Richard Hecht

The high-stakes dilemma of conflict-zone journalism

The rush to report is always at odds with the imperative to get the story right and the Israel Hamas war is no exception
Hamas terrorists bring a hostage into Shifa Hospital as seen on surveillance footage from October 7, 2023. (IDF)
Hamas terrorists bring a hostage into Shifa Hospital as seen on surveillance footage from October 7, 2023. (IDF)

In today’s media landscape, the rush to break news is pitted against the need for accurate, reliable storytelling. This tension is by no means new. In a 2015 paper on this topic, Reiko Saisho, a Reuters Institute Fellow at the University of Oxford said that “the test is whether journalists have made appropriate efforts and taken reasonable steps to verify and triangulate the pieces of information available at that time.” 

This takes time. Nowhere is this tension as pronounced or mistakes as costly as in conflict zones, where reporters need to satisfy the increased appetite of an accelerated news cycle. Some publications have found workarounds when facts are still emerging, publishing breaking news under the guise of opinion pieces. As the RAND Corporation pointed out in 2019, “News coverage has shifted from a more traditional style characterized by complex, detailed reporting…toward a more personal, subjective form of reporting that emphasizes anecdotes, argumentation, advocacy, and emotion.”

Faster, more opinionated and ultimately less substantiated publication of news can be disastrous. This is evident in the war Israel is fighting against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. In one example, on October 17th, 2023, reports emerged of an explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital. Within minutes, trigger-happy newsrooms reported that the explosion was caused by an Israeli airstrike on the building. Demonstrators poured into the streets across the Middle East.

The truth emerged a few hours later. The IDF presented evidence showing that the strike was caused by a misfired rocket launched from Gaza by the Palestinian terrorist group, Islamic Jihad. But corrections at the bottom of articles can’t send demonstrators home.

Other examples require days before the truth emerges. Take the IDF’s activity against Hamas in the Shifa Hospital complex in Gaza. On October 27th, the IDF published intelligence about Hamas’s decades-long exploitation of the hospital. The IDF issued public warnings and facilitated an evacuation process. This wasn’t just about following protocols; it was doing our best to protect lives at a massive cost – losing the element of surprise among other tactical implications. 

Hamas took advantage of the warning, spending weeks burying evidence, redeploying forces, and moving hostages. The IDF began to uncover the evidence, slowly and methodically, to protect the hospital’s patients and the soldiers involved.

Yet, the hunger for on-demand evidence doesn’t always align with the ground realities. Verifying facts takes time. A terrorist organization can release false information about a hospital blast in seconds but the military in a liberal democracy needs hours – at the very least – to show the facts. Terrorists can entrench under a hospital, bury evidence, and categorically deny all. A Western democracy must live up to the burden of proof – tunnels, weapons and more – even if it takes time.

These images taken from an IDF video published November 19, 2023, show a Hamas tunnel found under Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. (Israel Defense Forces)

And it does take time. 

With decades to plan and weeks to bury evidence, it can take longer to reveal the extent of Hamas’s abuse of Shifa. But in just days, the international press began clamoring for immediate proof of Hamas’s activity under the hospital. These demands – while understandable – literally play into Hamas’s hands. Don’t get me wrong. The proof is already emerging. 

But complex reality doesn’t always fit into 24-hour news cycles. In situations like Shifa Hospital, there’s a clear right or wrong. Either there are weapons and terrorist infrastructure or there isn’t. Until then, the cost of hasty reporting is misinformation, its impact on both public perception and operational strategies, and lives that are in heightened danger as a result.

Of course, there is infrastructure there. Yesterday we took journalists behind the blast-proof door, showing them dozens of meters of tunnels and another tunnel shaft right against the Qatari building in the Shifa complex. We showed them how deep under the hospital was a bathroom, a kitchenette, an air-conditioned barracks and more. The evidence that this was terrorist infrastructure is irrefutable. But, notably, not instantaneous. 

These images released by the IDF on November 21, 2023, show the inside of a Hamas tunnel found under Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. (Israel Defense Forces)

I’m on the frontline of military communications. I understand the pressure media outlets face to keep the public informed. But some stories, especially those in conflict zones, demand patience. It’s not just about losing a few clicks; it’s about ensuring that reporting doesn’t unwittingly play into the hands of those who use civilians and hospitals as shields.

The media must balance the urgency of reporting with context-rich, accurate narratives. In a world of breaking news and TikTok headlines, the world needs patient conflict reporting more than ever. The world needs the prompt revelation of truth but never at the cost of depth and accuracy. Such an approach not only serves public knowledge better but is a moral imperative in the high-stakes world of military operations and conflict journalism.

About the Author
Lt. Col. Richard Hecht is the Head of the International Branch at the Israel Defense Forces. He can be followed via his regularly published newsletter or on Twitter/X.