By the Numbers: When there is no agreement about who has the right ones, it's important to reflect that in the reporting

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, the Executive Director of HonestReporting Canada, complained that a CBC News Network item did not properly report the number of civilians killed in the Gaza-Israel conflict. There are competing claims, and the introduction to the story did not reflect that.

COMPLAINT

In your capacity as Executive Director of HonestReporting Canada, you complained about the way the casualty figures in this summer’s Gaza conflict were characterized in a report that ran on two occasions on October 12, 2014, on CBC News Network.

In the introduction to a report from Cairo on a donor conference for the rebuilding of Gaza, the presenters stated that most of the casualties were civilians. You said this was not true. You pointed out that this statement was “not made in attribution and CBC therefore presented this claim as an undisputed fact.” You feel it is unbalanced not to give Israel’s estimate (half are civilians) when giving other, higher numbers attributed to United Nations agencies.

In response to a reply you received from Jack Nagler, Director, Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, you disputed that even a 55% figure, used at one time by an Israeli intelligence officer, would not be appropriate to describe a majority. You reiterated that in order to provide adequate information CBC News has an “obligation” to use Israel’s numbers to provide balance. You pointed out that there is a significant gap between Gaza and U.N. accounting and that of Israeli sources:

In the interests of fairness and balance, we believe CBC has an obligation to provide CBC readers, viewers, and listeners with such vital information, Israel’s accounting. Without such context, they will get exposed to a consistent one-sided perspective which claims only that a majority of Palestinian casualties killed in the conflict were “civilians”.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mr. Nagler noted that the number of children and civilians killed on the Palestinian side of the conflict “is a matter of some contention.” He pointed out there is broad agreement about the total number of people killed but not about the make-up of that number. He noted that the Gaza Health Ministry, and U.N. and Palestinian human rights organizations put the estimate of civilians killed between 70 and 75 %. He cited Israeli numbers that range from 55% to 50.2% as estimates of civilian deaths. He added:

So allow me to re-frame all that information as an independent news service must, without showing favouritism for one side or another. Palestinian and United Nations sources say a large majority were civilians. Israeli sources say a tiny majority were civilians. It is not an indication of bias when a journalist reports that a “majority” were civilians.

He said that the numbers were provided as “contextual information” in a report that was actually about a donor conference on reconstruction of Gaza. He added that if this were actually a discussion “about how each side conducted themselves during the war,” or other relevant issues, he would agree that there should have been more information given. But given the context and the compression required in a short news piece, the description of the casualties was acceptable. He concluded by saying that it is better to attribute the source of the numbers because this is a contentious issue.

REVIEW

There is a wide variance in the claims for the number of civilian casualties in this summer’s conflict in Gaza. They range from 70 to 75% of the total to about 50%. The Gaza Health Ministry puts the number at 70%. The most recent numbers from an Israeli military source puts it at 55% and the Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre puts it at 50.2 %. Each reporting agency uses different methodology.

There is an inherent difficulty in counting casualties in a conflict when the fighters do not wear uniforms. The BBC posted an article on its website back in August, written by its chief statistician, Anthony Reuben, which tried to make sense of the numbers and to put the various claims in perspective. The article points out that a disproportionate number of men aged 20 to 29 are among the dead. Interpreting that number is another story. It is true that also represents the age of men most likely to be fighters. Reuben points out though that “there has been some research suggesting that men in general are more likely to die in conflict than women, although no typical ratio is given. Nonetheless, the proportion of civilian men over 18 killed seems high and it is not immediately obvious why.”

Others point out it is men who are involved in high risk behavior – looking for lost family members, foraging for food and looking for shelter. Journalists would have to examine the methodology of each agency closely to decide which seemed most accurate, and even then it seems there is room for disagreement. This is not a straightforward matter.

The journalistic question in the face of such variance is what is reasonable to report, especially in a passing reference. When there is such variance, and when the claims and numbers are so highly politicized, attribution and precision are both important. The introduction to the piece makes a passing reference:

An international donor conference on rebuilding the Gaza Strip is underway in Cairo. This summer’s conflict between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza left large areas of the territory flattened. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to ask donors for four billion dollars in aid. More than 2000 Gazans were killed in the fighting, most of them civilians. 72 Israelis died, most of them military personnel.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices demands that journalists “clearly explain the facts to the audience” and that divergent views be respected. Mr. Nagler points out that this was just a passing reference to give context to the report on a donor conference. There are times that explanation would be valid. This would not be one of them. One side or the other is bound to feel misrepresented, because the numbers are so far apart. The introduction did not use a precise number, but it did say “most”. That would be true if the United Nations and Gaza Ministry of Health numbers prove to be correct. To claim that 50.2% is “most” is stretching the meaning of the word. Slightly over half, the 55% figure quoted, means more were civilians than combatants.

The point is, however, that it was not good judgment to cite the casualty figures in passing when there is so much disagreement about what they mean. Whether 55% can be called most, if that is the figure one has in mind, is not the point or the problem. This is why CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices emphasizes the precise use of language. The story should have given a range of numbers, and attributed the sources. Sometimes the general words chosen, like “most” in this case, do not address the problem; they are merely imprecise and therefore open to challenge. CBC News did not live up to its standard of accuracy in this news introduction.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman