The Media Navigates a War of Words for Reporting on Gaza and Israel

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi headlined “The media navigates a war of words for reporting on Gaza and Israel”:

Ever since armed men from Gaza crossed into Israel and killed some 1,400 people, news organizations have wrestled with how to describe who they were and whom they represented.

Were they “terrorists”? Anchors on CNN and Fox News said they were.

Or were they “militants” (The Washington Post, BBC)?

Or “gunmen” (NPR)? Or “fighters” (Al Jazeera English)?

Were they the foot soldiers of a “terrorist organization” (Business Insider) or of “the governing power in the Gaza Strip” (the New York Times)?

Words matter, particularly to news organizations that try to preserve accuracy and impartiality at moments of great passion and uncertainty. A badly chosen word in a media account — particularly during a bloody conflict involving Israelis and Palestinians — can elicit swift denunciations from readers, listeners and viewers.

As the vice president of standards at the Associated Press, Amanda Barrett sits at the forefront of debates over fair and neutral phrasing within her own news organization and among others. Barrett leads the team that edits the AP Stylebook, on which countless news outlets rely for consistent terminology in their reporting. Since the war began, Barrett and her staff have been fielding calls and emails from reporters and editors about how to render various aspects of the conflict.

“Terrorist” vs. “militant” comes up a lot, Barrett says. (The AP Stylebook advises against “terrorist,” deeming it “politicized” and inconsistently applied, though the U.S. government designated Hamas a terrorist organization in 1997.) “Occupation” is also problematic, Barrett suggests; while Israel controls most of Gaza’s borders and infrastructure, it withdrew its soldiers and settlements in 2005. As an alternative, Barrett recommends describing the situation rather than labeling it.

Another issue: Was Israel’s announcement that residents of northern Gaza move south an “evacuation” order or, as some have claimed, “ethnic cleansing”? (The former, according to the AP Stylebook).

Some journalists aren’t even sure how to refer to the violence. Is it a “war” or merely a “conflict”? And who are the adversaries: Israel and Gaza, Israel and Hamas, or Israel and Palestinians? Barrett acknowledges that each construction conveys a slightly different meaning and point of view, given that the combatants go beyond Hamas to include groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. For the record, the AP Stylebook gives its blessing to “the latest war between Israel and Hamas” or simply “the Israel-Hamas war,” with a lowercase W.

“We’re very, very busy trying to find the best way forward,” Barrett says.

Other news organizations have their own style guides tailored for the current conflict. The Washington Post’s standards desk decreed last week that Hamas’s attack can be called “terrorism,” ideally in the context of a quotation from an individual. “In the rare cases in which we would use it without attribution, we require approval from a department head” or deputy managing editor, The Post’s guidance says.

Also out, according to The Post: calling Hamas’s initial rampage an “invasion.”

The preferred description: “attack” or “incursion.”

Other hot-button social issues, such as abortion, rate similar debates within newsrooms. Is it “pro-life” or “pro-choice”? “Fetus” or “unborn child”?

Even before his term as president, Donald Trump sparked another discussion of vocabulary: Does he propagate “falsehoods,” “misstatements” or just plain “lies”?

A third one: When is it fair to label someone’s statement as “racist”?

It’s a balancing act between striving for accuracy and inflaming a volatile situation. Users of X (formerly Twitter) reacted with fury Thursday when a photo caption in The Post said Hamas had “detained” the children of an Israeli woman featured in a news story. Editors quickly agreed this was an egregious choice of words and changed the caption to “taken hostage.”

A pro-Israeli watchdog group, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, has singled out journalists over the past couple of weeks. The committee criticized Sara Yasin, a managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, for reposting tweets that used the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe Israel’s military response to Hamas. A Times spokesperson defended Yasin, saying, “Sharing the posts or content of others does not equal an endorsement of it.”

The BBC, meanwhile, said it has launched an investigation of six journalists in its Arab-language service whom the watchdog group accused of anti-Israeli bias for, among other things, tweets comparing Hamas militants to freedom fighters.

The biggest media furor so far involves news coverage of a massive explosion at a Gaza hospital that killed an unknown number of people this week. Several news organizations — Reuters, the Associated Press, MSNBC, Politico, the New York Times, Axios — initially indicated that the blast came from an Israeli airstrike. These reports relied on statements by Hamas’s Health Ministry, a source of questionable credibility, and contributed to violent street protests across the Arab world.

But a few hours later Israeli officials raised doubts about the cause of the explosion, pointing instead to an errant rocket fired from within Gaza. This was buttressed by statements from American officials, including President Biden, and the release of videos and audio recordings supporting the Israeli position.

The evolving story prompted some fancy linguistic footwork. The New York Times’ first headline declared, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.”

Later came a second version: “At Least 500 Dead in Strike on Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say.”

This was followed by a more neutral construction: “Hundreds Dead in Blast at Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say.”

While other news organizations made similar changes, few issued corrections or acknowledged the questionable nature of their initial stories.

“During any breaking news event, we report what we know as we learn it,” says New York Times spokesman Charlie Stadtlander. “We apply rigor and care to what we publish, explicitly citing sources and noting when a piece of news is breaking and likely to be updated. And as the facts on the ground become more clear, we continue reporting.”

Even days after the blast and the questions about its origin, headlines continued to describe it as a “strike,” a word that conveys planning and intention, neither of which has been established.

“Strike”? “Blast”? Or just a ghastly accident amid wider violence? In such a perilous and fraught context, precision is a virtue, a necessity and a challenge.

Paul Farhi has been a media reporter at The Washington Post since 2010. Prior to that, he was a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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