West Bank bias

The complainant, John Gilmore, thought that a news story about violence in the West Bank was biased because it did not present the Palestinian perspective. He cited the absence of the word “occupied” to describe the territories as one example, and felt the story did not make clear that under Canadian and international law the occupation is illegal. In this brief news story, there was some background, sufficient for one story in ongoing coverage.

COMPLAINT

You wrote because you thought there was “a glaring anti-Palestinian bias” in a story published on CBCNews.ca. The article originated from Associated Press and was entitled “5 Palestinians killed while trying to attack Israelis, Israel officials say.” You thought that because the word “occupied” does not appear in the story, it left the impression that “Israeli military and settlers have a right to be in the West Bank, and enforce checkpoints.” You pointed out that the “Jewish only settlements are illegal under international law,” as is the Israeli occupation of the territory. You added:

The occupation is the only reason for the attacks you are reporting. No occupation, no attacks. But the way AP has framed the story (and you have allowed it to run), the attacks appear to be random and inexplicable acts of violence.

You also objected to the phrase “Israeli rule” because it does not adequately reflect the illegal occupation. You said that “‘occupied territories’ is the widely recognized language” and is the official term of the Canadian government and the United Nations.

You added that there was not enough background to provide a context for the report, and what was there was “too little, too late.”

Context is everything in covering Israel-Palestine, and the CBC’s coverage is consistently poor and spotty. By opting to publish this AP story in isolation, while ignoring other news which help explain and contextualize the anger and despair of the Palestinians, the CBC is both abdicating its responsibility to its readers and prejudicing public opinion against the Palestinians and in favour of the Israelis.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Lianne Elliott, an executive producer with CBCNews.ca, replied to your concerns. She told you that she did not agree with your assessment of the AP news story. She agreed that the word occupied was not used, but she did not think this implied bias. She told you that the article still provided enough context for a reader to have the relevant background needed. She noted that “while the top six paragraphs of the 12-paragraph story detail the news of the day, the bottom six paragraphs give background about why the violence is happening.” She also noted that each side’s position was summarized within those six paragraphs.

She replied to your concern that the word rule was not strong or accurate enough to reflect the reality of the occupation. She said that the story contained information that made the situation clear:

. . . I would argue that this paragraph still makes the situation clear, particularly when coupled with the paragraph that follows that stresses that Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

  • “Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and built settlements there. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but nearly 600,000 Israeli settlers remain in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.”

She explained that this seemed an adequate amount of background and context for a brief news story. As she put it, the “background section isn’t extensive, but neither is this story itself.”

She pointed out that while this particular story was brief, CBC News has done a lot of other work on the region. She cited the example of a story prepared by Middle East Correspondent Derek Stoffel last fall which examined the current rise in violence. She said that “CBC News has covered the Israeli-Palestinian issue extensively over the past few months and years on TV, Radio and online, and I believe the body of our coverage has been thorough, contextual and even-handed.”

You responded that citing Mr. Stoffel’s series was like “comparing apples and oranges” because he wrote a feature, and not news. You pointed to many examples of stories you thought CBC should have covered. You rejected the characterization of CBC News coverage as thorough and even handed.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Policy is clear that on matters of controversy, balance and fairness is achieved over time:

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.

Ms. Elliott pointed out to you other examples of stories that did go into more depth. By definition features do that, and they form part of a broader coverage of an ongoing story. The expectations one has from a brief news report and longer features are different.

You note that context matters. I couldn’t agree more. The depth of that background or context varies, depending on the story or story format. So let’s consider the context of this piece. Ms. Elliott points out that it is a classic news piece – it begins with the latest news, and then provides some background to it. You reject this because it “ignores the fundamental rationale for the ‘inverted pyramid’ of news writing,” which this piece uses. You argue that the context is at the bottom and it could be cut or people might not read it. That may be the case, but it is there and it is written clearly. It could be cut, but it wasn’t. It is not reasonable to object to the format because some people may not read the entire article.

Nor is it reasonable to expect a brief news story to provide deep background. You can assume people might not read it. It would also be reasonable to assume, because of the extent of coverage and the length of time it has been covered, that most people would be aware that the West Bank is occupied. Coverage of the conflict is so long running and ubiquitous, it is reasonable to assume a certain base understanding from most readers. And even if they did not know, as Ms. Elliott pointed out, there is some background given. These are the last six paragraphs of the story:

In the last five months, Palestinian stabbings, shootings and vehicular assaults have killed 27 Israelis. At least 162 Palestinians, the majority of whom Israel says were attackers, have been killed by Israeli fire.

Israel says the ongoing violence is fuelled by a campaign of incitement by Palestinian leaders that is compounded on social media sites that glorify attacks. Palestinians say it stems from frustration at nearly five decades of Israeli rule and dwindling hopes for gaining independence.

Also Sunday, a watchdog group said Israel began building 1,800 new settlement homes in the West Bank in 2015.

Peace Now, an Israeli group that tracks settlement construction, said most of the building has taken place in isolated settlements in areas of the West Bank that Israel would likely evacuate in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and built settlements there. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but nearly 600,000 Israeli settlers remain in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Palestinians claim these areas as parts of a future state, a position that has wide global support. They view Israeli settlement construction as a major obstacle to resolving the conflict.

This does a reasonable job to provide a broad framework to what has been reported. No one news story can be expected to go in depth into a complex situation. It does not use the language you would use, but that does not make it biased or inaccurate or unfair.

I have stated before, when reviewing complaints related to the Middle East, that often these complaints invoke context or omitted facts as proof of systematic bias. People with strongly held views and opinions about this story have a very particular view of the narrative that should be told, and believe that there is an absolute and just truth. The reality is far more complex. There are some verifiable facts; the truth is a lot more elusive. As I have said before, people tend to see and hear what is reported through the prism of their own belief systems. It is the duty of CBC News reporters and editors to provide as many perspectives and narratives as they can, over a reasonable period of time. There was no violation of CBC journalistic policy in this report.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman