Covering Gaza: How do you judge balance and bias?

The complainant, Diane Weber Bederman, was concerned that CBC News did not pay enough attention to damage done in Israel, and to the suffering of Israeli citizens. She also thought that several World Report items lacked context and balance, especially around the issue of Hamas fighters using civilians as human shields. She thought that Israel’s position should be mentioned in virtually every story. Perspective and balance is achieved over time. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You originally wrote directly to the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire, about episodes of The Current and World Report you felt were biased against Israel. You wrote to me on August 20, 2014, about a month after the first complaint was sent, because you had not received a response. After that time you added other complaints about a later World Report newscast.

The first complaint was about the July 24th edition of The Current. The program episode was entitled “Gazans want a ceasefire that does more than just end Violence.” You objected to the fact that you only heard the voices of Palestinians:

I listened to The Current, the version in the early morning. I heard the voices of Gazans who are suffering, especially the pain of those who lost family members in Beit Hanun. I didn't hear from any Israelis. Actually I don't recall one interview with anyone from the South. But it appears that the rocket that the media was so quick to accuse Israel of launching into Beit Hanun came from Hamas. Now, that may not be confirmed, yet, but how quickly CBC goes to accuse Israel.

You also were concerned about two editions of World Report. You thought that the edition of August 6 was “one sided” because the reporter only talked about the “problems there” (in Gaza) and did not mention the damage in Israel:

Never hear him talk about the damage in Israel. The more than a decade of bombs dropped on Southern Israel. The suffering of the children there many of whom have grown up knowing nothing but running for their lives when the sirens ring out. I never hear reports about damage from those rockets…

You said that CBC rarely, if ever, talked about the fact that “Hamas plants rockets in civilian areas even though those reports are now freely available as reporters with a conscience are starting to talk.”

You also complained about an interview about interfaith dialogue that followed the Gaza report that was “over the top.” You thought so because there can be no “interfaith dialogue when one side speaks to the need to destroy Israel and the Jews. Hamas and Fatah talk of this all the time. You cannot make peace with people who do not believe you have a right to exist. How nice it would have been if that had been mentioned, as that makes it so much more difficult for Jews to engage in a discussion about peace.”

You also felt that the August 24th edition of World Report showed bias, mostly by omission. You objected to the fact that a report from Derek Stoffel in Gaza began with the fact that Israel had bombed an apartment building and the introduction stated “Israel is ramping up its attacks on Gaza.” You pointed out that there was no mention of the fact that a four year old was being buried because of a rocket attack. You said the coverage, as usual, lacked context:

I am left wondering if CBC would have covered this and the burial if more Jews had been murdered? You left out the fact that Israel was responding to the bombing by Hamas on its citizens, citizens who have been under attack for more than 10 years.

In further correspondence you dismissed the fact that the death of the 4 year old was mentioned on newscasts. You felt there was an inherent bias because pictures were shown of Gazan destruction but CBC News did not show pictures of the town where the boy lived, nor provide coverage of his funeral.

You also were concerned about overall bias of the press in general and CBC in particular and shared an article from the Times of Israel about a statement from the Foreign Press Association there. The association had posted a statement that mentioned that some reporters had faced intimidation by Hamas authorities while working in Gaza. You asked Ms. McGuire for her thoughts “regarding the CBC and its possible participation in biased media reportage.” You noted there were reports that “reporters were muzzled and controlled by Hamas,” so you were concerned that CBC reporters were prevented from reporting freely and that further contributed to CBC’s one-sided coverage.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, responded to your concerns. He apologized for the length of time it had taken to respond to a series of emails to this office and to Ms. McGuire’s. He responded to your specific complaints, as well as making some general observations. He pointed out that Canadians have strong commitments to sometimes opposing points of view, especially on this particular story. He pointed out that there are two or more sides to a story:

It is understandable that those who espouse a given cause may not feel that other opinions on the subject have the same validity as their own. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are two sides to most stories, even (or perhaps especially) the conflict in the Middle East. The CBC has an obligation to cover issues fairly and truthfully, to inform our listeners (and viewers and readers) across the country about what is happening, without bias or prejudice, and without telling them what to think. Our coverage will not necessarily please all our listeners, but they do have a right to expect that we will be straightforward and honest. It is CBC’s responsibility to ensure that Canadians are given the opportunity and information they need to make up their own minds on the important issues of the day. And I believe we did that.

