Gaza war: Telling two sides isn't taking sides

The complainant, Terry Greenberg, said CBC News coverage of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, especially this past summer, was biased, racist and misleading. His analysis was set against his own strong views of the primacy of the Palestinian cause. I found that CBC News coverage attempted to present the points of view and experiences of both Israelis and Palestinians, as is required by balanced journalism.

COMPLAINT

You sent a detailed critique of CBC News coverage of various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, encompassing the war in Gaza, the coverage of the kidnapping and deaths of three Israeli teens, the death of Palestinian teenagers, before and after the kidnapping, and the general approach to news in the region.

You said your analysis led you to the conclusion that CBC News was “racist, imbalanced and biased toward Israel, and misleading to the point of misinforming and deceiving the Canadian public.” You provided numerous examples, from headlines on stories to phrases used to describe various events. I will précis some of them here. Your blog provides more detail.

You thought CBC News coverage was racist because in a four-month period between May and August CBC News paid “disproportionate” attention to the “concerns, suffering and deaths of Israelis compared to the same issues involving Palestinians.” You pointed out that CBC provided “massive coverage” of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens but did not provide similar coverage of the shooting of two Palestinian youths the month before. You also thought that the coverage of the search for the Israeli youths did not report sufficiently about the violence perpetrated by Israeli forces against the Palestinians during their search for the teens and their abductors.

You explained that you thought CBC News coverage was unbalanced because it created a false equivalency:

Journalists are expected to take a balanced approach to complex issues, but if there is absolutely no balance in the situation being reported on, this so-called “balanced” reporting, becomes false and misleading. No journalist would insist on taking a balanced approach to reporting on the Holocaust, treating the Nazis with the same sympathy as their Jewish victims. The Israel – Gaza situation is just as off balance as that. There is absolutely no comparison in the amount of power, the amount of injustice, the amount of suffering and the amount of injuries and dying between the Israeli and Palestinian side. CBC’s treatment often tries to pretend there is some kind of symmetry where there is none.

You think an example of this false equivalency was evident in a headline that stated Hamas fired 160 rockets and Israel made 150 attacks but there is no mention that “the Hamas rockets are totally ineffectual” but Israel’s are very effective at killing. You also said that CBC News coverage detailed the kinds of rockets used by Hamas but never described Israeli weaponry.

You also said that context was provided selectively. CBC News stories provided Israeli reasons for attack, for example “in response to Hamas rockets”, but rarely did the stories provide Palestinian reasons:

There is good reason to believe that Israel had other motives in butchering 2,000 people in Gaza, and it was not JUST to respond to Hamas rockets, but CBC ignores all other possible motivations and just provides the Israeli propaganda explanation, over and over again. Hamas also has strong motives for attacking Israel, and they deserved being repeated at least as often as the Israeli claims were.

CBC often quoted the imbalanced claim from Israelis, and our own Canadian leaders, that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” But nowhere does CBC ever suggest that Palestinians have a right to defend themselves from Israeli atrocities such as the murderous, brutal “manhunt” in the West Bank in June.

You found the writing in CBCNews.ca stories “misleading and deceiving.” You thought that here too the language used favored Israel, adopted Israel’s view and failed to appropriately describe the suffering of the Palestinian people. You said that CBC said “Hamas fell short of accepting responsibility” (for the kidnapping) when the story should have read that they denied responsibility. You cited references of Hamas “seizing” power in Gaza, when in fact they won the election in 2006.

You concluded your analysis by saying:

Personally I think the Israeli narrative bears virtually no relation to reality, but of course, I might be wrong. However there is another narrative that CBC should be giving at least equal time.

That is that Israel is a settler-colonial state. Jewish settlers who had virtually no genetic connection to the land, have driven the indigenous people off the land, and are conducting a slow-motion campaign of ethnic cleansing, which involves a tremendous amount of abuse, injustice and killing. Israel does not recognize its own borders; because it is constantly expanding by stealing more Palestinian land. It is not peace-loving, because it can only achieve its objective of capturing all of historic Palestine, by continuing warfare against the remaining Palestinians.

In this narrative, Palestinians are the victims, not the Israelis. In this narrative, Palestinians have the right of self-defence, not the Israelis. In this narrative, Palestinian teenagers are the heroes when killed fighting Israeli soldiers, not the Jewish teenagers hitchhiking on occupied land to their extremist Jewish settlement. In this narrative, Israelis are the terrorists, not Hamas. In this narrative, Israel is not responding to Hamas rocket fire when it bombs Gaza, it is furthering its campaign of ethnic cleansing. In this narrative Israelis are not defending themselves, but actually trying to stir up more violence from the Palestinians so that they can steal more land. (You do not defend yourself from people by killing their children. You just make more enemies that way).

Nowhere in CBC’s reporting do I see any hint of the counter-narrative to the Zionist narrative. Any reasonable examination of the Zionist narrative reveals that it is refuted by logic and denied by the facts, so it is reasonable to expect CBC to see the holes in it, and question it, and even provide some hints of the reasonable counter-narrative outlined above. More than anything else, this is proof that CBC’s reporting is imbalanced.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director for Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns in some detail.

He rejected “categorically and unconditionally” any characterization of CBC News content as “racist.” He then addressed your concerns that coverage of Israeli stories was “disproportionate.” He explained that it is hard to make valid comparisons, because “no two stories are the same.” He referred to your examples of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens and the report of the shooting of two Palestinian youths:

They might involve the same kind of event, a car crash, or a bank robbery, or an abduction, say, but the circumstances, the people involved and the consequences will be different. And those differences will merit different coverage, even substantially different coverage, which is why meaningful comparison is so difficult, especially in the example you cited where one story continued for weeks and the other was over in hours.

