Violence on the Temple Mount: The challenge of balancing background and news

The complainant, Paul Appleby, thought a story about a clash on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem lacked context and misrepresented the cause of the violence. I agreed the story was not clear enough and did not provide adequate context.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about a report from Jerusalem broadcast on World Report on the morning of July 27, 2015. It concerned a violent disturbance on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem the day before. You said that by “omitting the context” the report left listeners with the impression that the event, as well as other violent clashes, was provoked by Jews. You explained:

The Arabs have been verbally abusing and threatening all Jews who visit the Temple Mount. And Jews are not allowed to pray there.

The mere presence of Jews on the site is a provocation to the Arabs. This should have been in the report.

You also noted that the reporter mentioned that the violence on July 26 might have been provoked by a Jewish woman who had visited a few days earlier and had yelled an insult about Islam to the Arabs who were present. You pointed out that this was just part of the picture, and that while there is a history of conflict over this site, this “did not exempt the CBC from more accurately reporting the truth about individual incidents”:

. . . the journalist forgot to include the context of that prior incident, [the woman yelling an insult] which was documented on video. The Arabs had been insulting and threatening violently the group of Jews made up of women, children, and infants, for some 40 minutes before the Jewish woman lashed back verbally. (For an account of that incident see http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/198689#.VbaAKrNViko)

You wanted CBC News to do a follow-up report which would provide adequate context, “past and current.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Paul Hambleton, the Managing Editor for CBC Radio and Television News, agreed with your assessment that there should have been more context when he replied to your concerns. He said providing more context would have “put this latest confrontation into a wider perspective.”

He noted that it is impossible to sum up all the issues that led to the confrontation because the reasons are so “complicated and enduring”:

That said, the disturbance may have been better understood if we had reminded our audience that this important religious site for Jews, and Muslims, (and Christians too) is based right in old Jerusalem, but actually managed by a Muslim organization from Jordan, and as you point out, Jews are not allowed to worship there. That fact alone would help the listener better understand the tensions are about more than just adjoining religious sites, but about who controls the area.

Despite the lack of context, he felt the story did not take sides in attributing the reason for the incident:

There is no sense that one side was more to blame than another in that report, weighing an incident a few days back against the well prepared Palestinian protesters, with the reminder that this is a long running feud.

He informed you he had talked to the reporter about the story, and he too agreed that some more background would have improved the report.

REVIEW

One of the many challenges in reporting on controversial and ongoing stories is judging how much context is needed in any given piece. That is one of the issues you raise here and it is an important one. Mr. Hambleton told you that there is an assumption of some basic knowledge when listeners hear stories such as these. You question that assumption. Given the brevity of radio news reports and the ongoing nature of a story there is a necessity, and not an unrealistic one, that the audience has at least some grasp of the issues at play.

This was a story about one incident of confrontation on the Temple Mount. The area is holy to Jews, Arabs and Christians. Muslims refer to it as Haram al-Sharif. It contains the Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain and the al-Aqsa Mosque. It is also the holiest site in Judaism. It is an ongoing flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Israel controls access to the area, and is responsible for security. Muslims are allowed to pray there, although for security reasons access can be limited or denied for periods of time. The site itself is administered by a Jordanian religious authority. Members of other faiths and Jews are permitted to visit. Jews are not permitted to pray at the site.

Over the years there have been provocations from both sides, and from time to time violence flares. In the days leading up to the events of July 26, indeed some Jews had gone to the site, and in video that was widely distributed, they are being followed and yelled at by groups of Muslims. One of the women, Avia Morris, was arrested a day or so after she yelled “Mohammed is a pig” in response.

Tensions were already high in the days before the incident in the World Report story. It also happened to be just before a Jewish religious observance on the ninth day of Av, which is a day of mourning in commemoration of the destruction of the Temples. It is a day in which many Jewish Israelis go to the Western Wall, located below the Temple Mount, to pray.

Early in the morning of July 26, according to Israeli police, some officers entered the compound of the al-Aqsa Mosque based on intelligence that a group of young men had barricaded themselves in with the intent of attacking Jewish visitors later in the day. There was a confrontation.

CBC News ran a piece prepared by Tom Parry the following day. Mr. Parry had just arrived in Jerusalem to fill in for the regular reporter. He prepared the broadcast based on secondary sources, as he himself was not there. While this is accepted practice, it puts the reporter at a disadvantage because he or she has no real context about what is important or not to convey about the event. This is what listeners heard that morning:

Intro: Violence flared in Jerusalem over the weekend at a site considered sacred by both Jews and Muslims. Israeli police clashed with youth at the al-Aqsa mosque in the old city. They came as Jewish worshippers marked a religious holiday. Tom Perry reports.

(Clashing sounds) Video released today by Israeli police shows officers in riot gear using plastic shields to protect themselves from rocks being pelted at them by young Palestinians. Police respond with stun grenades and push the protesters back inside the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest shrines. The clash unfolded as Jewish worshippers marked a religious holiday near the site which they also regard as sacred. Three Palestinians were arrested. Police say four officers were injured though none seriously. Micky Rosenfeld speaks for the Israeli police.

Rosenfeld: Police units entered inside the Temple Mount area in order to deal with disturbances and quickly took control of the situation.

Israeli media say this clash may have been brought on in part by a young Jewish woman who a few days ago shouted an anti-Muslim insult at the site. But access to this place, hallowed ground to both religions, has long been a point of contention for both Muslims and Jews. This latest flare-up subsided quickly but it’s a reminder of the lingering tensions that still remain here and at times boil over. Tom Parry, CBC News Jerusalem.

Mr. Hambleton was correct when he said that there should have been more context. This event did not occur in a vacuum. Even some reference to events in the days leading up to it, or the overall tensions about access and provocation from both sides, would have been useful. There is no expectation of a history or thorough exploration of the issue, but it is possible to provide a bit more information to make sense of one more episode of unrest. It is easier for reporters to do when they have actually been present. Then they are able to use their professional skills to synthesize and emphasize certain details to enable the audience to judge and make sense of what they are hearing. That is what CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices expects of CBC reporting. This fell short.

I think listeners to this piece would understand that its causes are more complex than the action of one woman. I do not infer from it that one side or the other is responsible for “the lingering tensions that remain here.” Most of the information conveyed is from the perspective of an Israeli police spokesperson. The reference to the possible role of the “young Jewish woman” in Israeli media is puzzling. It is out of context. In a situation as complex and ongoing as this one, why mention it at all. I found one reference, in a Jerusalem Post article, about the incident:

After rioting engulfed the Temple Mount on Sunday, the Ninth of Av, a traditional day of mourning in Judaism, some have said the riots were instigated by a Jewish visitor to the Temple Mount who was shown on camera saying “Mohammad is a pig.” What would drive someone to make a statement like this?

The incident involving Ms. Morris was given prominent coverage in Israeli media around the time of the clashes on July 26. Or to be more precise, in Israeli media I was able to access in English. It is logical that the series of confrontations earlier in the week had inflamed an ongoing state of tension. But it seems a bit of a leap to point the finger at this one woman, especially without further explanation. Even the explicit reference in the Post piece is pretty weak. “Some say” is not the highest quality journalism.

CBC Journalistic policy makes this commitment:

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

This World Report broadcast did not live up to that commitment.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman