Have Reuters Photos Improved?

Photographic images of unfolding events in the Middle East often mold the perceptions of people far away from the conflict. Since the beginning of the current Middle East crisis in September 2000, Reuters—which is, according to its website, “the world’s leading provider of news photography for today’s global media universe”—has provided strikingly unbalanced photo coverage and frequent misrepresentations. This has been the case despite a self-proclaimed “long-standing commitment to provide comprehensive and impartial coverage.”

In March and April of 2001, Reuters came under criticism from CAMERA for a lack of balance that included minimal, dismissive coverage of Israeli losses and erroneous captions. Since then, Reuters has begun to distribute many more photos of Israeli victims of violence and terrorism, although the captions, at times, still misrepresent facts or reflect a Palestinian perspective. Does this somewhat more balanced coverage signal a real and permanent change in Reuters policy?

History: Biased photos

CAMERA closely reviewed Reuters news photos during March 2000, following two Palestinian terrorist bombings victimizing Israelis and the deliberate sniper shooting of a 10-month-old Israeli baby, Shalhevet Pass. They revealed a notable lack of balance:

1. On Thursday, March 1, 2001, a Palestinian terrorist detonated a bomb aboard a taxi-van near Moshav Mei Ami in northern Israel, killing one Israeli man and wounding nine others, including the terrorist. The first Reuters caption that mentioned the terrorist bombing appeared under an irrelevant photo of a Palestinian woman walking by a graffiti-covered wall at the Deir El Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. This was the seventh photo of Palestinians that had appeared that day. Five photos depicted Palestinians as victims, with such captions as: “A Palestinian woman weeps as she views her damaged home”; “Palestinian youths duck for cover as Israeli soldiers open fire”; “Palestinian students take cover as Israeli soldiers open fire on them”; “Palestinians wait on main road in Gaza after Israelis stop traffic.”

Only four photographs appeared on the Mei Ami bombing in Israel. In contrast to the specific identification of Palestinian victims, the captions on these photos did not identify the terrorist victims as Israelis. They read: “Bodies of injured men lie on the road after a car bomb exploded in the northern Israeli town of Mei Ami”; “Woman is loaded into ambulance after car bomb explodes in northern Israel”; “Injured woman awaits medical attention after car bomb blast in Umm Al-Fahm”; “An injured man is carried away after car bomb blast in northern Israel.”

In Reuters’ captions, even the dead Israeli victim remained anonymous: “One person was killed and nine people were wounded…” Of the captions referring to the bombing, the first few referred only to a car bomb blast with no mention of a perpetrator. The last two captions mentioned “a suspected Palestinian guerilla.”

In the following two days after the Mei Ami bombing attack, Reuters distributed 10 pictures of Palestinian funerals and mourning. There were no photos of Israeli funerals or mourning.

2. On March 4, 2001, a terror bombing in central Netanya killed a Hamas suicide bomber and three Israeli Jews. At least 60 others were wounded, some seriously. Twelve AP photographs of the bombing appeared on the http://news.excite.com/photo website, which posts AP and Reuters photographs as they are distributed. They included several photos of the Orthodox burial society searching for remnants of the victims and several of wounded, traumatized, or dead victims of the terrorist bombing. The victims were clearly identified as Israelis.

Reuters photos of that day told a completely different story. At the time, the above-mentioned website carried no photos of Israeli victims, although later, a simple photo showing an injured woman on a stretcher was added to the Reuters photo archive. The caption underneath that picture wrongly described the number of bombing victims, claiming two killed and 45 injured. Again, the victims were not identified as Israelis.

The other Reuters photographs of the bombing included two showing Israeli police removing the body of the Palestinian suicide bomber, one photograph of a hospitalized Palestinian beaten by some Israelis after the bombing, and another that was captioned “Israelis chant death to Arabs after the bomb attack.” The message conveyed, even in the wake of a murderous attack on Israeli civilians, was that Palestinians were the victims.

The next day, Reuters provided no photographs of funerals for the Israeli victims, while AP and other wire services carried several. Reuters, instead, distributed five photographs of Palestinian funerals and graveside mourning.

3. Searches of a comprehensive Reuters photo database after 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass was shot to death by a Palestinian sniper on March 26, 2001, revealed that, in the first three days after the shooting, Reuters sent out just four photos concerning the little girl, none of them citing Palestinian culpability in the murder. Two of these images were not even of Shalhevet, showing instead “Jewish settlers” protesting the murder by painting Shalhevet’s name in a Palestinian shop after they had “occupied it.”

The captions attributed the killing of Shalhevet to an unidentified “gunman.” Under a family photo of Shalhevet with her parents, the first sent out by Reuters after the murder, the caption dismissed as mere accusation any Palestinian responsibility:

Palestinian gunmen shot dead the 10-month-old baby in the West Bank city of Hebron, an Israeli Army spokesman said.

