Gilad Greenwald

The war raises questions on journalistic reliability in the global media

In today’s reality, traditional and classic press outlets compete with the new media and social networks for the attention of the audience. In social networks, there is almost no control over content publication, and therefore fake stories, videos, and images are very common.

To compete with social media, traditional journalism can take two approaches. One approach claims that journalists should distinguish themselves from social networks, emphasizing aspects of journalistic professionalism, ethics, and above all – reliability. As a result, public opinion will be interested in getting the information from these journalists, and not through social networks, where everything is questionable.

A second approach says the opposite: the press should change its face, strive to be sensational and dramatic as possible, because most people look for “black and white”, dichotomous representation of reality. Only this way, traditional journalism will be able to survive financially, and maintain its audience, considering the growth of the new media.

Unfortunately, we see more and more media outlets, both in Israel and around the world, adopting the second approach. This is particularly evident in the coverage of the war in Gaza, that broke out following the brutal massacre by Hamas on October 7. The war is represented in a rather dichotomous manner in media channels, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera.

Media framing scholars talk about some factors that we must take into account in order to check whether media coverage is decent or not. Among these factors, we can find criteria such as objectivity, balance, and linguistic neutrality.

The issue of journalistic objectivity refers to the description of the event’s facts, based on reliable sources. While on social networks, all users rush to report any event that allegedly happened (or didn’t happen) without any hesitation, our expectation of serious journalists is quite different.

For example, in the case of the “Al-Ahli” hospital blast in the northern Gaza Strip last week, media outlets such as the BBC and the NYT (which later apologized for this) rushed to report that the explosion at the hospital was the result of an Israeli bomb, and that the death toll was 500 dead. The report was based on press releases by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In this report, there were two problems with regard to “objectivity”. First, it goes without saying that these two organizations do not constitute a reliable and neutral source, and journalists who treat them as such, should ask themselves some very difficult professional questions. Second, journalists are expected to recheck facts, cross-check information, and talk to other sources before the report is published. These things were not done, and the result was a biased and false report (almost all the intelligence agencies in the Western world later published that the explosion at the hospital was a result of a mistaken bombing by the Islamic Jihad).

The issue of balance is more complex, because here we are entering the question of narratives. After all, objectivity is not a matter of attitudes or worldviews, but of reporting the facts. In “balance”, on the other hand, the requirement of decent journalists is to give an expression to more than one narrative in their press coverage.

Here, too, we see quite a few problems, especially, again, in the cases of the BBC and Al Jazeera. The impression that emerges from their reports is a certain, perhaps indirect, justification of the October 7 massacre, due to the 56-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank (This approach was also expressed by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, this week). In the case of Al Jazeera, as an Arab TV network, this may be understandable, but it is difficult to understand the reasons for this in a Western network such as the BBC.

A more balanced report would have brought to light, and reflect the Israeli narrative as well, which says that Israel has left the Gaza Strip in 2005, evacuated the settlements, and apparently did what was expected of it. But since then, the terrorist organizations have taken over, and the results are before us. This approach receives almost no expression in television and news channels such as the BBC.

Finally, the media coverage of the war in Gaza also brought the issue of linguistic neutrality to the agenda, and particularly prominent here is the reference by the global media to the members of Hamas as “terrorists” or “militants”.

For decades, the BBC avoided using the term “terror” or “terrorists”, when describing the Palestinian armed organizations. The events of October 7, in which Hamas members murdered and kidnapped hundreds of women, children, and babies, greatly undermined and challenged this long-standing, consistent tendency and framing of the television network.

After a long protest, the BBC announced last week that they would no longer refer to Hamas as an “armed force”, but as a “terrorist organization, outlawed by the British government and others”. From monitoring the contents published on the TV network since this decision, it had no special implication, and BBC journalists began to refer to the organization, simply, as “Hamas”.

The Associated Press (AP) news agency went even further, and issued an explicit directive, according to which the term “terror” should not be used to describe Hamas, because “this term has been politicized and is sometimes applied inconsistently“.

In terms of linguistic neutrality, questions should be asked here, exactly on the issue of consistency. No one in the Western world would consider not referring to organizations, such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda as terrorist groups. When we define an organization as a terrorist organization, we must consider, not the background of its actions, but the actions themselves – intentional harm to civilians, in order to achieve political goals.

Therefore, the conclusion from this short analysis is that both the clear pro-Palestinian tendency of a large part of journalists in the West; and the need to describe a dichotomous and unequivocal worldview, which most media consumers can easily understand and relate to, create a biased media coverage of the current war between Israel and Hamas.

About the Author
Dr. Gilad Greenwald is a Teacher and Faculty Member at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication. His main research interests center around: Communication and Gender; Political Communication; Communication, Nationalism and Ethnicity; Media Framing; and Journalism.
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