New York Times: "Journalism is hard!"

Mon May 9, 2005 4:44 PM EDT

If Americans Knew, an independent research institute, recently came out with a study on the objectivity of media reporting on the Israel/Palestine conflict. The study focuses on the New York Times and focuses on the number of deaths that occurred (numbers were obtained from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem) versus the number reported. The conclusion was as follows: In 2004, 149 percent (reflecting multiple stories on the same deaths) of Israeli deaths were reported as opposed to 41 percent of Palestinian deaths. More disparate still are the statistics regarding the reporting of deaths of Palestinian children. In 2004, the Times reported on 50% of Israeli child deaths versus 7% of Palestinian child deaths. The study notes,

Given that The Times had ample coverage of this issue (well over 1000 stories), it is troubling that so much critical information for American readers was omitted. Further, our findings suggest a pattern of distortion in New York Times coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inconsistent with normal journalistic standards. Such a pattern of distortion, in which readers were given the impression that the Israeli death rate was greater than its reality, and that the Palestinian death rate was considerably smaller than its reality, may serve to misinform readers rather than inform them…We assume that The New York Times is as disturbed as we have been to find these shortfalls in its quest to provide excellent news reporting to its readers.

A fair assumption, but not at all correct. Daniel Okrent of the New York Times recently wrote an editorial in response to accusations of bias on this issue. His basic argument was that the paper's doing its best, but its an emotionally charged issue, hard to be objective, and journalism is imperfect. The issue is emotionally charged and it's impossible to be objective. Nice dodge. But Okrent's response is more disturbing than the findings of the If Americans Knew report. Okrent compares the report with a boycott of The Times by the group Orthodox Caucus, referring to both as "less temperate groups on each side," as if these two things were equivalent.

Okrent notes, "After reading thousands of criticisms (as well as insults, accusations and threats) of The Times's Middle East coverage, I'm still waiting for one reader to say the paper has ever been unfair in a way that was damaging to both sides." Well, here it is: the Times' coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been damaging to both sides. Misrepresenting the death toll of the conflict could very well be leading to continued American support of certain Israeli tactics in the conflict that further prolong a push for a more effective and balanced approach to a peace process. Which means more Israelis and more Palestinians dead.

Okrent's editorial spends a lot of time focusing on the complexity of the conflict. Noting the many angry responses The Times gets in any article which broaches the topic, Okrent writes,

A report on an assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Gaza that kills nearby innocents will most likely mention the immediate provocation—perhaps a Palestinian attack on an Israeli settlement. But, says the angered reader, what about the murderous assault that provoked the settlement attack? And, says his aggrieved counterpart on the other side, what about the ambush that preceded the assault? And so on back to the intifada, and then to 1973 and 1967 and 1956 and 1948—an endless chain of regression and recrimination and pain that cannot be represented in a year, much less in a single dispatch in a single day.

But this is how all conflicts work. Violence between different peoples is rarely ever the result of a single (or rational), heated exchange. All animosity is couched in historical terms. But in no way does that make daily journalism obsolete. If Americans Knew isn't asking Times correspondents to write a painstakingly accurate historical account of the tit for tat goings on every time it reports on daily goings-on, it's simply asking it to consider its inaccurate reporting of Palestinian and Israeli deaths.

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