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Finding factors beyond bias in skewed coverage
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Finding factors beyond bias in skewed coverage

Fear, cost-cutting contribute to uneven reporting on Israel

Hillel Zaremba, left, at Adath Israel May 15, with Jonathan Miller, congregation vice-president and cochair of the Israel Festival, and Hedda Morton, director of congregational learning.
Hillel Zaremba, left, at Adath Israel May 15, with Jonathan Miller, congregation vice-president and cochair of the Israel Festival, and Hedda Morton, director of congregational learning.

When covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, has the reporter, either in print or on a broadcast, produced a fair piece using information obtained directly from both sides?

According to Hillel Zaremba, the answer, when it comes to coverage of Israel, is most often no. And for the most part, it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

“Failure to do due diligence, lack of historical perspective, economic considerations, the 24/7 news cycle, and in many cases a reporter’s fear for his safety all play a role,” said Zaremba, former curriculum coordinator for Eyes on Israel, a project of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA).

Zaremba spoke at a two-part presentation, “Why the Media Gets It Wrong about Israel” at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville on May 15. About 25 people attended the adult portion of the fourth and final program in conjunction with the synagogue’s $2,800 Ma’alot Initiative Grant from the Israel Commission of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Zaremba, current associate director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that seeks to encourage moderate Muslims to speak out against terrorism, said he was not a spokesperson for CAMERA. He noted, however, that his conclusions were based on his work there monitoring coverage of Israel.

Citing “due diligence” as integral to objective reporting, he led off with an example from a Wall Street Journal story in which the reporter described those taking part in the June 2010 Gaza aid flotilla as “peace activists.”

“If he had done a little digging, even easier now in the age of Google,” Zaremba said, “he would have found that the IHH, the Turkish charity that organized the flotilla, has been linked with Hamas and other terrorist groups.”

He noted that research is more essential today then ever because of cost-cutting and the elimination of many foreign news bureaus. “Reporters are often ‘parachuted’ into a region where they have little or no expertise,” he said. “They don’t have grounding in the details and rely on press releases for their information.

“And many journalists are not aware that the Palestinian Authority, for example, speaks with two voices, one for the Arab press and one for the English-speaking press. As a result, their stories express the viewpoint that the PA wants to get across.”

Even though print and electronic media companies are spending less on coverage, said Zaremba, they are demanding more product.

“The 24/7 news cycle never ends. Instead of having one or two deadlines each day, a newspaper reporter will have one for the print addition and several for the on-line edition. In response to this pressure, he or she might cut corners in order to get the story in on time.” The result, he said, is fewer in-depth pieces and far more that provide, at best, superficial coverage.

Another contributing factor, noted Zaremba, is the “journalistic pack mentality,” when reporters stick together in their accounts, even if the accounts turn out to be inaccurate. He said one of the most blatant examples is a phrase used by many TV reporters, “historically Arab East Jerusalem.”

“In fact, East Jerusalem was historically Jewish until 1948, when the Jordanians evicted the Jews. Only then did it become predominantly Arab,” said Zaremba. “Breaking away from the pack is psychologically very difficult for a reporter because he has to explain to his editors why his story differs from those of his competitors.”

Facts into fiction

Zaremba pointed out that most Western journalists who cover the Middle East make Jerusalem their home base for one reason: They feel safe there. “Reporters know that since Israel is a democracy, they won’t get thrown in jail or worse for what they write or broadcast. You can’t say the same for Syria or Iran, for example.” But, he added, when they want to cover events in the Palestinian territories, they rely on Palestinian “fixers” as translators and guides, rather than Israelis who speak Arabic. “On one hand, reporters feel safer with the ‘fixers,’ but on the other hand they have to realize that the ‘fixers’ may be manipulating the story to meet their own ends.”

This fear isn’t limited to journalists, said Zaremba; it extends to sovereign nations. He cited an independent Italian photojournalist who published an unflattering picture of life in Ramallah. Needless to say Palestinian officials were not happy. “In order to protect themselves from any retaliation — even though they did not have anything to do with the photo — the government-owned Italian television stations wrote a letter to the Palestinians condemning the photographer and stating that they would never do such a thing.”

Zaremba acknowledged that stories from the Holy Land are consistently compelling because they resonate with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. “Everybody has a stake in what happens here. But sometimes, the desire for a good headline or photo takes precedence over accuracy. ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is a journalistic motto. And so is ‘Jews are news.’” When you put them together in the Middle East, without careful reporting and editing, he concluded, there is a real chance that the facts will turn into fiction.

Following his presentation, Zaremba also met with 20 teens — students in the synagogue’s confirmation program, zayin (seventh-grade) class, and madrihim (teens who assist in the school’s classrooms) — to discuss “Wiki Wars,” focusing on information presented by the website Wikipedia, and contradictions and inaccuracies in a particular article on Israel. He advised students to read critically and thoughtfully and be attentive to the writer’s sources.

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