He elaborated by pointing out that the two Palestinian teens were killed during a day of protest, Nakba Day, in which there were 12 Palestinians killed in all and many others injured. The stories CBC News had online that day focused on that larger event. He added that there was a follow up to the teens’ death when human rights groups publicized the fact that autopsies showed they were killed by live ammunition, not rubber bullets.

He disagreed that the coverage of the search for the three Israeli teens ignored the impact of the manhunt on Palestinians. He cited stories in which there were reports of the number of Palestinians detained, the extent of the searches, and the restrictions imposed on Palestinian residents. A June 25 story reported on accusations that Israel was being criticized by human rights groups because the actions of the military amounted to collective punishment.

He rejected your definition of imbalance, and the suggestion that providing Israeli and Palestinian perspective created some sort of false equality, and your comparison to Nazi Germany:

If I understand it correctly, the implication of your analogy – which appears to equate Israel with Nazi Germany – is that we should not cover the Israeli side of the conflict, but only report the death, suffering and damage Israel has inflicted on Gaza.

A moment’s reflection should confirm that such a comparison, to use your phrase, is “false and misleading”, as well as offensive to many. Such one-sided coverage would properly be labeled propaganda, not journalism. Our coverage should fairly and accurately reflect what our journalists see on both sides of a conflict. That the number of deaths in Gaza was far higher than the number of Israeli deaths and that the wide-scale destruction and damage wreaked by Israel in Gaza was unmatched by that inflicted on Israel would be abundantly clear to anyone following the conflict on any CBC News platform.

He pointed out that even if news stories did not specifically outline the type of weaponry Hamas was using, it would not be lost on anyone following the news that this was an “asymmetrical conflict between irregular forces and a traditionally organized army.”

He told you that your contention that it was wrong to say “Hamas stopped short of accepting responsibility,” because in fact they denied it was incorrect because you took the phrase out of context. He told you “in full the sentence says: ‘Hamas, meanwhile praised the apparent kidnapping, but stopped short of responsibility.’” In that context, he said, the phrase takes on a different meaning. He disputed your contention that it was incorrect to characterize Hamas as “seizing power” in Gaza because they won the 2006 election. He told you:

“In fact, Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election defeating Fatah. The two formed a national unity government early in 2007, but it was dissolved shortly afterward when Hamas seized government offices in Gaza throwing out Fatah officials.”

He explained that CBC journalism is obliged to reflect a broad range of views and opinions, and that CBC News coverage of the Gaza war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did just that.

REVIEW

Like many other complaints I receive about Middle East coverage, the charge is one of lack of context, and uneven representation of the two sides in the conflict. CBC Journalistic Policy provides a clear guide for the expectations of the coverage of any controversial issue. The purpose of the reporting and analysis is to “inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public policy.” I could add to that issues that are in the news or are meaningful to Canadians. This information is to be given in a way that is accurate, balanced, and fair.

It is worth a reminder how the CBC code defines both fairness and balance. For fairness, it says:

In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

And balance is described as:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

Were CBC News to follow your prescription: to refrain from talking about Israeli concerns because they create a false equivalence, to avoid words you find offensive, and to use your value judgments, they would not be creating journalism, they would be creating polemics.

CBC coverage is not racist. And I, like Mr. Nagler, find your comparison to Nazi Germany inappropriate and offensive.

You said that CBC obsessively covered the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens. An archive search turns up about half a dozen stories, from the time they went missing to when their bodies were found. Most of those stories talk about the extent of the ground operation on the West Bank that ensued, the numbers of Palestinians arrested and killed, and included first-hand accounts of people whose homes were searched. The text was accompanied by images of heavily armed Israeli soldiers and tanks.

You are concerned CBC News did not adequately portray the suffering of Gazans during the 50 day war. There were daily reports from Gaza showing the destruction, the overcrowded hospital, the overwhelmed first responders, and the stories of people frightened and homeless. There were also stories that portrayed the Israeli experience of the conflict: the burial of the dead, the fear of people during frequent air raids, the few hits of structures and dwellings. It is the obligation of news coverage to reflect the reality on the ground. You say the coverage did not emphasize the unequal nature of the struggle, in terms of fire power. It didn’t have to explicitly say so. The pictures, the stories and the events provided the information people needed to draw their own conclusions.

You also pointed out that there were many more Israeli voices than Palestinian ones. You have identified a challenge for reporters. During the fighting, it was generally very difficult to see or talk to any Hamas fighters or their leaders. Hamas officials do not readily make themselves available to foreign reporters. You are right that doesn’t excuse the need to provide that perspective. Reporters are mindful of that problem and try to find others who can provide the needed perspective. Certainly both Paul Hunter and Derek Stoffel in their time in Gaza sought out the people living there to bring their stories to light. CBC News and current affairs programming has presented debates and discussions with a variety of Palestinians over time. I note that Mr. Stoffel has been back in Gaza since the cessation of fighting to tell the ongoing story.

You question the lack of context. This is probably the biggest challenge in covering this story, especially when there is breaking news. In a story that has been going on as long as this one, and is as complex, it is difficult sometimes to balance the news, as in the latest developments, with the background and context that inform it. That, rather than any systematic bias, is the challenge of Middle East coverage. From time to time, I have reviewed individual items that violated policy. It often is because in that particular story there wasn’t enough context, or that there needed to be some sort of balance within the story, rather than over time. However, CBC News, in its ongoing coverage, and taken as a whole, is not in violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman