Gilead Ini

‘Suspension of skepticism’ leads to a flood of bad reporting

News media should have doubted, rather than spread, the outlandish claim that Israel was behind flooding in Gaza

The Flood

After the flood, it is time to survey the damage.

This is true of the rain waters that recently inundated parts of Israel and Gaza. But it also applies to the flood of inaccurate, defamatory news reports that followed the winter storm. Too many major news organizations — outlets that promise enlightening and accurate reporting — promoted the outlandish lie that Israel was directly to blame for the flooding in Gaza. The idea, spread by NBC, Agence France Presse, Al Jazeera, the Daily Mail, and others, was that the Jewish state intentionally opened its dams near Gaza, sending waters rushing into the Palestinian territory.

The charge originated with Palestinian sources, but was disseminated by reporters who apparently saw no reason to approach it with any skepticism — which was too bad, because in fact there are no Israeli floodgates, no dams that can be opened and closed, anywhere near Gaza. It was, in short, a brazen lie.

On Twitter, this major failure of journalism quickly became known as the #FloodLibel, a nod to the term “blood libel” describing the antisemitic canard that Jews use non-Jewish blood for ritual purposes. Although the blood libel was largely a medieval European phenomenon, it is not only that. Still today, commentators, scholars, authors and film-makers across the Arab world, Gaza included , continue spread the claim that Jews make Passover matza with Christian blood.

Unfortunately, such fantastical anti-Jewish and anti-Israel stories are not uncommon in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa has accused Israel of dropping poisoned candy bags into Palestinian territory. A Palestinian mayor once said the Jewish state scattered bombs shaped like toys as a way of targeting children. Farmers and officials routinely insist settlers release wild boars to wreak havoc on Palestinian (but somehow not Israeli) crops. And it was Hamas officials and Gaza residents who informed journalists that Israel had opened its nonexistent floodgates.

CAMERA immediately contacted AFP and Al Jazeera to inform them of their inaccurate reports. The former eventually published a detailed follow-up piece debunking the “long-held Palestinian myth” of Israel’s dams. The latter formally retracted its article, admitted it was wrong, and apologized for the error. It’s a start. But it isn’t enough.

Suspension of Skepticism

Just as the ferocity of the winter storm overwhelmed the capacity of the ground to absorb and redirect rainwater, the eagerness of some journalists to file reports about Israel behaving badly seemed to overwhelm their responsibility to be skeptical.

Skepticism is a basic tool required of journalists everywhere, but it is especially important in reporting from a conflict zone, where the information war is viewed as being just as important as any other theater of confrontation.

If distortions about the enemy serve two important purposes — internally, to demonize the enemy and justify the long war; externally, to tilt international opinion — then skepticism shields news consumers from the clutter of misinformation that, by design, acts as a stumbling block on the path to understanding.

The importance of skepticism is generally understood. Headline after headline on the website of the Poynter Institute, which focuses on journalistic ethics, refers to the concept: “Why real-time journalism requires healthy dose of skepticism”; “Why journalists should be skeptical about autopsy reports”; “Journalists suspend skepticism about sourcing with news of bin Laden’s death.”

“Hone your skeptical reporting skills,” states a headline by the Television Digital News Association. In a debate between American and British journalists, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, about who is better at their craft, the word “skepticism” comes up repeatedly. A recent piece by New York Times media writer David Carr disapprovingly lamented times when the CBS’s flagship news magazine “traded skepticism for access.” Its disapproving headline: “When ‘60 Minutes’ Checks Its Journalistic Skepticism at the Door.”

Salman Rushdie addressed the big picture: “Skepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked,” he argued at a convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, suggesting that just as a free press is needed in a free society, a healthy dose of skepticism is needed in a healthy press.

It is supremely important, then, not only for public understanding of the hydrology of the Gaza Strip or of the intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict but for journalism itself, that reporters resist the urge to suspend skepticism. Those who can’t resist, those who are too overcome by what Matti Friedman calls “the fashionable disgust for Israel,” need to set their biases aside or, perhaps more realistically, step aside. AFP and any other news outlet that takes its craft seriously needs to ensure that its employees put journalism first, not activism.

Banksy Makes a Video

Meanwhile, credulousness in the face of all sorts of anti-Israel allegations continues to be a problem.

In the very week that Al Jazeera and AFP retracted their pieces about the flood, the well-known graffiti artist and activist Banksy released a video he made about the Gaza Strip. The video stated, wrongly, that “no cement has been allowed into Gaza” since the most recent war there. In fact, thousands of tons enter the territory every day. And yet a number of major news organization — again, outlets that promise enlightening and accurate reporting — rushed to share Banksy’s partisan video with readers, without any of the skepticism and fact-checking expected from serious news media.

CNN gushed over the piece. London’s Telegraph echoed the falsehood. The Forward dug no deeper. NPR asked no questions. And Time Magazine, with its title “Watch a Video of British Artist Banksy in Gaza,” didn’t even attempt to disguise that its piece was more advertisement than journalism. Even a Buzzfeed reporter who had gotten it right on the Gaza flood story allowed her readers to be misinformed by Banksy’s propaganda video, though she was fully aware of its errors.

News consumers want more. According to a poll two years ago, they consider newspaper reporters less trustworthy than auto mechanics and business executives. Trust in the media has declined since then,  and might be even lower after the NBC news anchor Brian Williams was caught lying.

So the public views the press with well-deserved skepticism. That will likely continue to happen until reporters start showing some skepticism of their own.

About the Author
Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA, where his writing on media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict highlights how one-sided and inaccurate reporting can distort understanding of the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at @GileadIni.