A photo of Shalhevet lying dead in the hospital carried the caption:

An undated handout picture shows slain 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, who an Israeli Army spokesman claimed was killed by a Palestinian sniper in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Only three days later did Reuters’ caption writers finally acknowledge Palestinian culpability. The photo however, concerned not Shalhevet’s murder, but rather the allegedly violent response by her Jewish neighbors:

Smoke rises from a Palestinian market set on fire by Jewish settlers in the divided West Bank city of Hebron, late March 28, 2001. Clashes erupted in Hebron on Wednesday following the death of 10-month-old Jewish settler Shalhevet Pass on Monday night by a Palestinian sniper (March 29, 2001).

Predictably, Reuters did not cover Shalhevet’s funeral, which was a major news story in Israel, having been put off for over a week. Contrast this to the nine photos distributed by Reuters following the death of 13-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Helles in early March after being shot a few days before. Five photos captioned his funeral, four came from later rallies protesting his death, and one showed a hospital where doctors worked to save his life. In eight of the photos the captions unambiguously attributed the shooting to Israeli soldiers:

Palestinians pray beside the body of slained [sic] 13-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Helles who died of wounds after being hit by Israeli gunfire earlier this week…

Palestinians burn Israeli flags during a rally in Gaza… in memory of 13-year-old Mohammad Helles, killed by Israeli troops in Gaza early this month…

This double standard of clearly blaming Israel for Palestinian losses while casting the identity of Palestinian perpetrators in doubt was not an isolated incident. When it came to ascribing guilt to Israel, Reuters placed unqualified blame on Israeli soldiers or civilians even when it wasn’t so.

On April 25, 2001, Reuters carried five pictures of funerals for four Palestinians killed in a blast in the south of Rafiah in the Gaza Strip. Three of the captions placed the blame squarely on Israel, despite conflicting reports about what happened. Israel Army Radio had said the four Palestinians died in a “work accident,” that is, while preparing a bomb, and Palestinian reports also varied as to what happened. Some said that that the Palestinians were setting a bomb next to army tanks when it was detonated by Israeli soldiers, while others claimed that the four were killed in a bomb from an Israeli aircraft overhead. The circumstances were far from clearcut, except from Reuters’ perspective.

History:

Caption Misrepresentation

Reuters captions have often presented a troubling bias, compounded by a consistent refusal by the wire service to acknowledge and correct its mistakes.

1. On February 8, 2001, a powerful remote-controlled car bomb went off in the crowded Orthodox Beit Yisrael area of Jerusalem. No one was killed, which was considered miraculous by the yeshiva students and Orthodox residents of the area, especially due to the circumstances; a truck carrying gas cannisters had just passed by the booby-trapped car, and the usually crowded vegetable store right next to the car was closed for afternoon prayers when the bomb exploded. Soon after the news got out, thousands of yeshiva students and Orthodox residents gathered in the street to celebrate the miracle with song and dance. The Jerusalem Post International Edition on February 23, 2001 carried a Reuters photo of the celebration with the following caption:

Moments after the car bombing in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood earlier this month, yeshiva students waved a piece of the car’s wreckage and celebrated that attack’s failure to kill anyone. Four people were lightly injured in the explosion.

The same photo appeared on February 9, 2001, the day following the bombing, in the New York Times, carrying the original Reuters caption:

A crowd of Israelis chanting anti-Arab slogans in Jerusalem yesterday as one held a jagged piece of metal from the explosion of a car bomb.

Ha’aretz had reported that while several supporters of the Kach movement did chant anti-Arab slogans, they were confronted and pushed aside by police and yeshiva students. The Reuters photo shows, by contrast, the smiling faces of yeshiva students and Hasidim who appear to be celebrating. A CNN video clip of a street scene at the time clearly showed the same people photographed byReuters dancing.

When asked about the apparently erroneous caption, the New York Times consulted with the Jerusalem bureau of Reuters, which stood by its photo caption. Reuters admitted that there was a crowd of people celebrating the narrow escape from a tragedy, but insisted that the people in the picture were chanting anti-Arab slogans, and therefore no correction was warranted.

2. On February 16, 2001, Reuters distributed a photograph by Suhaib Salem showing a Palestinian woman tossing dozens of bullet shells in the air. The caption read:

A Palestinian woman displays empty Israeli bullet shells inside her house in the Rafah refugee camp between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip, February 16, 2001. Five Palestinian families said this week that they are homeless after Israeli army forces demolished their houses in Rafah in southern Gaza.

Reuters here suggested that the Palestinian woman was displaying evidence of Israel’s attempt to destroy her home. Many people familiar with the mechanism of guns noticed that this caption was contradictory. Bullet shell casings are ejected from the weapon of the shooter; they are not found near the target of the gunman. The fact that the Palestinian woman was displaying numerous bullet shell casings inside her house would suggest that her home was being used as a shooting base, possibly by Palestinian gunmen.

