Of all the running stories in modern times, none has proved to be more challenging and threatening to notions of objective journalism than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The latest upsurge in violence in Gaza has once again put a spotlight on how media are reporting from Palestine and Israel. With hundreds of journalists on the spot it has been impossible for political spin on either side to throw a cloak over the reality of unprecedented violence in which at least 1500 Palestinian civilians including eight journalists have died.
Nevertheless, the conflict has highlighted once again how western media, particularly in the United States, sometimes avoids asking difficult questions of Israel over its strategy and responsibility for the escalating death toll.
One example of timid questioning, highlighted by Guardian journalist Chris McGreal, was the appearance of Isreali Prime Minister Netanyahu on Face the Nation, a CBS flagship programme on Sunday July 27 when presenter Bob Schieffer allowed Netanyahu to make the case for military action without any probing response. Even the horrifying death toll of Palestinian civilians was referred to in the context of public relations and the “battle for world opinion”.
It is little wonder that some distinguished journalists have raised concerns over the role of American media where sympathy for Israel appears to have translated into unequivocal newsroom bias and a loss of editorial balance. As McGreal says: “It has been all the more striking to discover a far narrower discourse in Washington and the notoriously pro-Israel mainstream media in the US at a time when difficult questions are more important than ever.”
But in the spin wars, all sides are guilty. The Hamas government in Gaza showed its own skills in direct censorship on July 29 by ordering the closure of two media outlets in the territory – the broadcaster Al-Arabiya and the news agency Maan, which it accused of publishing “false” news, that is to say news and opinions with which it disagreed.
As the bullets fly and the videos of violence circulate at electric pace around the globe, the pressure on journalism to take sides increases.
Each media outlet applies its own brand of professional judgement and news selection. The story may contain more or less the same facts when reported by CNN, Russia Today, Al Jazeera, the BBC, Radio-France Internationale, Press TV, CCTV or Radio Free Europe, but the atmosphere of the presentation, the choice of the sources and the implied editorial slant may be strikingly different.
It is sometimes hard to distinguish what is legitimate journalism and what is propaganda, which involves malicious misrepresentation, deceptive handling of the facts and deliberate suppression of contrary opinion.
Although journalism may appear biased in one story, over a period of time ethical reporting will provide a pluralism of opinions and context that helps the audience fully understand the whole story and its complex reality.
However, the rules about objectivity sometimes make it difficult, if not impossible for even the best journalists to express themselves.
Take the case of Jon Snow, the distinguished anchor of Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom. He returned from Gaza last week and prepared a moving report on his trip. See it here. This was published on YouTube, where it was widely applauded for its frankness, and the following day it turned up on his own network’s website.
But it was not broadcast on his flagship news show probably because of fears that it would have fallen foul of the British media regulator Ofcom and its broadcasting code rules on due accuracy and impartiality.
The code is flexible and widely accepted. It avoids journalists being trapped into reporting false narratives and the obligation to find two opposing opinions where a widely-held consensus has been established. For instance, climate change coverage is no longer hampered by the need to seek out climate change deniers in an attempt to create the illusion of evenly-split opinion.
However, it is still inflexible in parts, as the Snow case illustrates, because it requires broadcasters to “exclude all expressions of the views and opinions of the person providing the service”.
The British press does not suffer from such enforced rules of objectivity and it is difficult to understand in the age of multimedia convergence why broadcast or video journalism should continue to be restrained by controls that limit the scope for journalistic expression.