This is often difficult for those outside the profession to take in, but producing quality journalism isn't easy. It never has been and, given the trends, its likely this work will become even harder as the trade keeps evolving.
The web’s democratization of the news -- the proliferation of outlets, the expansion of the very definition of news, and the industry’s currently dire financial picture -- have made it even harder to produce quality journalism (a subjective concept in any event).
An added level of complexity is doing it where a multitude of players seeks to spin basic facts, which quickly become politicized. Then there’s the needs of a multitude of imperfect news outlets competing for speed and eyeballs.
All of which is to say, welcome to covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An incident last week in which an Israeli border policewoman was murdered by a Palestinian attacker, and ended with three Palestinian assailants shot dead by Israeli forces, exemplifies this journalistic sausage factory.
Let’s break it down, starting with the top of this story from the online journal, The Times of Israel. It's a pretty standard telling reflecting the mainstream Israeli Jewish perspective.
The Border Police officer killed in a coordinated stabbing and shooting attack in two areas in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday evening was identified late Friday as Hadas Malka, 23. The three attackers, who were allegedly members of Palestinian terrorist groups, were shot dead in the course of the attacks.
Staff Sergeant Malka was a resident of Moshav Givat Ezer in central Israel. She did her mandatory military service in the Border Police, and then extended her service 15 months ago and became an officer. She leaves behind parents and five siblings, three sisters and two brothers.
Malka was critically injured in a stabbing attack on Sultan Suleiman Street near Damascus Gate on Friday evening. She was transferred to Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus in Jerusalem where she underwent emergency surgery but later succumbed to her injuries.
She fought her attacker for several seconds while attempting to draw her weapon, according to a Border Police statement. Nearby troops shot and killed the assailant.
The story became complicated almost immediately after the attack. (If you've visited Jerusalem you're probably familiar with the heavily trafficked Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City's Muslim Quarter.)
First, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and Daesh, in Arabic) tried to grab credit for the attack. It was a steep claim because, as far as is known, the group has no organized following among West Bank Palestinians, although it does have a small organized following in Gaza and has somewhat more followers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, just across the border from southern Israel.
That was swiftly rejected by Israel, as well as Hamas, the largest Palestinian terror organization that also governs Gaza, and is an ISIS competitor (as is Iran, which controls PressTV, from which I copied the previous link.)
Why are the competing claims important? After all, as far as (most) Israeli Jews and Americans are concerned, there’s little difference between the entities, rendering them all equally worth of disdain.
Fortunately, The Washington Post provided an answer.
The competing claims of responsibility highlight a major challenge in the era of global terrorism: When tragedy strikes, how do countries figure out who's really responsible?
Determining responsibility matters because militant groups use attacks like these to spur on followers and spark fear.
Claiming attacks is a key tactic of the Islamic State. Often, the terror group will say it's perpetrated assaults that aren't directed by the leadership or even centrally coordinated. “It creates the perception that ISIS is expanding, even though it's under attack on multiple fronts in both Iraq and Syria,” Kamran Bokhari, a fellow at George Washington University and senior lecturer at the University of Ottawa, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “That creates this sort of panic, and that works to the advantage of ISIS.”
So that’s one bit of political spin that journalists have to parse. Here's another.
Also shortly after the Damascus Gate incident, the Palestinian Fatah movement, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, issued a statement in which it claimed Israel had committed a “war crime” by shooting dead the three Palestinian assailants.
Some of you may consider that an absurd claim, as do I. But it's a common one made by Palestinian factions competing for political loyalties among hardliners who would deny Israel the right to defend itself. It often follows what Israelis and their international supporters consider blatant acts of terror.
Still, if you're a reporter writing for mainstream international readers you're obliged to report the claim, and, of course, its routine dismissal by Israeli officials.
That was the case with this latest assertion. But that is not to say that such claims do not subtly influence journalists who work for outlets that are highly critical toward Israeli policies, or who may harbor their own anti-Israel biases. (This sort of shading can impact any issue, obviously.)
Take this Reuters story that reads like an initial report written quickly to get breaking news of the incident to clients. Note it's headline, “Three Palestinians shot dead after killing Israeli officer.”
Yeah, all the deaths have been squeezed into the headline. However, there’s a strong argument to be made that the killing of the Israeli border policewoman should have come first, since the attack on her was responsible for the Palestinians’ deaths. Note also how high up the story mentions the later rejected ISIS claim.
This story from the UK-based The Muslim News took the same headline approach as the Reuters piece.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not equating Reuters with the The Muslim News. The former is a venerable international news service that generates reams (can I still use that term in the digital age?) of content for a variety of clients. The latter is unabashedly ethnic and religiously oriented and appeals to a limited audience with a broadly shared worldview.
The future will reveal which of these two journalism models proves more popular and, equally important if not moreso, economically more viable. Journalists and media consumers alike who value quality news coverage should pay close attention.