When challenged on this matter, however, Reuters again declared that it was “standing by the caption.” When pressed about the meaning of Israeli bullet shells inside a home in a Palestinian refugee camp, Reuters Global Editor-in-Chief Stephen Jukes maintained that Israeli soldiers had entered the home of this Palestinian woman and had used it as a shooting base. He did not explain why an Israeli soldier would risk his life by entering a hostile refugee camp rather than shoot from behind a fortified position, or how Israeli soldiers managed to penetrate into the heart of Area A—Palestinian controlled territory—with nary a mention from the world press, U.N., or Arab countries. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces denied that soldiers had entered a house in a Palestinian refugee camp on February 16, dismissing Reuters’ explanation as preposterous. Reuters, however, refused to correct the error.

Recent Coverage of Israeli Victims

Since CAMERA’s initial analysis of Reuters’ photo bias, letters to Reuters and a newspaper column about coverage of the Shalhevet Pass murder, Reuters has begun to include photos of Israeli funerals.

1.On May 1, 2001, Assaf Hershkovitz, 30, of Ofra was shot dead by two Palestinian terrorists who ambushed him on the Ramallah bypass road three months after his father Arieh Hershkovitz was gunned down in similar circumstances. Reuters distributed two photographs of the scene where he was killed. The perpetrators were identified as Palestinian gunmen, while Hershkovitz was identified as “a Jewish settler.” Reuters carried three photos of the funeral with captions in which Hershkovitz was named and again labelled a “Jewish settler.”

2. On May 7, 2001, Israeli troops responded to a mortar attack on the Jewish community of Gush Katif by shelling the source, the neighboring Palestinian town of Khan Yunis. Iman Hijo, a 4-month-old girl, was killed by shrapnel in this attack, and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon apologized. Overnight while guarding fields near Itamar, Arieh Orlando, an Israeli resident of Ma’ale Israel, was killed by Palestinian gunmen, and a day later, two 14-year-old schoolboys, Yaakov Mandell and Yosef Ish-Ran, were attacked while hiking, brutally stabbed and stoned to death near the Gush Etzion community of Tekoa.

Reuters photo coverage of these events included a caption about Sharon’s apology and three images relating to the death and funeral of Arieh Orlando, in which he was identified as “Jewish settler Arieh Orlando” and the murderers as Palestinians. When, a week later, Idit Mizrachi was shot dead by Palestinian gunmen on her way to a wedding, there were four photographs of her funeral identifying her by name and her murderers as Palestinian.

While this does seem to indicate an improvement in Reuters’ photo coverage, a striking contrast was apparent in the focus given Iman Hijo’s funeral as compared to those of Yaakov Mandell and Yosef Ish-Ran. Twelve photographs of Hijo’s funeral were distributed, all of which identified her by name. Only two photos of the Israeli funerals appeared, and four more of the boys’ bodies being evacuated from the cave where they were slain. None of these photographs identified the schoolboys by name. They were, instead, referred to either as “Jewish settlers” or “killed Israeli teenagers.”

3. Photo coverage of the May 18th Palestinian suicide bombing in Netanya and Israel’s retaliatory air strikes included ten photographs of the bombing, three photographs of the Hamas suicide bomber, and four of an Israeli funeral, versus thirteen of the Israeli retaliation and five of subsequent Palestinian funerals. The photos of the Israeli funeral identified the victims by name. However, where the victims of the Netanya bombing were identified as “other people,” those killed in the Israeli air strikes were identified as Palestinians:

a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to a crowded Israeli shopping mall, May 18, 2001, killing at least five other people and injuring about 60…

vs.

Israeli helicopter gunships killed at least nine Palestinians during an attack on a security outpost in the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian rescue workers said.

Reuters photo captions still present a problem. The captions continue to imply that Israel is at fault, even when that is not the case. For example, a June 17th photo by Ahmed Jadallah of a Palestinian mother bending over the dead body of her 12-year-old son carried the caption:

The mother of 12-year old Palestinian Suleiman al-Masri takes a last look at her dead son as his body arrives at their house ahead of his funeral at Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip June 17, 2001. The boy was shot dead in an exchange of fire between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the Rafah border area, despite efforts to implement a ceasefire between the two sides.

While it was true that the boy was shot dead during an exchange of gunfire, he was, in fact, shot by Palestinians. AP and others carried the full story of the circumstances of al-Masri’s death, but Reuters caption writers ignored the facts.

Although Reuters has been distributing more images of Israeli funerals and identifying Israeli victims by name, the wire service’s captions and articles show a definite tilt toward Palestinian perspectives. Reuters still has a long way to go before it can be considered an objective, non-partisan news agency.