Gaza Photo Controversy: Corrections and Lessons

Four months after November’s Gaza-Israel fighting, the media for the second time backtracks on initial reports which had wrongly blamed Israel for the death of a Palestinian child. In the first case, major media outlets, including the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters and CNN, all unequivocally blamed an Israeli air strike for the death of four-year-old Mahmoud Sadallah. Within days, all except AFP later retracted, acknowledging that Sadallah was most likely killed by an errant Palestinian rocket.

This week, 11-month-old Omar Masharawi has emerged as the second child symbol-of-war-cum symbol-of-media-manipulation. In both cases, relatives and Hamas officials blamed the deaths on an Israeli air strike, when in fact Hamas rockets were apparently the culprit. In both cases, many media outlets unquestionally accepted the Palestinian claims, reporting as fact that Israel was responsible for their deaths. In both cases, journalists did not carry out their jobs with a necessary dose of skepticism, taking into account that during the fighting, Palestinian rockets were frequently fired from densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods, and sometimes fell short. Journalists did not consider that relatives and Hamas authorities had no motive for acknowledging Hamas culpability, and yet had plenty of reason to falsely blame Israel. Photographs of both children’s corpses, along with erroneous captions, prominently featured in the international media, turning both into false icons of Israeli aggression.

On March 6, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council issued a report which found that Omar Masharawi and two relatives were likely killed by a Palestinian rocket that fell short. Many media outlets, including the Associated Press, New York Times, and the Washington Post (online) followed up with coverage of the U.N. report, noting its finding that Masharawi was likely killed by an errant Palestinian rocket. On March 11, AP commendably corrected (see screen shot below) its original caption of Jihad and Omar Masharawi, in which the infant’s death was blamed on Israel. 

The corrected caption reads:

CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS INFORMATION REGARDING THE CHILD’S DEATH IN THE FIRST SENTENCE, CORRECTS CHILD’S NAME AND CORRECTS FAMILY NAME – FILE – In this Nov. 14, 2012 file photo, an anguished Jihad al-Masharawi, a BBC reporter, clutches his slain 11-month-old son Omar, wrapped in a shroud, at Shifa hospital in Gaza City. An errant Palestinian rocket, not an Israeli airstrike, likely killed the child during fighting in the Hamas-ruled territory last November, a U.N. report indicated, challenging the widely believed story behind the image which became a symbol of what Palestinians said was Israeli aggression. Omar was killed on Nov. 14, the first day of fighting. Palestinians blamed Israel, and this image was broadcast around the world and widely shared on social media. A March 6, 2013, report from the U.N. office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says the baby was “killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.” Gaza’s rulers, the militant Islamic group Hamas, whose fighters fired most of the rockets into Israel during the conflict, had no response Monday. BBC officials declined to comment, and al-Masharawi said he couldn’t discuss the issue. An Israeli military spokesman said they could not confirm or deny whether they hit the al-Masharawi house. (AP Photo/Majed Hamdan, File)

Washington Post Corrects
The Washington Post, which set off a firestorm of criticism following its Nov. 15 publication of the AP image across several columns on the top of its front-page, today ran the following commendable correction:

The photograph above was published on the front page of Nov. 15 editions with a caption that said, based on information from the Associated Press, that the weeping man, Jihad Masharawi, was holding the body of his 11-month-old son “after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City.” The image has been used to symbolize what Palestinians say was Israeli aggression during fighting in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. A report published by the United Nations has now cast doubt on that interpretation. The report, from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, says the baby depicted in the photograph was “killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.” The Post published an Associated Press item about those findings Tuesday and is reprinting the photo now to provide readers with the updated information.

In addition, the Post today ran a column by Paul Farhi addressing the photograph (“Story behind image of dead Palestinian highlights photographer challenges“), in which he quotes Eric Rozenman, CAMERA’s Washington director, who has been in communication with Post editors all along concerning the controversy. Farhi writes:

The episode suggests “the fog of war and the fog of journalism” during a war, said Ken Light, a professor who oversees the photojournalism program at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. News photographers are usually diligent about ensuring that they’ve placed their images in the proper context, he said, but in the middle of armed conflict, “a lot can get through the cracks. . . . A picture is worth a thousand words, but you don’t always know the circumstances that led up to making the picture.”

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said the issue is further complicated by Hamas and Hezbollah, the Islamist groups that oppose Israel in Gaza and southern Lebanon, respectively

“You have to understand that the media is as much of a battlefield for them as anything going on” on the ground, he said. “You are dealing with terrorist organizations that will exploit and manipulate the media. They know how the Western press works and how to use it to their advantage.”

Both organizations, Oren said, use civilian deaths to turn public opinion against Israel, even if those deaths occur under ambiguous circumstances. This should make any news organization wary about attributing particular casualties.

