Covering Gaza: A journalism tale of two (wildly divergent) Middle East stories

The news from Gaza is seldom good; last weekend was no exception. It's also generally wildly contradictory. A classic example of this occurred earlier this month that warrants attention.

For journalists and media consumers far from the scene, which is most of us, it merits attention because the contradictory information we receive prompts us to fall back on our preconceived notions about the grinding Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- that is to say, our biases -- to make sense of the situation. And that’s a distinct disadvantage.

Surely, conflicting narratives, or realities, are by no means restricted to Gaza. What makes Gaza a special case, however, is that it's an international flashpoint that could well spark a full-blown and multi-party Middle East war even more far-reaching than the mess that is Syria.

I’ll begin this exercise in contradictory narratives with an opinion piece published online by the conservative British weekly The Spectator. The piece was an attack on the BBC, which the writer and many right-leaning pro-Israel partisans consider an apologist, or worse, for the conflict’s Palestinian side. Topped by this headline, “The good news about Gaza you won’t hear on the BBC,” the piece included this section.

Western media has often focused on this issue [Palestine] to the detriment of many other conflicts or independence movements throughout the world. The BBC, in particular, has devoted an inordinate amount of its budget and staff to covering the West Bank and Gaza in thousands of reports over the years. But you would be hard pressed to learn from the BBC’s coverage that, despite many difficulties, Gaza’s economy is also thriving in all kinds of ways.
To get a glimpse of that you would have to turn instead to this recent Al-Jazeera report from Gaza, showing footage of the bustling, well-stocked glitzy shopping malls, the impressive children’s water park (at 5.25 in the video), the fancy restaurants, the nice hotels, the crowded food markets, the toy shops brimming with the latest plush toys (at 8.39 in the video). (This video was translated into English by the excellent Middle East Media Research Institute).

Within days -- coincidentally, I’m sure; the issue is endless fodder -- this news piece (spiced with analysis, although the piece is not marked as such) was published in The New York Times.

(Notice that unlike with The Spectator, I've used no political descriptor to label the Times, an enormous and complex enterprise that I believe covers the Middle East as well as any elite international news outlet. Does that make it left-leaning and pro-Palestinian? We report, you decide.)

The takeaway from the Times piece is that Gaza is in such dire financially straights that its economy, and virtually the totality of its civil society, is near “total collapse,” which could easily spark another war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist organization that runs Gaza with an iron hand. Here’s a section of this piece.

At grocery stores, beggars jostle with middle-class shoppers, who sheepishly ask to put their purchases on credit. The newly destitute scrounge for spoiled produce they can get for little or nothing.
“We are dead, but we have breath,” said Zakia Abu Ajwa, 57, who now cooks greens normally fed to donkeys for her three small grandchildren.
The jails are filling with shopkeepers arrested for unpaid debts; the talk on the streets is of homes being burglarized. The boys who skip school to hawk fresh mint or wipe car windshields face brutal competition. At open-air markets, shelves remain mostly full, but vendors sit around reading the Quran.
There are no buyers, the sellers say. There is no money.
United Nations officials warn that Gaza is nearing total collapse, with medical supplies dwindling, clinics closing and 12-hour power failures threatening hospitals. The water is almost entirely undrinkable, and raw sewage is befouling beaches and fishing grounds. Israeli officials and aid workers are bracing for a cholera outbreak any day.

Much of the piece covers the well-trodden debate over the players responsible for Gaza’s despair -- Israel, Hamas, Egypt, the Palestine Authority, the Arab world at-large, the Trump administration and others.

I have my opinions, of course, which should be familiar to regular GetReligion readers. But in case they're not, in support of full disclosure, let me state that I believe Hamas, currently, is the prime culprit. But this post is about journalism, not proselytizing on behalf of my beliefs.

I should also note that I've been to Gaza’s border with Israel but I've never actually entered the territory. So, probably like you, in truth all I know is what I've read and heard about the place from people -- journalists, officials, academics, social scientists and others -- on both sides of the fence.

So how is it that two solid pros could file such disparate reports on the same issue. (I’m familiar with the past work of the two men who separately wrote The Spectator and Times dispatches. I consider both generally trustworthy.)

How does this happen? And not only in this instance, but in journalism in general?

Is it journalistic bias? Do journalists see only what they already believe to be “the story?” That’s undoubtedly a factor. But does human subjectivity explain it all?

What does this say about journalistic “objectivity,” or even “fairness”? Or perhaps journalistic  gullibilities and capabilities? What about simply having greater access and better sources? Or having more time than the competition to reflect on a story ahead of imposed deadlines?

All of the above is part of the mix. However, I don't think facile answers rooted in our own viewpoints and without intimate knowledge of the coming together of a particular article is terribly helpful.

That does not mean, however, that the situation is a dead end.

Rather, I’d prefer that it serve as a reminder of the need not to take any one piece as a summation of reality, to remain receptive to differing points of view. And to remember, there’s no substitute for checking things out for yourself (if you can get there, which in Gaza’s case is quite difficult) and reading a variety of news sources.

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