Balance and Objectivity at the Expense of Accuracy?

The notion that Israel and Hamas "trade" attacks, or the consistent need for journalists to mention deaths in Gaza alongside "rockets raining down" on Israel, mask the reality of the situation on the ground.
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Co-authored by Roqayah Chamseddine
Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes for Al Akhbar English.

The above headlines from newspaper and television media outlets between July 13-14 are a sampling of the various ways they chose to grasp the reader's attention when covering the current Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza, "Operation Protective Edge." By examining both the language and structures employed in various headlines, not to mention the actual articles or news packages, clear patterns emerge regarding a blatant attempt by media to avoid certain word usages, while utilizing others in order to create the illusion of a war taking place between equally armed forces, both of whom are suffering casualties.

At first glance, none of the aforementioned headlines contain the word "Palestinians." Rather, the focus is on Israel, or on the oppositional binary of Israel versus Hamas, or Israel versus Gaza. A clear avoidance of the word "Palestinians," which would humanize and legitimize those who have incurred nearly all of the losses of life in this deadly campaign, remains evident. Moreover, when it is mentioned within the content of such articles, the word "Palestinian" qualifies the word "militant" or "terrorist," often ignoring the fact that an estimated 77 percent of those killed in the current Israeli campaign were civilians according to the UN.

The notion that Israel and Hamas "trade" attacks, or the consistent need for journalists to mention deaths in Gaza alongside "rockets raining down" on Israel, mask the reality of the situation on the ground. Is this a quest for balance and objectivity at the expense of accuracy? Why do journalists feel impelled to mention the occupied population that has endured an onslaught of deadly violence in the same vein, with the same level of gravity, as the military occupier that is the perpetrator of such violence? Are Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza both facing the same type of existential threat and fears of annihilation?

The answer is that no, they are clearly not. By portraying the situation as a war, by engaging the rhetoric of "both sides," which implies that both have legitimate claims and justifications for their actions, ignores the fact that Israel, an occupying military force, is brutally crushing the population whose safety and security it is entrusted to protect and preserve under international law.

Despite the climbing death toll in besieged Gaza since Israel began "Operation Protective Edge," corporate media has ignored Palestinian voices and has instead accommodated those which further the narrative in favor of Israel. Though major media outlets call for "balance" and "objectivity," one quickly notices the one-sidedness of their coverage and the language that is employed -- from the unrelenting obsession with rockets to Wolf Blitzer's traditional bomb shelter runs, there exists a palpable faithfulness to Israel's talking points. The media's rocket tally is a noticeable part of the dominant method that structures any and all American reports on Gaza and Palestine, in general, almost entirely in defense of Israel's actions. If these weren't prominent and well-established media outlets one could chalk it up to naiveté, but the reality is that these methods and practices are intentional, commonplace and unjustifiable.

The Wall Street Journal published an entire article addressing "Gaza rockets reaching deeper into Israel," while Reuters discusses the "huge salvo of rockets" used by Hamas. There is no similar account as to how many or what type of bombs have been dropped on the people of Gaza by Israel. Yes, there is an account of the dead in Gaza being circulated by mainstream outlets, but their lives are debased by reports comparing the violence on "both sides" before the bodies even reach the morgue, for the sake of "balance."

As purveyors of information, journalists owe readers and viewers honest coverage, not skewed in the name of "balance," but unencumbered by political alliances, financial pressure or plain laziness. Though the issue is complex, the public deserves context and analysis that go beyond the accepted good guy/bad guy tropes.

The media's deference to Israel's narrative was at its boldest when it came to Diane Sawyer's blatant misrepresentation of Palestinians in Gaza as Israelis. On July 8, a still image of two Palestinian men gathering their belongings appeared on the television screen; they were surrounded by rubble, the aftermath of an Israeli bombing, and Sawyer referred to them as "an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can."

Though she did later issue an apology, after an outpouring of anger by those growing tired of such indefensible media 'mistakes,' the issue of Palestinian dehumanization was apparent to all who watched. Not even Palestinians photographed and videotaped suffering under an unforgivable siege and indiscriminate bombs were allowed their humanity. They were abruptly stripped of their identities, despite the obviousness of the landscape and the truth beyond the images, the stories of bodies piling higher and higher in the world's largest open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip.

