Public Editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan took the bold, and important step in acknowledging the volume of reader outrage following the cold blooded murder last week of 19 year old Eden Atias as he slept. The NYT admitted an error of judgment. So why have they chosen to leave the offensive news item unchanged?
Sullivan was responding to our collective horror at not only the newspapers inability to frame the report around the appropriate context of the murder (we had to suffer much ink decrying settlements as the catalyst for current tensions and the cloudy outlook for peace) but the lead photo was not related to the victim as would be expected in any news environment when reporting such an event. The photo editor’s choice? The murderers’ mother surrounded by supporters at home.
You read that correctly. At the time of writing – the photo remains full column width at the top of the news item, with a thumbnail size photo insertion less than 25% as large three paragraphs below, of a policeman walking inside the bus where the attack took place. Would I, as a bystander have a reasonable chance of inferring the real story by my first impression of this news item? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.
The Times acknowledged the photo being a ‘poor choice’ for the story (whose main thrust they concede was indeed the murder), but that the image of the grieving mother was arrived at in part to provide ‘the other side of the story’ and for lack of a timely image of the victim at the time of publication. It was also they claim ‘artistic’. And ‘dramatic’. Do those qualities make for accurate news reporting? Again. No.
For those who recoil or simply find it hard to believe that major news outlets behave this way, it is important to understand that the idea of ‘balance’ in journalism is not unique to the field. We just happen to notice the consequence of certain values when they impact the stories that we receive through the lens of others, obscured by the thoughts and agendas of intermediaries. The drive for balance however, undermines the other golden objective – accuracy. When reporting, the incessant search for ‘the other side of the story’ compromises those instances in which frankly – there isn’t one.
Sullivan reveals, in a rare acknowledgement by a New York Times photo editor, “The selection of the Palestinian mother’s image with the article was an effort to achieve balance, but such an effort was not appropriate in this case”
To those who understand the power of media to shape opinions acutely in the context of Israel and the Middle East – this is a big and important statement. This recognition not only acknowledges the breakdown of relativistic post-modern values when caught up in the making of current event news: It also speaks to the heart of what many in the media are coming around to understanding, namely the possibility of there being a right and a wrong. In other words, that objective truth has a place in the newsroom. THAT is newsworthy.
To force a balance where there is none in the immediate context of the story necessitates the creation of a moral equivalence harming the readers’ relationship to the subject and conferring inappropriate attention to another. In this case the brutal, callous murder of a young Eden Atias in his sleep is diluted to half of the consideration demanded of the reader. That is wrong. And thousands of us have made that clear in this case.
Cultural relativism affords the ‘other side’ a platform and legitimacy through media coverage alone, which makes media complicit to the credibility enjoyed thereafter. Many are starting to wake up to the unjust operational philosophy of Western news journalism, as it has existed for almost a century. We need to be a part of that continued awakening.
Are we comfortable sitting on the fence when many –New York Times photojournalists included – are increasingly aware that even neutrality can sometimes be wrong? I believe it is time to support those emerging lone voices in the field such as LA Times Letters Editor Paul Thornton who broke that big industry taboo recently in claiming there is such thing as verifiable truth.
That is huge, if you understand the challenge it poses for example to former New York Times editor Bill Keller who champions impartiality as indispensable for forcing newsmakers to test all assumptions. Glenn Greenwald (of Edward Snowden news breaking fame) takes another view of impartiality. As Neal Gabler states so eloquently in a recent Reuters posting, “Greenwald, however, countered that impartiality didn’t test assumptions as much as confer authority to each of them.”
It is a view that I share, and I encourage others to support vocally in our changing media landscape. Now is the time to encourage a new direction in standards that respect the breadth of opinion and style whilst acknowledging the ethical and social-psychological impact of the words, images and opinions we are all exposed to. It is upon us to acknowledge the media recognition of failure, and call for more than corrections, photo replacements and apologies. HonestReporting.com exists to amplify our individual voices – as a community of concerned citizens.
An image cannot be unseen, but we must call for corrections and retractions to ensure future readers don’t fall foul of the same biases. We should further support those newsmakers open to improved standards. United we’ve been able to initiate a conversation not only on the substance of the biased report, but to a wider dialogue of what journalistic integrity should look like in the future. The power of media to change minds must not go unmanaged by responsible newsmakers and consumers. We have the power and the responsibility to make ourselves heard. In this instance we also have the duty to make known the pain of Eden Atias’ family to those who were denied the only side of this story.