If you were one of the approximately 7 million people who watched ABC World News with Diane Sawyer Wednesday evening, you likely saw the story covering the current situation in Gaza. Israel launched what it has dubbed "Operation Protective Edge" in the densely populated strip of land that is enclosed by borders controlled by Egypt on one side and Israel on the other, both of whom enforce a crippling siege on the region. According to Israeli military sources, they have dropped nearly 800 tons of explosives on approximately 750 locations in Gaza, leading to nearly 90 deaths as of yet, nearly half of whom are women and children. There have been no Israeli deaths at this point.
Expectedly, Sawyer did not lead with this information. Rather, she introduced the segment, taking us "overseas now to the rockets raining down on Israel today" (remember, that's 800 tons of explosives Israel launched, scores of Palestinians killed) and beckons the viewer to an image of "an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can" and another of "one woman standing speechless among the ruins." Moving, heart-rending images, indeed. Except these images were not of Israelis. They were of Palestinians.
ABC World News acknowledged the error via Twitter and on their website, and Sawyer has since apologized both online and on air.
Journalists are human beings and retractions are routine in the realm of reporting. Misidentifying an individual, misspelling a name, jumbling figures or swapping photos can happen, quite innocently and easily. However, Sawyer's jarring mix-up, somewhat of a Freudian slip, is the exemplum of all that is wrong with American media in covering the situation in Palestine.
To give both ABC and Sawyer the benefit of the doubt, even if the images to accompany the story were switched after the copy had been written, the fact that Sawyer, a journalist with decades of experience, did not realize that there had been no destruction of that magnitude in Israel, nor has there ever been, and yet she still continued to describe the people in both images as Israeli is telling of both the level of ignorance of even the most seasoned of American reporters, and the natural tendency of American media to lead news on this issue with Israeli suffering.
The dehumanization of Palestinians, the denial of their positions as victims -- as the occupied, as the underclass in an apartheid system -- is the standard narrative parroted by mainstream media. Palestinians are routinely portrayed as the aggressors, as seeking death and initiating violence. Such an attitude has become so embedded in our collective media psyches that even someone of Sawyer's caliber did not even flinch when reading copy obviously disparate from the reality at hand. Sawyer's blunder is indicative of a far more noxious bias that stealthily creeps into all reporting on the Palestinian people.
Palestinians are the occupied. Israel is the occupier. An occupier does not defend itself against an occupied population. The occupier controls the power structure. The occupier is the dominant force militarily and economically. The occupier determines what goes in and what comes out of the territory it occupies. Even under international law, an occupier must provide security for the people it occupies. Yet we consistently hear about Israel's need to ensure its security, and even President Obama wrote of the United States' commitment to Israel's security in his recent op-ed in Haaretz. The suffering of Israelis living in fear of being struck by a Hamas rocket is consistently propagated, validated and legitimized.
Images and narratives of Palestinian suffering are scarce; they are denied the narrative of the oppressed in the American consciousness. Homes demolished? They must have been harboring terrorists. Neighborhoods leveled? Israel was targeting infrastructure. Entire families murdered while defending their homes? They must have sought martyrdom. Children maimed and killed? An unfortunate miscalculation.
Such rhetoric has been woven so deeply into our consciousness that we can not see Palestinian suffering, even if it is looking us in the face, as in Sawyer's case.
When will we hear stories of Palestinian families, like those pictured in Sawyer's package, who have lost loved ones as Israel indiscriminately bombed a civilian population with nowhere to seek shelter? Who will tell us of the families separated for years due to an unjust, racist system of apartheid? What of students barred from studying abroad due to restrictions on movement? Will ABC cover the Palestinians losing their homes due to expanding settlements? Or those whose homes have been completely demolished for no legitimate reason other than colonial expansion? Will we hear of the other children detained and arrested before American citizen Tariq Abu Khdeir? Will any media outlets examine the squandering of billions of dollars in American tax money on weapons that kill, maim and injure civilians?
Sadly, American media lacks credibility on this issue due to the dearth of accurate, balanced reporting on these stories. Reporters must seek to understand the context of this conflict in order to provide meaningful coverage. Instead of simply regurgitating the same stories, reporters owe it to their audiences to engage the topic critically. It is not a war. It is not two sides with equal military might exchanging fire. The conflict is not religious. It is not an age-old feud. The roots of the conflict lie in Zionism and the current situation reflects the ongoing repercussions of this deleterious ideology.
Any act a Palestinian engages in is resistance to an occupying force. For that, you can blame the inciting source, not the agent of response. We have romanticized and immortalized figures of resistance in American culture, from Nelson Mandela to Malcolm X. But Palestinian resistance is not viewed within this same context of resistance. We resort to the same hackneyed questions rather than investigate the root causes. We make the assumption that if a Palestinian was beaten, bombed, deprived of any basic human right, they must have done something to deserve it.
Accordingly, many journalists asked Tariq Abu Khdeir, an American teen who was brutally beaten and arrested by Israeli police if he was throwing rock. If he was, does that excuse the savage manner in which he was treated? Of course not.
Rather than indirectly accusing a teenage boy who was clearly the victim of a ruthless assault of somehow being responsible for what happened to him, journalists should ask themselves: if he was, what led him, or any other teenage boy, to throw a stone in the face of deadly weapons? It is not because they seek death or have been indoctrinated into a culture of violence. It is to say: I am here. I have a right to my existence in this place. And you will not intimidate me.
As storytellers, we can not let the human side of Palestinian suffering go untold.