Trouble with Errors, Imbalance & Editorializing at Philly Inquirer
Among the most important principles in professional journalism are: factual accuracy, clear separation between news and opinion, and impartiality.
Factual accuracy is a fundamental journalistic requirement. "Test the accuracy of information from all sources," states the Society of Professional Journalists' (SPJ) Code of Ethics. If an error is made, reporters and editors must: "Admit mistakes and correct them promptly."
A Clearing the Record notice also might be used to clarify published statements that, while technically not in error, might have been confusing or misleading, or require additional information.Yet an examination of recent Inquirer news reports shows that the newspaper does not adhere to this most basic tenet of journalism-at least when it comes to Mideast coverage.
For example, editors have adamantly refused to correct a grave error in the May 20, 2005 story, "Raising a barrier and disputes" by Jerusalem correspondent Michael Matza.
Writing about the planned encirclement of Rachel's Tomb by Israel's security barrier, Matza stated:
Palestinians say encirclement of the tomb, including at least 18 nearby Palestinian houses with about 165 residents and a large expanse of olive groves, is an illegal seizure of Palestinian land. (Emphasis added.)In fact, according to the most authoritative source on the route of the fence, no Palestinian houses will be encircled. Colonel (Res.) Dany Tirza, head of the IDF Central Command unit responsible for strategic and spatial planning of the security fence-that is, the man responsible for determining the precise route of the fence-told CAMERA that while a previously proposed route would have enclosed Palestinian houses in this area, the route of the barrier has long since been changed to avoid enclosing any homes.
CAMERA informed foreign editor Ned Warwick of the error, and provided contact information for Col. Tirza to enable the newspaper to verify the facts directly. Editor and Executive Vice President Amanda Bennett was also notified.
Despite this, the Inquirer has not corrected this substantive error.
The Israeli leader arrived just after his government approved plans to build 3,500 housing units on the West Bank to connect the settlement of Maaleh Adumim with Jerusalem. This would cut the West Bank in half and isolate it from Arab areas of East Jerusalem. (Emphasis added.)Rubin's claims contradict the geographic reality of the area, as a cursory examination of a map of the region makes clear. Ma'aleh Adumim, considered a bedroom community of Jerusalem, lies only a few miles east of Israel's capital. Filling these few square miles with homes in no way "cuts the West Bank in half," as there would remain a large swath of West Bank land, about 10 miles wide at its narrowest, connecting the northern and southern West Bank east of Ma'aleh Adumim. (Also unaffected by the building are the three routes, and the additional route in the planning stages, on which West Bank Palestinians can travel freely north and south. It is also untrue that the neighborhood "isolates" the West Bank from Arab areas in eastern Jerusalem. For more information, see http://camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=31&x_article=872.)
CAMERA members and staff who contacted the Inquirer's editorial page editors about the error were directed to Trudy Rubin.
Rubin, in turn, stood by her claim-but not without equivocation and backtracking. "If the E1 extension of Ma'aleh Adumim is built, along with the security fence that the Israeli cabinet approved," Rubin now argued, the "back route [between the north and south West Bank] will probably be severed .... This will effectively block most travel and transport from the south to the north ...." (Emphasis added.)
While this is a far cry from her original accusation-in effect she is now saying that the security barrier (not the neighborhood) might block most traffic-even this toned down charge is not accurate. The barrier, though its footprint is much larger than that of the Ma'aleh Adumim neighborhood which lies within it, still leaves Highway 90 and the Chisma road east of Ma'aleh Adumim open for north-south travel by Palestinians.
Although editors were informed about Rubin's backtracking, the error was left uncorrected.
Yet another uncorrected error stems from the Inquirer's Nov. 11, 2004 coverage of Yasir Arafat's death. Reporter Carol Rosenberg claimed in a front page obituary that Arafat "declared himself neutral and tried to mediate between Saddam Hussein and the first President Bush" after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This whitewashing of Arafat's actual conduct was never corrected even though the
Inquirer itself has on many occasions correctly noted that Arafat sided with Hussein.
In Kuwait, responding a reporter's question, Abbas issued an apology to Kuwaitis for Arafat's support of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Kuwait triggered the 1991 Persian Gulf War. (Dec. 26, 2004, "Palestinian election nears, but focus is on future," Michael Matza)Despite all this obvious evidence in the newspaper's own pages, editors still refused to admit or correct Rosenberg's error.
