Journalistic License: Professional Standards in the Print Media’s Coverage of Israel

, August 15, 2001

No. 460    August 2001

A Pattern of Violations

On May 15, 2001, the Associated Press circulated an article covering Arafat’s Al-Naqba speech, marking the day Palestinians recall the “catastrophe” of the creation of the State of Israel. The article boasted direct quotations of the Palestinian leader’s statements. They had been spoken in Cairo, broadcast on Palestinian radio stations, and blared out from loudspeakers into the streets of Nablus and Ramallah and all across Gaza. But something happened to the speech on the way to AP’s wire report. By the time it reached the newspapers, entire sentences and clauses had been excluded; moderating words had been added; fiery attacks — like a slur about the United States — had been cleaned out; statements had been condensed, enhanced, or otherwise altered. In short, AP’s purported “excerpts” of Arafat’s remarks were at best edited, at worst fabricated. Moreover, they served to distort (and significantly soften) the message that passed through Arafat’s lips.1

In presenting a revised version of a speech as a direct quotation, the Associated Press had violated — some would say severely violated — major credos of professional journalism. Such violations could include “cleaning” or changing quotations, condensing them without ellipses or other indications, failing to attribute, cite, or mention the use of a translation, and more generally, inaccurate reporting — presenting something as it is not. AP violated not only the ethics codes of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, but its own internal code and style book, as well.

In this, AP is not alone. An analysis of major English-language print news shows that such practices, which violate professional journalism codes, dominate reporting on Israel and the Palestinians. Careless reporting and errors, severely disciplined in the coverage of other beats, abound unrestricted in Middle East reporting, and in some of the most respected print media in the English language. Such liberties include not only altered quotes and mistranslations, but outright mistakes and demonstrably false statements, the presenting as fact of assertions that turn out to be indisputably the author’s speculation (by the author’s own buried confession), the failure to check or even use sources, misnaming or misidentifying groups and events, and a variety of gray areas that fall between deceit and distortion. Each of the cases considered here involve practices that have been censured in coverage of other topics, either with corrections or discipline. But in the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, these transgressions continue unchallenged.

The violations form a pattern. In cases when they uphold a certain view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is consistently one view in particular, that the conflict was initiated solely by alleged Israeli practices in the West Bank and Gaza rather than by any wide-scale hostility toward Israel as a whole or toward the nature and identity of Israel as a state. Thus, anti-Israel organizations are reinvented as merely “opposing Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza,” violent actions are romanticized as protesting “the occupation,” key terms and players are misnamed or mistranslated, or else liberally re-interpreted without the open use of a source, and fanciful theories about “resistance” are presented as fact before (embarrassingly) they are recanted months later in the face of contrary evidence.

The following analysis does not charge anti-Semitism, malice, or any other interpretation of an author’s motives. Nor is there treatment of such general and vague categories as imbalances, loaded language, or out-of-context accounts. Rather, this study restricts itself to journalistic deviations that can be reasonably and easily demonstrated as such — often using the same news source as evidence — like errors, misquotes, and contradictions of established fact. While the errors cited here may be consistent with presenting reporters as biased, or anti-Israel, they are equally consistent with the view that such reporters are merely reckless, highly incompetent, or wildly imperceptive.

Many reporters have been accused of harboring anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian sentiment. But far fewer have been called to task directly on the integrity of their fact-checking, accuracy, or adherence to specific journalistic norms or ethics. The evidence suggests that the latter would be a far more effective way to correct distorted coverage and improve the portrayal of this most complex of conflicts.

 

Mistranslation

Palestine Satellite TV in Gaza broadcast the following remark from Yasser Arafat’s Al-Nakba speech on May 15, picked up by the British Broadcasting Corporation: “The executioner is relishing the shedding of Palestinian blood, thanks to the blind military machine and international protection granted to him by influential and hegemonistic powers in the international community.” The Associated Press, however, offered this version: “The executioners continue to walk through the puddles of our blood with their military escalation and siege on our towns and villages and camps.”2

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Jeffrey Helmreich

Jeffrey S. Helmreich, a legal theorist, has authored numerous articles for American newspaper and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, the Forward and the Jewish World, as well as academic legal journals. During 2012 he was a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School.