He answered your concerns that reporters were prevented from doing their jobs in Gaza because of intimidation and scrutiny of Hamas officials. In a later email you suppose that they moved about with Hamas finders. Mr. Nagler addressed the issue at some length. You had cited an article in the Times of Israel that noted the Foreign Press Association had put out a statement that reporters were harassed while working in Gaza. He provided more background, saying that the statement noted “several cases” where reporters were harassed. He then referenced other reports that said “all but a handful of the over 700 foreign journalists who worked in Gaza during the conflict reportedly said they were not muzzled.” He told you that CBC correspondents Derek Stoffel and Paul Hunter were not censored or supervised. Their difficulties were those encountered in working in a very dangerous war zone. He assured you that they would not and did not conceal anything.

He also responded to the specific broadcasts you found biased. He provided the context for the interview on the July 24th edition of The Current. He explained that summer host Andrew Chang interviewed two Palestinians, one now in Canada, the other still there, in the context of the search for a ceasefire. He pointed out that the two Gazans had divergent opinions on conditions for a ceasefire. One, Ayman Ayyad, had ten relatives killed in the fighting. He believed that there should be an unconditional ceasefire to end the killing. The other interviewee, Laila Abu Dhani, was trapped in Gaza, unable to go abroad for her graduate studies as she had planned. She believed that the lifting of the blockade of Gaza and other conditions had to be met before there should be a stop to the fighting. He said that telling these “compelling stories” helped a Canadian audience understand the conflict and how the issues are seen on the ground.

He added that two days earlier The Current had spoken with an Israeli resident of Beit Shemesh who talked about her own experience and that of her family and friends living under the constant threat of rocket attack. He said she provided a strong and clear image of that reality. He told you that the essence of fairness in journalism is ensuring that a range of voices are heard over time:

But let me emphasize that balance is not mathematical. Balance does not, for example, mean that every Palestinian voice must be immediately juxtaposed with an equally strong Israeli voice. It is a more sophisticated concept that can be achieved over a period of time. The important thing is to ensure that differing relevant points of view are treated in an equitable fashion. I believe THE CURRENT has done that.

He also pointed out that while you had said the interview involved someone who had lost family in Beit Hanoun, there was no reference to Beit Hanoun in the interview. Rather Mr. Ayyad’s family was in the neighbourhood of Shejaiyah.

He went on to address your criticism of two editions of World Report. He told you that Derek Stoffel’s August 6 report focused on the extent of the damage in Gaza because he was able to see the scope of it for the first time that day. A 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire had just begun. He reminded you that CBC News had reported the damage done by Hamas rockets in Israel, although many of them were intercepted or fell in vacant fields.

Mr. Nagler also explained that the death and damage in Gaza was “on a different scale, where some 20-25% of the houses in Gaza City were damaged or destroyed, a number that in Beit Hanoun reached 70% leaving tens of thousands homeless. That widespread damage was part of the story. Our correspondents would not be doing their job if they failed to report it.”

He replied to your concern about lack of context and missing information in a July 24 report from Derek Stoffel in Gaza. You pointed out that he began the report by saying Israel was “ramping up” its attacks, but did not say that it was responding to the bombing by Hamas which that weekend had claimed the life of a four year old child.

Mr. Nagler told you that the story you heard on the 6 or 8 a.m. editions of World Report focused on a report which said Israel was now targeting multi-story buildings, after first warning civilians to flee. He said that in the alternate editions of World Report, the items focusing on the conflict were quite different. In those, he said, there was a voice clip of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explaining the reasons for the attack, that there would be no immunity to those who fire at Israeli civilians. He wrote:

Then, Mr. Stoffel reported that Gaza militants continued to fire rockets and mortars into communities in the south of Israel. “Five Israelis were injured in a mortar attack today”, he said, explaining, “[Mortars] are smaller and faster than rockets. Meaning there’s much less time to seek shelter”.

He concluded the report this way: “A mortar attack on Friday killed a 4-year-old Israeli boy in a community on the border with Gaza. He was buried today”. Of course, reports on the same subject, even those heard a short time apart, often contain different information, fresh details or new perspectives, as was the case here.