On July 15, Chris Cuomo of CNN also had a Freudian slip when he mistakenly said, "the death toll is rising in Israel," though there had been no Israeli deaths at that point. He apologized via Twitter saying that he misspoke, and thanked Twitter users for their help in pointing out his error. The notion of a victimized Israel has become so pervasive that television anchors unconsciously identify it as a victim, when it the occupier, equipped with more power on every level.

Someone approved the words that Diane Sawyer spoke that evening and paired the images alongside them, and mostly likely without hesitation. Cuomo's mistake was a slip of the tongue. But both illustrate that the sacred notion of journalistic objectivity has become perverted; rather than documenting reality, it serves as a cloak under which lies an overwhelming bias.

For those already bound to Israel's myth of 'democracy' and 'self-defense' -- beginning with the narrative of it being "a land without a people," while implicitly and explicitly denying the existence of the people who were already in that land -- for people whose heart strings were tugged each time they heard of rockets and bomb shelters, how hard would such errors be to swallow after all?

One of USA Today's recent featured opinion pieces is on Israeli bomb shelters, authored by one Eliana Rudee, who is listed as being the current President at Claremont Students for Israel. While Palestinians gather body parts and burial shrouds, having had to bury nearly 200 people thus far, Rudee writes of so-called "courage" and the "empowering" experience of bomb shelters. She even begins her piece by lamenting the rockets "fired endlessly from Gaza," and making her position regarding Israel's routine cycle of war and devastation clear -- Israel is conducting a military operation against Hamas, she contends. Suffice it to say that the facts on the blood-soaked ground in Gaza run contrary to the traditional story purported by Israel's ardent supporters; as previously stated, nearly 80 percent of Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrikes are civilians, according to the UN.

In the CNN package "Israel: We warn then we bomb," correspondent Tom Foreman begins his narration, "The fire power on both sides of this conflict has been pretty intense. Hamas has fired about 1,000 rockets into Israeli territory. Those numbers though might be a lot higher if the Israelis were not in the business of warning people about the attacks."

No comparison -- logical, physical, economic or otherwise -- exists between the "fire power" of Hamas and that of Israel. Foreman's simple juxtaposition of the images of Israeli and Hamas fire power insinuates a proportionality that does not exist. His mention of the number of Hamas rockets before his mention of the devastating nature of Israel's bombings implants the idea within the viewer's mind that Hamas is the aggressor; Hamas is acting first; Hamas must be to blame. He continues to explain that despite the already high number of casualties on the Palestinian side, they could still be higher, if Israel did not "warn" Palestinians of impending attacks by broadcasting targets on the radio, dropping leaflets, calling homes or even "roof knocking," which basically gives an estimated 58 seconds for inhabitants to evacuate. As if fair warning should give license to an occupying force to completely demolish a family's home.

Also, when it comes to the media's description of weaponry used by Hamas and that used by Israel, there is a discernible conflation between the two, despite there being no remote equivalence between Gaza projectiles and experimental munitions like DIME (dense inert metal explosives), white phosphorous, F-16s, indiscriminate cluster bombs and other munitions. The media customarily refers to both Hamas rockets and Israel's advanced weaponry as though there exists a semblance of a proportionate degree of capabilities. We find that in reality Israel is razing Gaza and wiping out entire families, destroying countless homes, targeting mosques and most recently raining down bombs on a rehabilitation center for the disabled, while rockets, in response, are forcing Israelis into bomb shelters.

Palestinians are customarily missing from the conversation, as are their experiences, their traumas and their reflections on the future of their homeland. Palestinians have been reduced to an archetypal image: the terrorist stone-thrower; the raging Hamas supporter; the militant deserving of extermination. Such stereotypical representations, both in images and in words, are not due to a lack of Palestinian voices, as they exist in great abundance, but the media's negligence in communicating with these voices and giving them a platform so as to amplify them.

The American media's vacuous fascination with "balance" and "objectivity" has not only allowed for a people's history to be communicated without their presence, input, or right to represent themselves, but also to preserve existing conditions of power. While Israel holds the microphone and leads the broadcast, Palestinians are peppered in ever so often to uphold the facade of a proportionality that does not exist.

It has gotten so far that journalist Piers Morgan tweeted that both Israel and Palestine need to be freed, a glaring indication of how deeply this necessity to equate, or even prioritize, Israeli suffering over that of Palestinians is rooted in our psyche.

Journalists are storytellers. There is no doubt that various forces and biases shape the stories we choose to tell. To deny this is to deny that we are human. However, we must acknowledge our biases and attempt to move beyond them. Otherwise, we risk discriminating between the stories we tell.

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