Reuters claims to have "10 Absolutes" guiding its journalism, one of which is: "Always strive for balance and freedom from bias." What this means, according to the media giant's handbook, is that journalists should "take no side, tell all sides."
It's a nice promise to readers by Reuters, though hardly a unique one. The idea that all sides should be presented fairly and that those accused of wrongdoing should have an opportunity to respond especially when it's impossible for a reporter to independently verify what happened is an ethical tenet shared by all serious news organizations.
That's why, when Israeli security forces entered a Hebron hospital to arrest a suspected Palestinian terrorist, and when during the course of that operation a relative of the suspect was shot and killed, most reports but not all, as we'll get to below told the public what there was to know.
The Associated Press referred to an Israeli statement explaining that, "during the raid, the forces shot to death another man who attacked them." It cited hospital workers who said "he was shot as he emerged from a bathroom." And it quoted a Palestinian Authority official who called the incident an "assassination."
The Los Angeles Times cited witnesses who said the man was shot when he "emerged from a bathroom as troops were grabbing the suspect," but also relayed the statement by Israel's internal security service noting that "Israeli agents shot a person who attacked them during the course of the arrest."
Even The New York Times, which doesn't have the best track record when it comes to sharing all facets of a story, conveyed the accounts of both sides. "The military said that during the hospital raid, 'a suspect attacked the force, which responded to the assault and fired at the attacker,'" the reporter explained, before also citing a hospital official who said "he did not know whether Abdallah Shalalda had assaulted the Israeli forces before he was shot," but who also slammed the troops for having "their fingers on the trigger."
Reuters, though, despite its pithy promise to "take no side, tell all sides," didn't execute so well.
In multiple versions of its article on the arrest raid, Reuters journalists neglected to share Israel's assertion that the man who was shot had first attacked the troops, even while they dwelled at length on Palestinian allegations that the man was shot in cold blood:
A cousin, Abdallah, who was in the bathroom, was shot dead when he suddenly entered the room, Shawar said.
"As his cousin exited the bathroom, which was inside the room, they fired five bullets, one bullet in the head, one in the chest and three in his body," Shawar told the radio station.
"They took Azzam and placed him in the wheelchair they brought the woman in and they exited the room preventing anyone from giving medical aid to the young man lying on the floor."
Palestinian Health Minister Jawad Awad accused Israeli security forces of "executing" Abdallah al-Shalalda, who he said was escorting a relative inside the hospital. ...
"As he was exiting the bathroom, one of the undercover men shouted at him to stop and they opened fire.
"He remained on the ground bleeding and they hit my brother on his head and took him away."
There is no doubt Reuters was aware of the Israeli statement about being attacked by the man they shot. Reporters quoted a different, unrelated portion of that statement in their articles.
And it gets even worse. When asked why the relevant passage relaying Israel's side of the shooting incident was not shared with readers, a Reuters journalist who worked on the article explained that the Israeli position was shared but in an earlier version of the story. In other words, Israel's side of the story was initially included, but then was inexplicably cut from subsequent Reuters dispatches. As would be expected, the incomplete and one-sided version of the article ended up being picked up by a number of news organization around the world, whose readers were left ill-informed about the incident.
The Reuters handbook explains that "in a political dispute or military conflict, there are always at least two sides to consider and we risk being perceived as biased if we fail to give adequate space to the various parties." Indeed they do.
Reuters ethics editor Alix Freedman declined to comment.