REVIEW

The complaints I receive about Middle East coverage in general and this summer’s conflict in particular often invoke lack of context and omitted facts as proof of systematic bias. Often, people with a very strong set of beliefs feel there is an absolute and just truth, and that is how all the stories must be told. There are some verifiable facts; truth is more elusive. People tend to see and hear what is reported through the prism of their own belief systems. Their idea of what is balanced is similarly influenced.

Journalists covering and writing about these events have an obligation to provide as much information and as many relevant perspectives as possible to help citizens come to their own conclusions about a complex and complicated long-running story. Achieving all of this in the midst of a war, working under incredibly dangerous conditions, makes it even more difficult.

You are absolutely right when you ask for context. The question is how much and should one have the expectation of as much context in a breaking news story as in a more reflective piece. On a CBC radio (The Current) discussion about “Can the press ever get it right”, Kelly McBride, co-editor of “The News Ethics of Journalism” summarized the dilemma:

Context is everything in this particular narrative. And context is so incredibly difficult to get right in this particular story so when you focus on what’s happening today, you lose the context of the last 60 and 70 years of history with how we got to this point. And when you focus on the last 60 0r 70 years, you lose the drama of what’s happening today at this particular moment. So you have to be able to do both in the same moment and then if you are doing it in a broadcast context, you have to be able to do it in a very limited amount of time. And you have to deal with all the images and all the sound production needs as well…the people who do it well we should bow down and worship them because they do it so well….

CBC News’s Journalistic Standards and Practices provides the benchmark for getting it right in its commitment to fairness and balance. CBC journalists are obliged to present a range of perspectives on matters of public importance and controversy. They are obliged to achieve balance by presenting a range of views that is “represented over a reasonable period of time.” What that reasonable period of time is, is not spelled out. It is generally understood that on matters of some controversy that time period is shorter. It is reasonable to think that as long as a story or issue is part of the news agenda, a range of positions and stories will be featured.

The policy also allows for the professional assessment of the journalist, based on knowledge and expertise, and recognizes not every position is equal to every other. In this case, it was not so much opinion that you were objecting to, but the fact that in your view the level of destruction in Gaza trumped the ongoing threat of destruction to Israel posed by Hamas in the coverage. In response to Mr.Nagler you wrote that it’s true the destruction in Gaza was greater. However, you said:

Hamas started this with the abduction and murder and mutilation of three young Jewish students. And started bombing-as they are wont to do. Israel as a rule, did not respond, despite the terror in Southern Israel. Israel responded this time. The damage done in Gaza is not the fault of Israel. It was and is the fault of Hamas for placing their weapons in these places. It behooves your reporter to say that at every report. To put the destruction in context. This is not a competition. This is Hamas trying to annihilate Israel-as is written in their charter. That Hamas was not able to destroy more of Israel is not for lack of trying. It is that Israel spent billions to protect her citizens from terrorists- not militants-terrorists. The way the report is made makes it sound unfair. Like the number of Jews who died-not nearly as many as Gazans. I can almost hear the rebuke in the voice. Not enough dead Jews, not enough destruction of property in Israel.

Your position is certainly one that I heard from many others in the course of the conflict this summer. As I have outlined, CBC journalistic policy does not require every position to be reflected each time. There are others that see the situation as far more complex. The job of journalists is to provide information so that people can draw their own conclusions over time.

As to the specific radio broadcasts you cited:

On August 6, Derek Stoffel presented a piece from Gaza on World Report. He was able to leave the vicinity of his hotel because a 72-hour ceasefire was holding. He described the extent of the damage he found, and talked about the task and cost of rebuilding once the fighting stopped for a longer period of time. The other newsworthy information was that Norway was organizing a donor conference. By then the fighting had been going on for several weeks. While you say you never heard him talking about the destruction in Israel, or the suffering of Israelis, in that two week period there were stories of Israeli casualties, reports from Sderot, right near the border, and a range of military and government spokespeople giving Israel’s point of view and reason for the conflict. This report does not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

You also complained that the same day there was a report on interfaith dialogue. You observed that there could be no “peace with people who do not believe you have a right to exist.” Mr. Nagler said he could not find any discussion like this on World Report. That was because it was an item after World Report on CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning. Perhaps you misheard the introduction or the description of the guests. No one interviewed was denying the right of Israel to exist. As is part of its mandate, Metro Morning attempted to localize an international story. The programmers did so by interviewing two people, one Jewish and one Muslim, who are co-chairs of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. They head a group which tries to forge understanding and dialogue. While Shahid Akhtar felt the public discourse had not reflected the Muslim point of view, he also reiterated again and again the need for both sides to come together in dialogue. While you may not agree with his assessment, there is nothing in this story that in any way violates CBC policy. It brought knowledge and perspective that could provide insight to listeners.

