Think about how a typical newspaper reader would react to being informed of the following:
"Last year, a tank fired a shell at a group of kids playing soccer, severely injuring one young boy. The child is now in Philadelphia for treatment."
Chances are, the reader would be dismayed, even outraged, that children playing games would be the target of such serious firepower. And understandably so.
Now, what if this typical person instead read the following:
"Last year, just after a barrage of rockets and mortars were fired from hostile enemy territory, tanks entered this territory to stop the attacks. Earlier that month, such rockets had struck the courtyard of a daycare center and an army training base, causing many injuries. A militant from the hostile area fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the tank, drawing return fire. In the midst of this firefight, a young boy came out of his house for a closer look. A tank shell aimed toward the weapon-toting militant hit its target and also injured the boy. The child is now in Philadelphia for treatment."
The reaction to this scenario would likely be significantly different. The reader would have a much deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation and, even if angered by the tragic collateral damage, would at least realize the civilian injury was inadvertent.
The difference between the two examples, of course, is context; omitting it from a news story can distort as much as inserting false information.
And distortion through lack of context is exactly what readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer were treated to today when reading the front page story, "Limbs lost, life regained," by Michael Matza. (The online version of the article is titled "Torn apart in Gaza, teen gets therapy here.")
The article, which discusses the free care given at Shriners Hospital for Children to Palestinian teen Asaad Mahmoud, states:
Mahmoud is from Beit Hanoun, a northern Gaza farming village. He was playing soccer a year ago, he said, when he and friends were injured by an Israeli tank shell. Within hours of the explosion, his crushed limbs were surgically removed.
With little more information about the incident, readers are left with the impression that an Israeli tank, for some unknown reason (or maybe for no reason at all?) targeted game-playing youths with tank fire.
The reality is much more complicated, and omitting key information deceives readers especially since, in September 2008, they are unlikely to remember what September 2007
was like in the south of Israel. That month, not long after Israel had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, 70 rockets and 132 mortars were fired from that territory into Israel.
That, on average, amounts to almost seven projectiles launched every single day, terrorizing the Israelis living in the southwest of the country. On Sept. 3, seven Qassam rockets were fired, and one landed in the courtyard of a daycare center. The following week, a rocket launched from near Assad's hometown of Beit Hanun landed in an Israeli army base, injuring dozens of soldiers as they slept.
On the day of the incident described in the Inquirer, Palestinians fired another large barrage of rockets and mortars toward Israel, prompting the Israeli incursion. According to the Associated Press,
Israeli tanks entered the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, in apparent response to a barrage of rocket and mortar fire from the area earlier that day.
An Israeli tank shell struck a house in Beit Hanoun and another fell near a group of militants and civilians, witnesses and doctors said, killing one man and wounding at least 11 people. Three of the wounded were in critical condition, doctors at Beit Hanoun's hospital said.
Witnesses said militants had fired a rocket-propelled grenade from the area of the house at a tank, drawing the return fire. (Associated Press Worldstream, "Four Gaza militants killed in Israeli airstrike, 9/26/07)
It seems that Mahmoud was one of the civilians caught in this crossfire.
In fact, although Michael Matza writes that Mahmoud says he was playing soccer, the boy himself described a dramatically different scenario only a few weeks after the incident. An Oct. 26, 2007 story by Gideon Levy of Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper notes:
Assad speaks in a weak monotone, simply recounting what happened to him on September 26, on the eve of our Sukkot holiday: "I got up in the morning and went to school. I came home from school and did homework, and then I heard that the army was coming in. I went outside to see what was happening. A lot of children went toward the tanks, a lot of tanks. There was shooting between the armed men and the tanks. I was scared but I stayed to watch. The kids moved toward the tanks and all of a sudden the tank fired a shell. The shell landed in the middle of the street. There were five people killed and 20 wounded ... I remember that the Israelis fired, I flew into the air and fell on the ground."
Did Matza research the subject he was writing about? Did he look into the discrepancy between the claim the boy was playing soccer and what the boy himself had described, in detail, shortly after the incident an account that seems to match that of other witnesses interviewed by the Associated Press? If so, why did he deem the revised story about soccer to be more credible?
Regardless, the context of the battle is essential.
When challenged about lack of context, newspapers are quick to cite space limitations. But context is an issue no less important than space. And in fact, both concerns could have been easily accommodated if, for example, the newspaper had removed one marginally important phrase "He loved riding in Bouchnak's sleek BMW convertible roadster. He loved eating tilapia, a fish he can't get at home" and replaced it with the equally brief phrase, "The tank fired after being attacked by militants with rocket-propelled grenades who were among the civilian population."
Or even easier the sentence "He was playing soccer a year ago, he said, when he and friends were injured by an Israeli tank shell" could have instead read: "A heavy gun battle ensued after Gaza militants fired on Israeli towns; in the exchange of fire he and friends were injured by an Israeli tank shell." But for some reason, Matza felt the context of the soccer match which may or may not have actually occurred was more important than the context of the battle.