While the ceasefire in Gaza holds, it seems a reasonable time to think about the way the conflict there has been reported. Why focus on the journalism? Because without it, most people would have less understanding of what has been happening there than perhaps they do. I will be writing about the coverage of this latest Israeli military operation in detail in my next book, Headlines from the Holy Land, which is due to be published next year. In the meantime, here are five broad conclusions which can be drawn so far:
1. IT’S DANGEROUS. The number of Palestinian civlian casualties, many of whom could not be considered by any definition combatants, shows that no one is safe. This may be obvious, but I mention it because it’s always useful for interested audiences to consider the circumstances in which reporters are working. At least eight Palestinian journalists have been reported killed during this operation. Other journalists have been killed before. The British cameraman James Miller was shot dead by the Israeli Army in Southern Gaza in 2003. The dangers have consequences for coverage. How can you get Hamas’ side of the story when their leaders are in hiding? Two of the Hamas leaders I used to interview when I was in Gaza from 2002-2004 were subsequently killed by the Israeli military.
2. SOCIAL MEDIA continue to challenge and to complement conventional news reporting. In a region, such as Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, where you have such widespread internet access and usage, this will continue to be the case. Social media, though, in this case was not always the leveller it is claimed to be. Some of the people I follow on Twitter from Gaza were frustrated by absent electricity.
3. VERBAL ABUSE IS PART OF THE REPORTER’S LOT The Israelis and Palestinians will inevitably use the local and international news media as a parallel, verbal and pictorial, battleground. Shortly after they begin to do so, there follows criticism of the way that journalists are reporting the conflict. It almost seems that media editors simply wait 24 hours (or perhaps 12, or less, in the social media era) then commission someone to write about where their colleagues in international news are getting it wrong. The resulting concerns are amplified and added to by those of experts real, imagined, and self-appointed. Some of these, of course, have rarely, if ever, been to the region at all — and almost certainly not to Gaza.
4. CONTEXT IS KING You have to go back a long way to understand today in the Middle East. It is no coincidence of history that there are First World War British soldiers’ graves in Gaza. Their presence was part of what made the region the way it is today. If you do not understand that as a reporter, you can be sure your contributors will. Paul Mason of Channel 4 News in the UK was just the latest British journalist to experience this. Shortly after arriving in Gaza in 2002, I was reprimanded by an elderly refugee for coming from the country responsible for the Balfour declaration. Perhaps to the BBC’s credit, the declaration and its significance had been one of the questions at the interview for the post of Gaza correspondent.
5. YOU WILL NEVER GET IT EXACTLY RIGHT However hard a reporter tries when covering this story, journalism has its limits. Its critics see conspiracy or bias where sometimes the tool is simply not adequate to the task. News journalism relates what happened today. In the Middle East, that alone is never enough to explain what is going on. Nevertheless, there are spectacular errors. ABC News’ use of destitute Gazans to illustrate the consequences of rocket fire on Israel was perhaps the worst example. Breathtaking incompetence, or woeful ignorance?
Against this, though, there have been countless examples of strong, fact-led, eyewitness reporting from Gaza. Without this, we would have little idea what was going on. No western politician sets foot there these days. The only outsiders who have seen it are medical staff; aid worker; — and journalists.