You pointed to the lack of coverage of the funeral of a young child killed by a Hamas mortar as further proof of bias. You noted that instead correspondent Derek Stoffel reported on an Israeli hit on an apartment building. You objected to the fact that this particular attack was characterized as a “ramping up” of the Israeli offensive without explaining why. In the body of the report Mr. Stoffel explains that the Prime Minster said that “there will be no immunity for those that fire at Israel.” An hour later, he updated his story by saying that Hamas had kept up its attacks and that three more Israelis had been injured. He also mentioned the burial of a child who had been killed by a mortar the previous Friday. The death had been covered in other newscasts on Friday and Saturday. Reporting in a breaking story is iterative. While the death of a child is tragic, the lack of a detailed report on the death of this child is not evidence of bias at work. Once again, given the range of reports over the period of the fighting, this piece does not represent a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Your concerns about the interviews of two Palestinians regarding their feelings about a ceasefire were similar: too many Palestinian voices, not enough Israelis. Once again, the policy issues are the same – that balance and fairness are achieved over time. The Current did talk to Israelis who lived with the fear of daily attack. It ran excerpts of statements by the Israeli prime minister. It is not unreasonable to devote one episode to divergent Palestinian views about acceptable conditions for a ceasefire. There was no violation of policy.

Another of your concerns was more general. You felt that western reporters as a group, and CBC reporters in particular, could not possibly have done an objective reporting job because they feared retribution from Hamas. Neither Derek Stoffel nor Paul Hunter, the other CBC reporter to spend time in Gaza, experienced that direct supervision or intimidation. And while you cited one news report that said some reporters were harassed, another news report, this one from Ha’Aretz, mentioned by Mr. Nagler, reported that most did not have that experience. If anything, as the article is headlined, they said, “Hamas didn’t censor us, they were nowhere to be found.” The challenges they faced, both reporters told me, were the lack of access to Hamas officials, and the incredible danger they faced being in Gaza at all. Their movement was severely restricted, not by Hamas minders, as some believe, but by the danger of going out, or going to those sites that could have housed Hamas rocketeers and fighters.

Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks was asked why there were so many pictures of the damage done in Gaza, but so few of Hamas fighters and missiles. This is how he replied on a New York Times blog post:

This is a war fought largely behind the scenes. Hamas fighters are not able to expose themselves. If they were to even step a foot on the street they would be spotted by an Israeli drone and immediately blown up. We don’t see those fighters. They are operating out of buildings and homes and at night. They are moving around very carefully. You don’t see any signs of authority on the streets. If you can imagine every police officer, every person of authority in America gone, this is what that would look like. If we had access to them, we would be photographing them. I never saw a single device for launching the rockets to Israel. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Sometimes people assume that you can have access to everything, that you can see everything. But the fighters are virtually invisible to us. What we do as photographers is document what we can to show that side of the war. There are funerals, there are people being rushed to the hospital, but you can’t differentiate the fighters from the civilians. They are not wearing uniforms. If there is someone coming into the hospital injured, you can’t tell if that’s just a shopkeeper or if this is someone who just fired a rocket towards Israel. It’s impossible to know who’s who. We tried to cover this as objectively as possible.

Mr. Stoffel mentioned in a cbcnews.ca piece he wrote on August 8th that he had reported images of rockets fired at Israel. When they did see the trail of an outgoing rocket, they included it, he said, citing several reports. He also explained that Hamas did not let reporters anywhere near their fighters. He also said that they were denied interviews with Hamas leadership. It might be worth considering sharing more of this detail in daily reporting in the interests of full transparency. The reporters mentioned and featured Israeli military and government spokespeople addressing the issue of Hamas’s embedding rockets and command centres within civilian populations.

There can be a tendency to believe that if an issue is not covered in a way that coincides with one’s view on the matter, it is biased. The reality is far more complex. In the stories you brought to CBC News’s attention, there was no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman