Balance and Middle East reporting

The complainant, Harvey Oberfeld, thought a report on The National detailing the findings of a U.N. inquiry into the Gaza conflict was totally biased against Israel. The reporter conveyed all of Israel’s reaction and refutations of its findings. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

On June 22, 2015, The National broadcast a report from one of CBC News’s Middle Eastern correspondents, Sasa Petricic. He was reporting on the release of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry report into the war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza last summer. You thought the report “was one of the most disgustingly biased anti-Israel stories I have ever seen on CBC.” You said it was “one sided” in its scripting, its choice of visuals and its content.

You rejected the Executive Producer of the National’s explanation that it was balanced, and that not every story must achieve perfect balance, but rather that balance is achieved over time. You believe that any analysis of CBC News coverage of Gaza and Israel before, during and after the fighting in Gaza would reveal an anti-Israel bias.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Mark Harrison, the Executive Producer of The National replied to your concerns. He explained the report was based on the findings of the United Nations inquiry. He told you that Mr. Petricic was clear that “the report blames both sides for the carnage…,” although the report placed more blame on Israel. He added that the report included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the accusations. When it came to the number of casualties he reported the United Nations figure of 1400 as well as Israel’s statement that it is half that number. He told you Mr. Petricic also mentioned the six Israeli civilians who had died.

He told you that The National has reported extensively from Gaza and Israel, and over time that is how balance and fairness is achieved:

While CBC’s journalistic policy expects our coverage to balance differing points of view, it also acknowledges that balance can be achieved over a series of programs or over a period time.

REVIEW

The policies from CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices Mr. Harrison is referring to are balance and fairness:

Fairness

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.

Balance

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.

In reviewing The National report, I am puzzled why you saw it as so utterly unbalanced. Mr. Petricic was not reporting his opinion – he was sharing the findings of a United Nations report made public that day. This is made very clear in the introduction read by anchor Peter Mansbridge:

A United Nations report out today says Palestinian militants and Israel may both have committed war crimes in the Gaza conflict last year. U.N. investigators spent a year interviewing witnesses and victims and reviewing written submissions, but they were not allowed inside Israel and Gaza. And today politicians in both locations rejected the report’s conclusions.

From there on, Mr. Petricic is scrupulous in presenting the findings, with the reaction of both sides. The story actually starts off mentioning the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. There are images of the destruction of Gaza, and images of IDF soldiers and tanks. The images of the Gaza destruction and ambulances bringing in the wounded are powerful. The level of destruction and the death toll in Gaza was far greater than that in Israel. That is an accurate fact.

It was a challenge during the war and ongoing that no matter how balanced a script is, the images have more power. But reporters are not called on to distort reality by matching image for image, when no such equivalence exists. They are called on to present a diversity of views and perspectives. The story does so at every turn. It gives the findings of the report, then presents the views of the combatants. The fatality numbers are presented and then Israel’s position is mentioned, and so on throughout the piece:

SASA PETRICIC (REPORTER):
As rockets flew out of Gaza last summer aimed at Israeli communities, as airstrikes and shells rained on the Palestinian territory in response, it was civilians caught in the middle. Fourteen hundred Palestinian civilians were killed according to today’s United Nations report, though Israel has insisted the number is about half that. Six Israeli civilians died. The report blames both sides for the carnage, accusing both Israel and Palestinian militant groups like Hamas of probably committing war crimes. But most of the criticism is aimed squarely at Israel. In particular, it blames Israel for using weapons that were too powerful, too deadly in such a heavily populated area. That’s not illegal, says the commission, but the international community should insist that it’s wrong.

MARY MCGOWAN DAVIS (CHAIRPERSON, INQUIRY ON 2014 GAZA CONFLICT):
(Geneva) And further to hold accountable those who do not pay scrupulous attention to protecting the lives of civilians and civilian objects.

SASA PETRICIC (REPORTER):
Today Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected all responsibility, insisting his country does not commit war crimes.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL):
(Jerusalem) So Israel treats this report as flawed and biased and it urges all fair-minded observers to do the same.

The latter part of the piece revisits the home of a Palestinian family who lost a child on the beach in Gaza. Given the level of civilian deaths in Gaza, there is no journalistic reason not to seek the view of people affected by it. Although you think otherwise, CBC reporters have been careful to bring the views and experiences of people directly affected on both sides of this conflict. They are not obliged to do so in every story.

You raise the issue of systematic bias over time. Last summer during the conflict, I did monitor coverage for about a six-week period, starting with the kidnap and murder of the three Israeli teens through the Gaza war. I did not find systematic bias. I also conducted several reviews based on specific stories in the same time period. They were not perfect, and in some cases I did find violation of CBC policy. They are available on my website. This story does not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman