“Skepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked,” Salman Rushdie once said.
If the connection between the two isn’t immediately apparent, consider the venue for his comments: a convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). Freedom depends on quality journalism, Rushdie seems to be saying, and quality journalism depends on skepticism.
If the press is necessary so that readers can “make judgments on the issues of the time,” as the ASNE ethics code says, then “every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly,” as the same ethics code also says. The fuel for that effort, and the tool for achieving that accuracy, is skepticism.
After all, what is journalism without skepticism? A description of sights, sounds and smells encountered by a reporter? Or worse yet, a swamp of press releases and talking points, both true and false, in which a reader is left to sink?
Journalists generally understand the need for skepticism. Headline after headline on the Poynter Institute website refers to the concept: “Why real-time journalism requires healthy dose of skepticism”; “Why journalists should be skeptical about autopsy reports”; “Journalists suspend skepticism about sourcing with news of bin Laden’s death.”
“Hone your skeptical reporting skills,” the Television Digital News Association told members after a particularly embarrassing incident in which they were duped about the names of pilots involved in an Asiana Airlines crash. In a debate between American and British journalists, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, about who is better at their craft, the word “skepticism” comes up repeatedly.
A CNN piece describing and sharing the video practically gushed. The film “highlights plight of Gaza.” Using “sharp irony,” it “shines a spotlight on the suffering of ordinary Palestinians.” It provides a “reality check.”
But a reality check is what reporters are supposed to bring to the table. So when CNN passes to readers Banksy’s claim that Palestinians are “not allowed to leave” Gaza (in fact, Egypt occasionally opens its border crossing with the territory and Israel entry to Gazans for humanitarian purposes), that “no cement has been allowed into Gaza since the bombing” (thousands of tons enter the territory every day), and that images of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank actually depict Gaza — and when the reporter herself added a falsehood of her own in claiming that 3 Israeli civilians were killed (it was twice as many) during the 2014 fighting between Hamas and Israel — without checking the facts, the network shirks its responsibilities.
The Irish Times and South Africa’s Mail & Guardian were among the outlets to publish a Reuters piece that had conveyed the films errors without letting readers know they were errors. “A subtitle says no cement has been permitted into Gaza since the conflict ended,” the reporter states. “It
also shows Israeli soldiers on patrol, apparently during their invasion of Gaza,” he erroneously adds. And picking up on what Bansky insinuates, the reporter described the film as saying that Gaza “is hemmed in on four sides by its ‘friendly neighbours’ the Israelis,” another falsehood that ignores Egypt’s border with Gaza.
But Reuters would separate itself from the pack, eventually updating its story to include a bit of real reporting. The “friendly neighbors” reference was changed to note that Israel patrols Gaza’s borders “apart from a closed crossing with Egypt.” To Banksy’s claim that no cement was allowed into Gaza, the reporter appended a fact check: “However, small amounts of cement are now entering the territory under an agreement struck by the United Nations allowing in reconstruction materials under tight restrictions.” And finally, the story added a fact-check about the footage of Israeli soldiers. “The film also shows Israeli soldiers on patrol, giving the impression they are in Gaza,” the piece now says. “The troops actually are operating at the Qalandia checkpoint in the West Bank, well known for its mural of Yasser Arafat, which appears in the Banksy video.”
The updated Reuters report wasn’t perfect. But it appeared to be the only one that (eventually) introduced the skepticism expected from professional news reporting.
Otherwise, the largely giddy journalistic response to Banksy’s video was a travesty. Just as Banksy in his video took a partisan polemic and dressed it up as a travel advertisement, too many reporters took an advertisement for Banksy’s video and dressed it up as news reporting.