Watch your language - finding the right words to cover conflict in the Middle East.

The complainant, Hanna Kawas, Chair of the Canada Palestine Association, accused CBC News staff of adapting coverage of the Land Day protests on the Israel-Gaza border to meet the dictates of a pro-Israel advocacy group. He thought the coverage downplayed the deaths of Palestinians and contained inaccuracies. Language usage around this conflict is always fraught - any language changes made were consistent with CBC New’s own guidelines.

The stories reported the facts appropriately as events unfolded.

COMPLAINT

You are the Chair of the Canada Palestine Association. You had a range of concerns regarding reports on the ongoing protests at the Israeli-Gaza border. You believe that CBC News staff is unduly influenced by a “pro-Israeli lobby.” You said they “succumb to their dictates, propaganda and falsehoods.” You thought the language used to report the clashes was aimed at downplaying Israeli actions and represented CBC’s attempts to “obscure Israel’s premeditated killing of unarmed protestors.” You cited the use of words such as “clashes,” “confrontations” and “rock throwing” to make your point. Specifically, you were concerned by coverage by Derek Stoffel from the Israel-Gaza border on March 30, 2018. You quoted the introduction and then Mr. Stoffel’s words:

“Israeli forces responded with force against rock throwing Palestinian protesters, at least seven Palestinians have been killed, hundreds more has been wounded.”

And then your correspondent Derek Stoffel reported:

“some of those men were throwing stones and Molotov cocktail at the Israeli forces on the other side and they responded with tear gas with rubber bullets and in some cases with live ammunition…”.

You thought he deliberately downplayed the use of live ammunition, which you believe is part of a pattern to distort and downplay Israeli actions.

In a similar vein, you noted an AP story published on the CBC News website the same day.

The story was headlined At least 15 killed as Gaza-Israel border protest turns deadly.” You objected to the sub-head “‘Right of return’ mass sit-in organized by Hamas escalated into rock-slinging, tear gas firing.” You said it was “blaming the victim.”

The second aspect of your complaint was the assertion that CBC News, and Mr. Stoffel in particular, “followed the dictates of the Zionist lobby group ‘HonestReporting’” with regards to language referring to Palestinian refugees. The issue you cited was a complaint HonestReporting Canada made:

They complained in regards to this report, that “it’s false to claim that in the 1948 war that ‘hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948…’”.

You believe HonestReporting Canada “dictated” acceptable terminology, which was that it was correct to say people were displaced and that journalists should say people voluntarily fled - and that it was unfair to state they were forced out.

You pointed to a later report by Mr. Stoffel as proof he was doing the bidding of an outside organization:

And sure enough, the same day, in a later report, Mr. Stoffel corrected himself and he stated after stumbling briefly, that the protesters were “demanding the right of return, that people head to their homes…where they had to ‘flee’ when the state of Israel was created.”

You also referred to another conflict in the use of language. You stated HonestReporting Canada objects to Israeli Arabs being referred to as Palestinians. You said that after referring to six Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, a subsequent report referred to “six Arab Israelis.”

You see this as a pattern of obscuring the truth, reflecting only the position of the Israeli government, and acquiescence to advocacy groups like HonestReporting Canada.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Director of CBC News, Jonathan Whitten, replied to your concerns. He explained that all through the day of March 30th, Mr. Stoffel filed multiple reports about events occurring during the Land Day protest at the Israel-Gaza border. The report you cited was broadcast on News Network at 6:40 a.m. EST and he noted that the level of violence escalated as the day went on - which was reflected in the reporting. In that first report he mentioned that one Palestinian had been killed before the demonstrations began and noted a report of a second person who had been killed. Two hours later, he told you that Mr. Stoffel filed another report, reflecting the growing number of casualties. In that report he stated that at least 7 Palestinians had been killed and hundreds wounded, and concluded by quoting Israeli human rights organizations were demanding an investigation into the Israel Defense Forces use of live ammunition. He did not agree that the reporting distorted reality or attempted to downplay the violence.

He told you the AP story you referenced also changed throughout the day, as is always the case in breaking news situations. He said the headline changed to reflect the growing number of casualties, but that the sub-head - “‘Right of return’ mass sit-in organized by Hamas escalated into rock-slinging, tear gas firing” - did not change and probably should have to better reflect the developing story. He did not agree it was prejudicial:

However, there is nothing in the existing sub-headline that could reasonably be understood as indicating causality. It simply says that the protest has “escalated into rock-slinging, tear gas firing”, giving equal weight to activities on both sides of the fence.

He addressed your concerns about CBC’s independence and your assertion that language was amended throughout the day to conform to the dictates of HonestReporting Canada:

To the extent that Derek changed wording as the fast moving events of the day unfolded, it was to bring that wording into line with our own language guide. The current guide is based on a careful review of Israeli and Palestinian positions on language, on applicable international law, on usage recommended by the United Nations, on editorial guidelines published by respected news organizations, and input from our foreign correspondents. We do this to assist our journalists so that they live up to our principle of impartiality. Our goal is to provide information and context so that people can draw their own conclusions on the controversies of the day. These guidelines offer suggestions for language that will avoid taking sides.

