The BBC is reminding those of its television news staff who are exposed, day after day, to raw footage from Gaza that counselling is available.
Journalists, producers, intake editors and video technicians have to watch hours of the most horrific filming in order to select exactly the right material to “paint” their stories.
Much of what they have seen during the four weeks of Operation Protective Edge is too shocking to be broadcast: corpses, blood, severed limbs, the dead dying, the injured howling—and always young children, mutilated and traumatised, alone or watched over by panic-stricken, anguished parents.
Every violation of a human life is a tragedy but many non-Western state television channels exploit tragedy by showing uncensored imagery in the hope of corralling public opinion. British broadcasting standards require TV footage to be more muted, but even footage that passes the test in the West has been enough to rally viewers into an impassioned condemnation of Israel’s rocket attacks.
The impact on television staff can only have been greater. For weeks, news teams have had to examine the most horrific evidence of unprecedented violence unleashed by one of the world’s most sophisticated armies on a largely helpless civilian population.
It can affect them personally and it can affect their work, as shown in a study published a year ago in the magazine Traumatology by two Canadian academics, Patrice Keats and Marla Buchanan. Photojournalists in particular were found to be prone to post-traumatic depression and burnout, exacerbated by the culture of stocism in the work environment and by the long shifts and hectic pace associated with media deadlines and competitiveness.
At the same time, Keats and Buchanan found that correspondents invoved with the most horrific stories enjoyed the highest status in their profession, were most likely to win journalistic prizes and were most envied by their peers. This contributed to a tough-guy atmosphere, not unlike that experienced by the military and the police, where stories—and the qualities of the journalists—are graded according to how many deaths are involved, and the nature or violence of the those deaths.
But there are other values that come into play. During the course of last week’s Gaza coverage, an earthquake in China killed 100 people, but at least one news producer could not get his staff to take their focus off Israel. Deaths caused by an earthquake—normally an attractive news event—do not compete when deaths are being caused by Israelis. The same is not true, however, of killings in Syria and Libya, which received far less media interest, for reasons that have still not been properly analysed.
If exposure to traumatic footage is upsetting, the contrary must also be true: that non-exposure is protective and insulating. Even newspaper and website imagery is shocking; but for the small proportion of the public who depend on radio, either out of choice or because of visual impairment, it may well be that mental constructs about war are less emotional and more rational.
If so, this might explain why Israel’s bombardment of civilian buildings in Gaza has been, to overseas eyes, intense and unapologetic. A quick survey of the main Israeli newspapers in the last week has shown a striking absence of the painful imagery to which the rest of the world has been exposed.
As I write this, I am checking a selection of British newspaper websites. Among the most disturbing, the lead story in the Daily Telegraph contains a video prefaced by the words “Warning: this video contains distressing scenes”.
Coverage in Israeli papers of the carnage in Gaza seems far less overt. Israel, not unnaturally, has its own national agenda and in the last week more attention has been given to Israeli funerals than to Palestinian deaths, which appear to be reported in passing, rather than foregrounded as they are in the British press.
Where the Gazan death toll is acknowledged in the Israeli press, it appears in the context of other, more abstract observations, and the tone of voice is one of excessive rationalism, devoid of the emotion that has accompanied reporting in other countries.
Sometimes that can be good. In a well balanced article in this weekend’s Guardian, David Loyn condemned two journalistic outbursts—one in his own paper by the columnist Giles Fraser urging reporters to show more emotion and claiming that “screaming is the most rational thing to do” and the other by Channel Four’s Jon Snow, who took to YouTube to deliver a message of solidarity with the Palestinians that was too partisan for his own channel to air.
“This is a dangerous path,” writes Loyn. “Emotion is the stuff of propaganda, and news is against propaganda. Reporting should privilege the emotional responses of audiences, not indulge journalists.”
That said, Israeli reporting can too easily give the impression of a collective wish not to know, or of a detachment too easily mistaken for indifference, and this cannot win Israel the friends it needs. A report on the present operation on Russian English-language television station RT was able to contrast images of injured Palestinians in makeshift hospital beds with insensitive selfies of Israelis on Twitter smiling broadly in their underground shelters.
That might be regarded as emotional manipulation by RT: Palestinians also take selfies. But at a press briefing last week, IDF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner damaged the plausibility of Israel’s case for bombing the first UNRWA school by displaying terminology that can only have shocked the very viewers he was meant to be winning over.
In an operation of this kind, he suggested, there will inevitably be “collateral damage”—not “slaughter” or, less emotionally, “deaths” but “collateral damage”. By use of this unfortunate term, Lerner gave the impression that Israel may not have considered those it killed in human terms, and even that it therefore saw no moral barrier to sacrificing unlimited Palestinian lives in pursuit of its goals.
He cannot have meant that, and yet his thoughtless choice of words was a dreadful own goal, not at all untypical of Israeli public relations, and worryingly capable of feeding prejudices about Israeli isolation not just from the family of nations but from the sphere of common humanity.
We know that this is not true, and that Israel’s democratic institutions and legal structures are deeply rooted in a sense of compassion and social justice unmatched in many, many other countries, to say nothing of its nearest neighbours.
But we also know that with its back against the wall and in savage times like this, it would do Israel endless good if it could learn how to show to a currently disbelieving world its natural humanity rather than its fearsome self-rectitude, however well justified that self-rectitude might be and however repulsive the intransigence is of the enemy that has brought both sides to where they are.