The photo would not have been as newsworthy to Western media organizations if the caption had said it was unclear how the baby had died, said Eric Rozenman, Washington director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a watchdog group. That’s because the image played into preconceived notions about Israel’s military might.

The lesson for the news media is to use caution in reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict Rozenman said. “If you really didn’t know the circumstances for the information in a , then it ought to have a flag on it” saying as much, he added.

“Fog of war” is certainly a factor which complicates a journalist’s mission in any area of conflict. But as Ambassador Oren and Rozenman point out, in the context of Israel’s wars against Hamas and Hezbollah, there are additional factors at play. These are assymetric conflicts, in which Hamas and Hezbollah fighters do not wear uniforms, in which they endanger their own civilians by storing weapons and launching attacks from heavily populated areas, in which they conceal their own combatant casualties, and in which they deliberately manipulate the media to inflate the number of civilian deaths that they can blame on Israel. The latter tactic has a dual benefit; at the same time as generating sympathy for their side, it elicits international outrage against Israel.

Journalists covering violent conflicts between Israel and Hamas or Hezbollah should be aware of all these factors, and must report accordingly. That means if they cannot independently verifty Hamas claims, or the claims of a victim’s family, that an Arab civilian casualty was killed by Israel, they have an obligation to say so. At the very least, they should attribute the claim to the source, rather than presenting it as fact.

Los Angeles Times Stonewalls

Unlike the AP and the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times has so far unfortunately declined to correct its early coverage of Omar Masharawi. As reported first on CAMERA’s blog Snapshots, Edmund Sanders wrote in the Los Angeles Times (“Israel and Gaza veering down familiar, bitter path,” Nov. 16):

About the same time, bereaved young parents to the south in Gaza City buried their 11-month-old boy, who had just learned to say “Mama.”

The boy, Omar Misharawi, was killed Wednesday in an Israeli attack. The explosion tore through the family’s home, killing him and his pregnant aunt as the family dived for cover.

“He was just a few steps behind,” said his stunned mother, Ahlam Misharawi, 24. “He was right behind me.” (Emphasis added.)

In response to requests to clarify the record, a representative for the paper pointed to this follow-up story from yesterday, and declined to correct, stating:

A new article is the appropriate way to handle new information in a developing story. The November articles accurately reported the information that was available at the time. As a story develops, it’s our duty to report the latest information, which is what we did in this case.

Indeed, had Sanders reported at the time that according to Hamas, or according to Palestinians, or according to relatives, Omar Misharawi was killed in an Israeli attack, then a follow up story, instead of a correction, would suffice. But he did not attribute the Palestinian claim to any source. Instead, without any outside confirmation or substantiation, he reported the Palestinian claim as fact, without attributing a source. Which is why a correction is now in order.

And herein lies the danger of reporting claims, which can later turn out to be untrue, without attribution. Let’s suppose that tomorrow Palestinians claim, falsely, that Israel has released poisoned rats into the Gaza Strip. And let’s assume that Israeli sources, as is often the case, are slow in releasing information disputing the claim. Would it be good journalistic practice to report as fact, and without any attribution, that “Israel has released poisoned rats into the Gaza Strip,” and leave it at that until new information emerges weeks or months later?

Finally, in the follow up story  (“U.N. report raises questions about Gaza infant’s death,” March 12, 2013), the Times’ Sanders further mislleads. First, he writes that the report

said 168 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military action during the conflict. Of the 101 civilians who died, 33 were children and 13 were women.

In fact, this is what the U.N. report said about Palestinian casualties from “Pillar of Defense”:

During the crisis, 174 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. At least 168 of them were killed by Israeli military action, of whom 101 are believed to be civilians, including 33 children and 13 women. (Emphasis added)

Thus, while the U.N. report acknowledges that its figure for civilian casualties is not firm, Sanders reports as if it is. Second, Sanders writes that the report “offered no details about how it reached the conclusion” that Masharawi was killed by an errant Palestinian rocket.

True, it does not, but had Sanders bothered to check with a U.N. official, as had the Associated Press, he could have learned the following:

Matthias Behnke, head of OHCHR office for the Palestinian territories, ca
utioned he couldn’t “unequivocally conclude” that the death was caused by an errantly fired Palestinian rocket. He said information gathered from eyewitnesses led them to report that “it appeared to be attributable to a Palestinian rocket.”

He said Palestinian militants were firing rockets at Israel not far from the al-Masharawi home. Behnke said the area was targeted by Israeli airstrikes, but the salvo that hit the al-Masharawi home was “markedly different.”

He said there was no significant damage to the house, unusual for an Israeli strike. He said witnesses reported that a fireball struck the roof of the house, suggesting it was a part of a homemade rocket. Behnke said the type of injuries sustained by al-Masharawi family members were consistent with rocket shrapnel.

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