UPDATED: Providence Journal Redresses Op-Ed Errors

November 3 update follows.

September 30, 2005

The following letter appeared in the Providence Journal after the newspaper published misinformation in an op-ed by error-prone Palestinian activist Mazin Qumsiyeh. A formal correction has not yet been published. (The newspaper eventually did publish a correction. See update.)

Correcting Qumsiyeh’s errors about Israel

I am writing regarding several substantial factual errors in Mazin Qumsiyeh’s Aug. 21 Commentary piece, “Illegal occupation of Palestine.”

Qumsiyeh claims that the “total Palestinian civilians killed by these [Israeli] settlers is now over 400 in just the past four years.”

According to human-rights organizations in the region, the actual number is much lower.

The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) reports that 27 Palestinians were killed by Israeli settlers between Sept. 28, 2000, and July 31, 2005. The Israeli human-rights group B’tselem reports that “from the beginning of the Intifada, in late September 2000, to the end of 2004, Israeli civilians have killed 34 Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.” (Note that the B’tselem number refers to “Israeli civilians,” which includes but is not limited to settlers.)

However, even these numbers include Palestinians who by B’tselem’s own description were combatants: “In some of these cases, the Israelis acted in life-threatening situations, such as when armed Palestinians infiltrated Israeli settlements. . . .” The details provided by B’tselem (in Hebrew) show that at least 16 of the Palestinians were using deadly force against Israelis or infiltrating settlements. And the PHRMG numbers include, for example, a Palestinian who had just stabbed an Israeli, and another who was “killed by a car accident.”

Four Israeli Arabs were killed by a settler on Aug. 17, after the above numbers were tabulated.

Thus, according to B’tselem, about 22 Palestinian noncombatants have been killed by Israeli civilians.

Qumsiyeh also errs when claiming that there are “over 4 million Jewish colonial immigrants” in Israel.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 1,716,400 out of 5,165,400 Jewish Israelis are “immigrants.” The other 3,449,000 were born in Israel.

See details here: http://www1.cbs.gov.il/shnaton55/st02_24.pdf


The writer is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (Camera).

UPDATE: November 3, 2005

On Nov. 1, after weeks of CAMERA communications with the Providence Journal, the newspaper published a correction:

In his Aug. 21 column, “Illegal occupation of Palestine,” Mazin Qumsiyeh misstated the number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli settlers in the past four years. The figure is not 400 in the four years ending in August, as asserted by Mr. Qumsiyeh.

According to the Israeli human-rights group B’tselem, only 22 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli settlers in that period. Perhaps more significantly, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, only 27 Palestinians were killed by Israeli settlers between Sept. 28, 2000, and July 31, 2005.

Although the accurate numbers were already noted in CAMERA’s letter published by the Journal, it was still critical for the newspaper itself to formally correct the error for several reasons:

• Letters to the editor are part of the opinion section in newspapers. Even though CAMERA’s letter provided factual information to address Qumsiyeh’s falsehood, readers might look at the issue as a difference of opinion between CAMERA and Qumsiyeh rather than what it actually is—erroneous information supplied by Qumsiyeh and printed by the newspaper. A formal correction, on the other hand, demonstrates that the newspaper acknowledges the information it published was incorrect.

• Unlike letters, formal corrections are generally appended to the original article on newspaper Web sites and in databases. Thus, as noted in an October 2005 column by the New York Times editorial page editor Gail Collins, the “most important motive for correcting … is history”: 

These days, everything we publish is stored not only in the Times archives and commercially available archives, but in the files of an army of search engines. We don’t want a college student of 2050 to come up with the wrong [figures] because of our error – particularly not when we have the means to amend the record.

This is important not only for college students of the future, but for present day journalists as well.

• A media outlet’s journalistic integrity depends on the importance it places on accuracy. As Gail Collins noted in her column:

We correct all errors, from heart-stoppingly egregious to sublimely insignificant, because we believe that The Times should take its reputation for accuracy seriously.

Indeed, while journalistic guidelines call for forthright correction of errors, it is ultimately up to the newspaper to decide whether or not it will adhere to these standards. The credibility of a news outlet can be determined by its willingness to fact check and to correct errors. 

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