Israel’s current incursion into Gaza, “one of the biggest in the Gaza Strip for years, had the hallmarks of large-scale Israeli raids into West Bank camps in the past two years: overpowering Israeli weaponry applied in a labyrinth of concrete homes; militants planting crude explosives in the Israelis’ path and blending into civilian neighborhoods; and a scarcity of independent witnesses to sort out competing claims about the tactics and the dead,” observed the New York Times’ James Bennet today (“19 Die in Israeli Raid in Crowded Gaza Neighborhood,” emphasis added).
His comment underscores the importance of journalists constantly checking each sides’ claims and reporting conflicting accounts if the actual events cannot be determined. Indeed, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to “test the accuracy of information from all sources,” to “diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing,” and to “identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”
In that labyrinth of concrete homes and competing claims, correspondent Ken Ellingwood of the Los Angeles Times apparently lost his way, straying from the Code of Ethics in reporting a Palestinian claim as fact. Writing about Tuesday’s Palestinian casualties, he reported today: “The dead also included 14-year-old Asmaa Moghayer and her 11-year-old brother, Ahmed, who were shot after climbing onto the roof of their home to collect laundry” (“20 Killed in Gaza Offensive”). Readers wouldn’t know it from Ellingwood’s report, but the killings of the Moghayer siblings–(whose ages range from 10 to 16 depending on the media outlet)–is under dispute.
One only has to visit the home page of the Los Angeles Times itself today, where an Associated Press story spells out the rival accounts:
The victims included a 13-year-old boy and his 16-year-old sister. . . .
Palestinians said the teenage brother and sister were killed by an Israeli sniper as they gathered laundry from their rooftop.
But the military said an initial investigation found no Israeli soldiers had fired in that area at the time of the shootings. The military said the two apparently were killed by a Palestinian bomb aimed at troops. (Kevin Frayer, "Israelis Fire Missile into Gaza Demonstrators")
CNN’s John Vause was similarly diligent in presenting the conflicting claims:
The death toll among Palestinians stands at 20, among those killed, three children. Witnesses say two of those children, brother and sister, were killed when they were bringing laundry in from the rooftop of their home. The Israeli Army reported that they were killed by an explosive device likely meant for Israeli troops.
By the time that Dan Ephron of the Boston Globe filed his story overnight for today’s print edition, apparently the army had not yet reached the conclusion that the Moghayer siblings were killed by a Palestinian booby trap. He nevertheless was careful to present a response from the army:
Most of the casualties occurred in Rafah’s Tel Sultan refugee camp, including the killing of Asmaa and Ahmed al-Mughayer, aged 15 and 13, who had climbed to the roof of their building to feed their pet pigeons.
Their uncle, Mahmoud al-Mughayer, who lives in the same building, said the two were shot by Israeli snipers perched on an adjacent roof. Another brother, Ali, 24, climbed to the roof to check on them and also came under fire.
"He got on the ground, and slowly crept toward them, pulling them down to the third floor one after the other," Mahmoud al-Mughayer said in a phone interview. He said Israeli troops held up ambulances for five hours while the children bled to death. . .
Captain Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman, said officials were investigating circumstances surrounding the killing of the two teenagers. . . .
Conflicting Palestinian Accounts
Interestingly, in a minor discrepancy among Palestinian sources, the siblings’ uncle said the children had gone to the roof to feed the pet pigeons (Boston Globe). In contrast, the AP reported that Palestinians said the children went to the roof to gather laundry. Other news reports had them doing both. With inconsequential details such as the children’s ages and their activities on the roof unclear, it comes as no surprise that more substantive discrepancies exist on the Palestinian side.
According to Ephron, Mahmoud al-Mughayer, the children’s uncle, “said Israeli troops held up ambulances for five hours while the children bled to death.” Yet, this charge against Israel is contradicted by Asmaa and Ahmed’s brother, Ali. The British Independent reported today: “Their elder brother, Ali, 24, had shouted at them to come down because it was dangerous. When he heard no response, he climbed the steps to find that his sister and brother were lying dead in a pool of blood.” So, which one was it? Did Israel shoot them dead on the spot, as Ali claims? Or did Israel prevent the ambulance from reaching them in time, thereby causing them to slowly bleed to death?
The discrepancies which exist even among Palestinians necessitate that journalists consistently identify Palestinian claims as such. Thus, while the Los Angeles Times stated as fact the Palestinian claim that an Israeli sniper shot the children, many other media outlets responsibly identified the sources for the allegation even if they did not include an Israeli response. For example, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of Knight Ridder and Bennet of the New York Times attributed the allegation to their father. Craig Nelson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution attributed it to “Ali Moussa, an official at Rafah’s Abu Youssef a Najar Hospital.”
National Public Radio was as derelict as the Los Angeles Times in reporting the dubious Palestinian claim as fact. In an interview yesterday with Chris McGreal of the Guardian, McGreal stated: “Amongst the civilians killed today were a 13- and 16-year-old child, brother and sister, who went on the roof of their building to collect the washing and were killed by an Israeli sniper.” Host Michelle Norris neither challenged McGreal’s claim nor cited an response from the army. (For more on McGreal’s distortions on NPR, see CAMERA analysis NPR Turns to Guardian Reporter for Lessons in Israel Bashing.)
This is not the first time that National Public Radio has allowed dubious charges about Israeli brutality to go on the air unchallenged. On Oct. 9, 2000, Palestinian guest Osama Nizar charged: “the settlers killed one of the Palestinian young men there and amputated his hand and leg. Then they burned him and threw him away in the street.” NPR reporter Jennifer Ludden embellished: “The man had broken bones and a smashed skull. Israeli police suggested he’d been killed by Israeli soldiers, but eyewitnesses said it was Jewish settler. The torture and murder outraged Palestinian leaders.” An exhaustive investigative report by Physicians for Human Rights revealed that Issam Judeh, the victim in question, died in a car accident and not due to Israeli brutality.
Propensity for False Palestinian Claims
Journalists who unquestioningly reported Palestinian allegations about a “massacre” in Jenin in April 2002 should have been a cautionary example of reckless reliance on dubious sources. The “massacre” never happened. If the facts about a particular incident are unknown, journalists who care to guard their reputations and their professional integrity can both cover themselves and provide a valuable service to their readers by reporting unproven claims as such and including accounts from both sides.
See Related Articles–Media Flouting Journalistic Ethics No ‘Work Accident’ July 2, 2003
CNN’s ‘Palestinian Swimmer’ Story Sinks, Jan. 13, 2004
BACKGROUNDER: A Study in Palestinian Duplicity and Media Indifference, Aug. 1, 2002