“Biased” coverage of conflict in Gaza, December 2008-January 2009
You wrote in January, 2009, to complain about what you felt was “biased” coverage of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza between late December, 2008, and mid- January, 2009. You said that World Report and The World at Six repeatedly presented the “Israeli explanation” of the causes of the Israeli attack, but said little about the “Palestinian explanation.”
Jane Anido, the Director of CBC Radio News Programming, replied, in essence, that news bulletins, including the longer programs you mentioned, provided relatively short items relating to the most recent developments. Longer, more complex items could be found on CBC's current affairs programs. She also mentioned that both sides had been covered in the days leading up to the Israeli attack.
You rejected her explanation, saying that you were not referencing the hourly news bulletins, but the lengthier broadcasts such as World Report and The World at Six which, you felt, still contained an imbalance in official “explanations.” You asked for a review.
In CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, we find the following Basic Principles:
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.
Those principles underlie all CBC's coverage, even from war zones.
In order to respond fully, I listened to every report on the conflict from December 27, 2008, to January 19, 2009, carried on the 8:00 AM (ET) World Report and the 6:00 PM (ET) World at Six.
Some background is crucial for understanding how conflicts like this get covered. Reporters, as opposed to analysts, must provide constant updates on relevant actions, while still providing context to help the listener understand what is happening. They must also endeavour to fill in gaps that might occur as the result of on-going military action.
In a conflict like this one, journalists and their supervisors come under intense scrutiny and pressure from lobby groups for various sides. The task is to maintain balance when neither side wants balance.
On December 29, 2008, two days after the start of the Israeli assault, CBC journalist Peter Armstrong reported the significant fact that the Hamas leadership had “turned off their cellphones” and gone underground. In fact, they would not have another meeting with the press until January 19, 2009. That session was reported by CBC journalist Margaret Evans.
Another significant bit of background is that journalists were barred from entering Gaza. Reporting had to be done on the border, on the phone, using material available from local outlets in Gaza and elsewhere.
One other factor: it's not clear what “explanations” you would refer to. Israel changed the situation by launching its assault. Hamas was fighting back, while continuing to launch rockets into Israel. I am not quite sure what “explanations” would be pertinent from Hamas.
All that being said, my survey of the reportage by various CBC journalists (mainly Margaret Evans and Peter Armstrong) shows that, despite the substantial barriers to reporting, they made significant efforts to illustrate life on the ground inside Gaza during the assault. Using audio and video footage gathered by other services that remained inside Gaza, they illustrated the toll the attacks were taking. In addition, they talked regularly to sources inside Gaza who described the events that were unfolding around them.
As events developed, reporters in Israel talked with Palestinians on the West Bank, both for their perspectives and to hear what they may have learned from friends and contacts inside the Gaza strip. Some Hamas representatives surfaced at international gatherings during the conflict, and their views were always quoted, along with the views of others.
Since the reporters were based in Israel, they had easier access to Israeli officials, but it should be underlined that many around the world felt that it was Israel who needed to explain its massive military action. While the rationale for Hamas rocket fire also needed to be explored, clearly the bolder steps of the Israelis was the focus of the world's attention. I noted, though, that whenever official Israeli explanations were offered, effort was made to reflect whatever was available from those in the war zone.
My notes on every broadcast indicate that the journalists constantly attempted to reflect various points of view as fairly as possible: Gazan shopkeepers whose buildings were destroyed; health care workers trying to keep up with the flood of casualties, military and civilian; relief agency workers unable to carry out their tasks because of the shelling; mothers who lost family members under bombardment; and, most striking to me, a Palestinian doctor, well-known in Israel, who lost two daughters and a niece just before the cease-fire. Throughout the conflict, I heard efforts to constantly balance as fairly as possible the different voices and views.
Even a sample of World Report broadcasts indicate that appropriate voice was given to sources in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere. For example:
December 28: We heard the translation of statements from those speaking for Hamas and Fatah;
December 29: Conversations with Palestinian medical personnel in Gaza;
December 30: An interview with a West Bank Palestinian official;
December 31: A quote from a “Hamas political leader”;
January 2: Quotes from a Hamas political leader;
January 4: Quotes from a Gazan on their “terrible ordeal” as well as a clip from an official of the Arab League;
January 5: Report concerning Hamas' representatives attendance at an international meeting on the conflict;
January 7: An interview with a UN relief worker in Gaza on the effect of the bombing, as well as a clip from Mahmoud Abbas on what he termed a “massacre of the innocents”;
January 9: Clips from Palestinian legislators from the West Bank on how the fighting is effecting children;
January 10: Quotes from Abbas about a French cease-fire proposal, reference to the Hamas delegates at a Cairo conference and clips of a representative of the Arab League;
January 13: Quotes from Hamas leaders in Gaza, sound of a televised message from a Hamas leader;
January 15: Interview with a Palestinian journalist in Gaza describing the movement of Israeli troops;
January 16: A report from Beirut giving the positions of Hamas and Israeli representatives on a possible truce;
January 17: Reports from both Israeli and Hamas leaders on possible cease-fire.
World at Six broadcasts had similar, indeed more extensive material from Gaza and other locations.
As you can see, there appears to have been considerable effort to reflect a wide range of views, both official and civilian, on all sides of the conflict.
Not only was the coverage consistent with CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices, I was struck by the professionalism displayed by CBC's journalists in a most difficult situation. I note in particular the efforts of daily journalists to go beyond the usual coverage of conflict − often called the “bang-bang”− and find stories of ordinary people on both sides of the border. It might be worth noting that the effort to give voice to ordinary Palestinians caught under fire led to significant and sustained complaint from those who felt the reports were overly sympathetic to the people of Gaza, or their Hamas leaders. I did not find that to be the case, either.