Lack of balance within a news story is likewise problematic. A number of provisions in the SPJ Code of Ethics emphasize the need for a newspaper to avoid serving as the mouthpiece of one side in a conflict. These provisions urge journalists to "test the accuracy of information from all sources ... Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrong doing ... [and] support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant."
Matza allowed Palestinians to respond directly to these bland statements, even quoting a PA minister retorting, "That is a lot of
Similar one-sided reporting was typified in a Feb. 29, 2005 story by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Warren Strobel entitled "Blast highlights Mideast obstacles." Written just a few days after a suicide bomber killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv, the story strained to exonerate Mahmoud Abbas and the late Yasir Arafat and to incriminate Ariel Sharon.
Also fundamental to American journalism is the separation between news and opinion. A journalist's beliefs and speculations are not to infiltrate news reports. This guideline was restated in a 2002 column by Lilian Swanson, the
Inquirer's readers' advocate at the time, who explained: "It's the newspaper's job to report all facets of a story
and let readers draw their own conclusions." (Emphasis added.)
Israel's massive military invasion of the northern Gaza Strip — code-named "Operation: Days of Reckoning" — is a classic Israeli counterpunch following a deadly Palestinian attack.This passage suggests that Israeli policy is one of disproportionate and collective punishment. Such speculation about "the army's logic" might be suitable in a newspaper's opinion pages or a clearly labeled "analysis" piece, but it had no place in a news story.
Making matters worse, Matza's opinion did not correspond with the details he reported. He stated in the same piece:
...Israeli forces pursue two objectives: Draw out the fighters who launch the rockets so they can be killed and their weapons destroyed; carve out a security perimeter wide enough to defeat the 5.5?mile range of the primitive, homemade rockets, thereby protecting Israeli towns on the other side of the fence that surrounds Gaza.In other words, Matza's own reporting reveals that "the army's logic" was not to make "the Palestinians ... cry more." The target of the incursion was not "the Palestinians," but rather specific individuals who, in violation of international law, indiscriminately fire rockets into Israeli towns; and the purpose of the incursion was to "protect Israeli towns," not to make Palestinians pay a higher price.
Yet even as the above statements contradicted the journalist's speculation about allegedly brutal Israeli intentions, a quote fragment elsewhere in the story-"Combat troops are under order 'to exact a price,' Defense minister Shaul Mofaz said"-seemed to bolster it.
While at face value, this quote seems in line with Matza's assertion that the army seeks to make the Palestinians "cry," an examination of how it appeared in other media outlets shows otherwise. The New York Times and the Associated Press both noted on Oct. 1 that Mofaz called on troops on exact a price specifically "from the militants." The Los Angeles Times was more concise, stating: "Israeli media quoted Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz as ordering troops and commanders to 'exact a price' from Palestinian militants responsible for the rocket attacks."
The quote, then, apparently had been creatively adapted to conform to Matza's editorializing.
Another example of unacceptable editorializing is reporter Warren P. Strobel's Sept. 9, 2004 assertion about the United States' "unblinking support for Israel."
Strobel wrote that the threat from smaller terrorist groups is "fueled by resentment in the Muslim world of U.S. policies, including the invasion of Iraq and unblinking support for Israel."
Unlike the U.S. "invasion of Iraq," which is an objective reality, America's so-called "unblinking support for Israel" is clearly an opinion, and should be presented as such-in the opinion pages. (As with Matza's editorializing, Strobel's opinion is unconvincing in light of the facts. Though shared values and interests bind a strong alliance between the two countries, there are disagreements. Just two months earlier, the Inquirer ran a story discussing a "public rebuke" of Israel by U.S. officials. A month before that, the U.S. State Department published on its Web site a piece entitled, "U.S. Envoy to United Nations Criticizes Israeli Operations in Gaza." The State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices published that year also criticizes Israel on certain issues.)
Repeating the familiar canard of America's supposedly blind support for Israel would be questionable on the editorial page-and certainly should not appear on the news side.
The newspaper notes in its "Policy on 'Clearing the Record'":
"The Inquirer wants its news report to be fair and correct in every respect and regrets when it is not." If the paper truly strives to be "fair and correct," it can begin by addressing the problems with errors, lack of balance, and editorializing in its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
— CAMERA Middle East bureau chief, Gilead Ini
Copyright ©2005 by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. All rights reserved. Permission granted to reproduce this article without changes or additions. Reproduction may be in either mechanical or electronic form provided that this copyright statement is included.
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