Letter Writing

How to Gauge Coverage:
What’s Fair and What’s Not

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics requires that journalists seek out and report the truth and that they be accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other. Sometimes journalists reporting under pressure from the Middle East—with its complex history, issues and emotions—may be inaccurate and unfair in their depiction of unfolding events. The job of a media activist is not to impute — or impugn — motive but to provide checks and balances, to follow coverage carefully and to urge consistent accountability for any errors or biases that occur.

1) Detecting factual error is the first step in recognizing unfair reporting. This requires following breaking events closely as well as being knowledgeable about modern Middle East history and related subjects reported on by the media. CAMERA’s Web site provides background articles on subjects such as water, building, demography, UN resolutions and much more. If you notice an outright error or a striking discrepancy between media outlets in coverage of a certain event, investigate further and write to the offending news outlet, providing factual information to counter the error. Persist.

2a) Does the article or broadcast provide the perspective of all parties or focus disproportionately on only one side’s outlook? When a preponderance of space and/or time in a report is given to presenting a single viewpoint, this should be challenged.

2b) Are the proponents of opposing points of view given equal weight—i.e. are both quoted directly and/or given equal opportunity to speak and respond, or does the reporter summarize and paraphrase one position while allowing the other to be expressed directly? Those affected by the events or issues reported should have a voice in the coverage.

3a) Does the reporter editorialize in a news story? Are his/her attributed or does personal statements properly attributed or does opinion creep in? Opinion-laden, partisan reports can and should be language in news challenged. Opinion belongs on the opinion pages.

3b) Does the reporter use biased language? For example, does the reporter refer to “occupied Arab lands” or “Arab East Jerusalem ” or to “Tel Aviv” as the capital of Israel? Indicate the lack of objectivity of such language, providing factual historical or legal information to prove the point.

4) Does the article or broadcast omit essential context and information? This tends to be a frequent problem when reporting about the Middle East. Write a letter to the editor or directly to the journalist and/or media outlet to provide the missing context.

5) Are there double standards? Is one group of people singled out for more criticism or held to a different standard than others? Are differential terms used to describe the same phenomenon, depending on who the protagonists are? For example, are perpetrators of atrocities against Americans called “terrorists” while perpetrators of atrocities against Israelis are called “activists” or “militants?” Indicate double standards by providing examples of similar events or issues that received differential coverage.

6) Do headlines and photograph captions accurately reflect the story? Is there a preponderance of photographs presenting one side? Are photos larger and featured on the front page more frequently for one side than the other?

7) Never neglect to recognize solid, accurate reporting that provides context, information and insight into the complex problems of the Middle East — and give positive feedback.

Letter Writing Tips

1) Be prompt.
Respond while the issue is still fresh in the minds of the journalists and their audience. Email your letter to the publication. Email addresses are found both in the print version of the paper and online.

2) State the point of your letter within the first two sentences.
Let the reader know exactly what the issue is and your perspective on it.

3) Be concise.
If you are writing for publication, be aware that most publications will not print more than 150-300 words for a letter to the editor. Check to see what your paper’s limit is and stick to it. Editors definitely do not like to spend time shortening letters and will tend to choose those that require the least attention.

4) Limit your topic.
Focus on no more than one or two points. This can be a challenge, particularly when responding to lengthy articles filled with factual errors, but it’s better to fully explain one point than to inadequately cover five.

5) Be specific in your criticism.
Was there an error in the report, did it lack context, was it, one-sided? If it was partisan, whom did it favor? For example, “The article quoted only pro-Palestinian sources, leaving the Israeli position unrepresented and sharply deceiving readers about the full story.”

6) Be courteous. State the facts dispassionately, without hostility.
Always avoid accusations and personal attacks against the reporter and publication. Stay focused on providing accurate information and correcting falsehoods. A brief anecdote or eyewitness “hook” can work well too where relevant to illustrate your point and convey authenticity.

7) Use the issue as a launching point to make your own points.
No need to wait until there is something to criticize. Often you can use a non-controversial article as an opportunity to provide factual information related to the issue. Most newspapers are unwilling to publish letters that focus solely on criticism of their publication but encourage letter writers to broaden the discussion with additional points.

8) Maximize the impact.
Send a copy of your letter not just to the editor, but also to the reporter, foreign editor, publisher, to advertisers/sponsors of the broadcast or to congressional reps if the report was on public radio or television. When writing to a syndicated columnist, be sure to send a copy to the paper the columnist works for, as well as to your local paper if the column appears there.

Remember, persistence is often the key to getting published.