rigorously monitored by pro-Israeli advocates who often appear uninvited in newsrooms to complain about what they call antisemitic bias. Now they do it online. During the recent offensive, a group called HonestReporting Canada has weighed in almost daily with media criticism directed at CBC, CTV and Toronto Star coverage.

It criticized the open letter signed by 2,000 journalists as "blatantly tendentious, hypocritical and skewed, and its selective use of facts reflect poorly on those who purport to be professional journalists."

Among its specific criticisms: the letter refers to the "escalating violence against Palestinians," but HonestReporting Canada says that "conveniently ignores the escalating violence against Israeli civilians by Hamas and Islamic Jihad." The letter also alleges that Israel is carrying out "indiscriminate airstrikes" whereas the group insists Israel is only targeting terrorists and terror infrastructure. "If anything is 'indiscriminate,' it's the Hamas/Islamic Jihad onslaught of missiles targeting Israeli civilian population centres, big and small," it said.

In such a fraught conflict, facts often lie in the eyes of the beholder. It seems to me that HonestReporting Canada goes overboard in claiming anti-Israeli bias. Recently, for example, the organization condemned a Toronto Star report for mentioning that "fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza grew more intense." In truth, the organization sniped, "Israel is fighting Palestinian terrorists -- not Palestinians."

Palestinian families who have been burying their children in Gaza wish that was true.

My point is that constant vigilance by pro-Israeli media monitors can influence media coverage itself. It is distressing that some news executives such as those at the CBC have heeded HonestReporting Canada's demand that "any Canadian journalist who signed this letter should never be allowed to report on the Arab-Israeli conflict again in light of their clear anti-Israel bias which is on full display."

Another journalist who signed the letter, Nadine Yousif, wrote an opinion column in the Toronto Star pointing out how damaging the backlash to the letter is to journalists of colour. "Sadly, this misreading confirms what many racialized journalists in Canada already know: that white voices are seen as an objective authority, while voices of people of colour, especially from affected communities, are sidelined. 

"This erasure in the field, fuelled in part by a fear of accusations of 'bias,' is not only discriminatory but deeply hurts the integrity of reporting on the region. Middle Eastern, Muslim and Palestinian journalists should not be sidelined. Many bring an important grasp of language and historical context on an issue that society consistently deems 'complicated.'"

Good point. Imagine the uproar if someone suggested Jewish journalists should not cover anything involving Israel because they are religiously biased.

Canada's media have a lot to answer for and correct when it comes to how they frame coverage of conflict in the Middle East.

For instance the CBC backgrounded a news report on May 12 with this:

"The latest eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed police tactics during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police. A focal point was the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, part of a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews." 

Curiously, rival CTV copied those exact same words to background its own report four days later, illustrating the "group think" often prevalent in Canadian news organizations. 

The letter writers are right. Things need to change.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn't like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday's News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source.

Image credit: Israel Defense Forces/Wikimedia Commons

 

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