He added that the two examples of CBC language usage being questioned by HonestReporting Canada were two of hundreds from the organization which accuse CBC of bias. He said CBC News staff look at each of them, as they do other criticisms or accusations of other sides in the conflict. They adjust the work when they have made errors or violated CBC journalistic policy.

In relation to your concern about a description of the events of 1948, the CBC language guide suggests using the phrase that Palestinians “fled or were forced from their homes.” It is used because it “neither endorses nor opposes the right of return.” He added if you heard Mr. Stoffel use different language in a later report, it is because in the course of live reporting sometimes there are deviations, but the phrase he used in the evening report has been CBC practice for years.

REVIEW

You are correct that reporters and editors must carefully weigh and consider the language used in areas of conflict. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices calls for fairness and balance - a representation of a range of perspectives, but also full independence in its own choices. Like other news organizations, CBC News staff must navigate between the strongly-held views of the various sides in this conflict and yet use language which is accurate and clear. As Mr. Whitten told you, CBC’s choices are based on the considerations of those ranges of views - as well as best practices from well-respected news organizations and news institutes, and recommendations of their own foreign correspondents. I appreciate that you strongly see the matter in a particular way - and you consider it the correct one - but there is more than one view and layers of complexity and nuance.

The International Press Institute, an organization dedicated to press freedom and excellence in existence since 1950, published a guide for reporters covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was published in 2013 but is still relevant. Its purpose is to provide journalists with background and knowledge, and to suggest words that accurately reflect the conflict and its issues - without buying into any agenda. It acknowledges that each side in the conflict seeks to use words that endorse and confirm their narrative and view of the conflict. The challenge is to navigate that reality. The preface to the document puts it this way:

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been going on for several bloody and violent decades, sustained by negative and traumatic experiences on both sides. It often dictates the region’s agenda and naturally receives extensive media coverage. A society engrossed in conflict is going to be biased and will channel most of its negative energies against those whom it perceives to be its enemies. A society in conflict will delegitimize and stereotype the other while nurturing a sense of patriotism, victimhood, and righteousness.

Those observations are directed at reporters in the region, but are equally true of supporters in the diaspora. Journalists must be mindful of the connotations of certain words. They are not obliged to use the terms preferred by one side or the other, just as they are not obliged to champion or reflect one interpretation of the conflict. Your observations are one point of view - one that has been captured in the reporting over a long period of time - along with a range of views of Israelis.

Mr. Whitten told you the CBC language guide described people displaced in 1948 and later wars as Palestinians “who fled or were forced from their homes.” The reasons he gave for this phrasing are valid in light of CBC’s journalistic policy on fairness, balance and impartiality.

The second language issue you raised had to do with the use of the term “Arab Israelis” rather than Palestinians to describe the six people killed in 1976 - which is what Land Day commemorates. The IPI guide has this to say on the use of the term Israeli-Arab:

This term is sometimes used to refer to members of the Arab/Palestinian minority residing within the State of Israel, and who hold Israeli citizenship. Media use several names for this population: the Arabs of Israel, the Arab sector, Arabs in Israel, the Arab minority, the Arab–Palestinian minority, etc.

It recommends the use of either descriptor in this way: “Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel” - it would seem that either is acceptable. The CBC Middle East language guide does not list a preferred usage. CBC news managers might want to provide some guidance. I am told that it has been CBC practice to use the term “Israeli Arab” and that is the reason it was changed - to be consistent with that practice.

The other important principle at work here is the reality that news stories are iterative, especially when it comes to breaking news. Mr. Whitten pointed out to you that there were multiple reports that day and information and emphasis changed as events unfolded. The coverage of the Land Day protests evolved and reflected facts as they became known. The lead on The National piece, read by Ian Hanomansing, began with the report of 15 dead and 1,400 wounded. Your concern about the AP story on the CBC website was that it somehow implied the killing was the fault of the demonstrators. In fact, the first part of the headline in the last update was “At least 15 killed as Gaza-Israel border protest turns deadly,” which puts in the emphasis on the death toll. That demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails is part of the report, as is the presentation of the fact that Israeli forces used live ammunition which caused deaths and injury. The mention of the protestors’ activities does not imply blame. The piece itself has multiple voices from a range of perspectives. As is appropriate, the report presents what happened - it is the reader or viewer who forms his or her own conclusion. In at least one report Mr. Stoffel included the information that Israeli human rights organizations were calling for an investigation.

The reality for this news service - and most others who try to present facts and analysis in a fair way - is that it will be attacked by those with a strong commitment to a point of view and narrative. Anything that does not conform to it is often considered unfair or biased. It has been the practice of this office to consider all complaints and judge them on their individual merits. I can tell you that Mr. Whitten is correct when he says the two examples you cite, quoting HonestReporting Canada's assertion that they have influenced the reporting, is two of many that come to this office. They also come from other interest groups. There is no merit to your contention that CBC News is beholden to any side in this conflict.

CBC News and current affairs have presented many stories and interviews which reflect the views and analysis of both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. The stories did not violate CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman