On Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005, an Israeli hit-squad opened fire on a group of Palestinians without provocation, killing five in a gangland-style attack.
Or, at least, that is what an extremely misleading Associated Press news story that day would have you believe.
The story, written by Ali Daraghmeh and entitled “Israeli troops kill five Palestinians in first armed operation since Gaza pullout,” begins with a dramatized account in which Palestinians were doing no more than enjoying the weather and a snack when they were attacked with Israeli gunfire:
A group of young Palestinians sat outdoors on a warm night, snacking on sunflower seeds and chatting with a well-known militant leader when a group of white-shirted men jumped out of a Mercedes and fired, a witness said. The undercover Israeli troops killed five people, at least three of them armed.
Later in the article, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy–apparently the Palestinian witness cited in the first paragraph–is quoted once again suggesting that Israeli troops opened fire during a mission to kill Palestinians: “A car came, and armed men got out and shot toward us,” the boy, Samer Murai, said.
It was not until the seventh paragraph that reporter Ali Daraghmeh pointed out there had been a gunbattle between the Israeli troops and the Palestinians: “The Palestinian gunmen had pistols, Murai said, and a gunbattle ensued.”
Nowhere in the story does Daraghmeh mention that the Israeli troops say they were on a mission to arrest the terrorists, that they first called on the wanted men to surrender, and that only after Palestinian gunmen opened fire did the troops return fire.
Unlike Daraghmeh’s dispatch, an Associated Press report by Mark Lavie that same day relayed that this was an arrest mission:
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the intention was to arrest the fugitives. “This was an operation against a ‘ticking bomb,’ he told Israel TV. “They were planning a suicide bombing attack in Israel.”
Also that day, AP’s Ibrahim Barzak noted that “Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday denounced a deadly Israeli arrest raid that killed five Palestinians.”
Even Daraghmeh himself, in a separate report which gave an overview of the the day’s news from Israel and the territories, noted that “soldiers had come to arrest the group, and only fired after being shot at by the gunmen,” according to an Israeli official.
The Jerusalem Post‘s Margot Dudkevitch provided more details about the raid:
Five Palestinians were killed by IDF gunfire after midnight Wednesday during a raid to capture fugitives in Tulkarm.
The army said that soldiers of an elite Duvdevan unit surrounded a coffeehouse and called on the fugitives inside to surrender. Soldiers fired warning shots in the air, after which the fugitives as well as other gunmen on the scene opened fire at troops.
A firebomb and an explosive device were thrown at troops. In the exchange of gunfire four Palestinians were killed and a fifth died shortly after of his wounds.”
Readers expect a news report to convey all of the key details — usually, within the first few paragraphs of a story. But instead of summarizing the essentials in the lead, the first paragraphs of Daraghmeh’s story consist of a personal anecdote by a partial witness describing a supposedly unprovoked Israeli attack. The key details never come.
Interestingly, the Associated Press has been credited with innovating the style of reporting known as the “inverted pyramid,” which places the most newsworthy information at the beginning, followed by other details in descending order of importance.
The pros and cons of the inverted pyramid style are debated, and recently the AP has announced it will be providing two versions of selected news stories from which newspapers can choose. In the words of AP managing editor Mike Silverman:
One will be the traditional “straight lead” that leads with the main facts of what took place. The other will be the optional, an alternative approach that attempts to draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means.
It could be that Daraghmeh’s story is one of these new, “Optional Lead” stories which opens in a “creative” way. But while there is nothing wrong with “imagery, narrative devices” or “perspective,” stories utilizing these techniques must still be balanced, thorough, and most of all, accurate.