Media Flouting Journalistic Ethics No “Work Accident”

The Code of Ethics of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) calls on journalists to “diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.” A June 22, 2003 incident in which four Palestinians died under initially disputed circumstances is a useful gauge of the extent to which media outlets adhere to that guideline.

Although Palestinians initially claimed that Israel fired a tank shell in the northern Gaza Strip, killing the four men, Israel immediately denied responsibility, noting that its army had not fired any tank shells in the area. And, within hours, the Associated Press reported that the Palestinians were members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who died when the bombs they were planting prematurely exploded. AP’s Ibrahim Barzak reported:

Four Palestinian militants died, apparently when a bomb they were planting exploded in northern Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel could still build Jewish settlements in defiance of a U.S.-backed peace plan.

At first, Palestinian security officials said Israeli tanks fired shells late Sunday at a group of militants from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, affiliated with the mainstream Fatah, killing three men and wounding four others, in the northeast town of Beit Hanoun. Another died later in a hospital, doctors said.

However, later loudspeaker trucks drove through the area saying that the four died while “fulfilling their national duty,” a phrase used in the past to announce the accidental deaths of people planning attacks against Israel.

Israel military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israeli forces did not fire shells. Instead, they said, the militants were on their way to plant a bomb and it went off prematurely, killing them (“Four Palestinians killed in renewed Mideast violence”)

ABC and NBC fared worst in the accuracy test, outrightly violating SPJ’s code when they reported the Palestinian charge against Israel and ignored Israel’s denials. Their reports are even more egregious in light of the fact that reports now seem to confirm Israel’s position. Bob Woodruff of ABC stated:

In the Middle East today three Palestinians were killed and four seriously wounded when Israeli tanks in Gaza fired at them

Likewise, NBC’s Jim Maceda reported:

Tonight, three Palestinian militants were reported killed by Israeli tanks in Gaza.

While ABC’s and NBC’s broadcasts reflected the Palestinian version of events, without even mentioning Israel’s position, other news organizations, such as CBS, were much more careful, acknowledging just after the incident occurred that the events were disputed. Thus, John Roberts of CBS correctly reported both sides’ versions:

The day after the assassination of a top member of Hamas, Palestinian sources say Israeli tanks fired on a group of Palestinian militants in Gaza, killing three. Israel says the three were on their way to plant a bomb when it exploded prematurely.

CNN, like ABC and NBC, initally reported that an Israeli tank shell killed the three Palestinians (Fredricka Whitfield, June 22). But, unlike ABC and NBC, the next day CNN updated viewers, making clear that initially the circumstances were disputed, and that later Palestinian officials ultimately seemed to agree with Israel’s version of events. On June 23, Jerold Kessel explained:

Last night, four Palestinian militants killed in the northern part of Gaza. Disputed circumstances, at first, about how they died, whether they were preparing a bomb or Israel had shelled them.

Israel denied that there was any attack by its side. And, the Palestinians, indications are that they were definitely the members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, that mainstream radical group that had been trying to prepare a bomb against the Israeli forces occupying that part of Gaza [sic]. And they may have died when the bomb exploded prematurely. That’s seems to be the indication [sic], although the Al-Aqsa are still saying they were shot by the Israelis.

In another report that day, Kessel further emphasized that Palestinians themselves suggested that the explosion was a “work accident”:

But it could be in this [unintelligible] that they were preparing a bomb, and it might have gone off prematurely. First, Palestinian officials said Israeli forces targeted the man. That was denied by Israel. And now the Palestinians seem to be suggesting that it was a premature explosion, although Al Aqsa is still saying that their men were targeted by Israel, though they do admit they were planning to bomb one of the Israeli positions there. . .

Ignoring calls for clarifications, both networks violated yet another guideline in SPJ’s ethics code: “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”

In contrast, after being alerted by a CAMERA letter-writer, the Los Angeles Times did issue a correction, albeit flawed, on this topic.The June 25 correction stated:

Gaza deaths — A caption accompanying a photo in Section A on Tuesday that showed mourners in the Gaza Strip carrying the body of a Palestinian militant stated that he was among those killed by a shell fired from an Israeli tank. That was based on information, reported Monday, that was later modified by officials on both sides in the conflict. The officials agreed that the militants’ death were apparently due to premature detonation of explosives they were handling.

The problems with this correction are three-fold. First, it states that the error “was based on information, reported Monday, that was later modified by officials on both sides. . .” Israel never modified its story concerning Sunday’s incident. From the beginning, Israel denied responsibility for the deaths and said its soldiers did not fire a tank shell in the area.

Second, contrary to the correction’s suggestion, the photo caption did not take into consideration information provided by Israel, modified or otherwise.

Finally, as noted above, as early as Sunday, June 22 Ibrahim Barzak of AP reported that the explosion was a “work accident” and not caused by Israel.

All media outlets inevitably make errors — as the public knows. Those networks and newspapers that readily and forthrightly correct inaccurate coverage underscore their adherence to professional standards.

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