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Reporters without Borders (or standards)

August 5, 2009 – 6:10 pm8 Comments

by Jewin’ the fat.

Too often, a journalist is attacked for elements of a story which are out of their control – photos provided by the photographer, headlines composed by the sub-editor – it is a professional minefield.

But the following stories are clear examples where poor standards have proven to be the undoing of those responsible. As EU Referendum says with regards to this kind of reporting during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006:

“Whatever else, the event in Qana was a human tragedy. But the photographs do not show it honestly. Rather, they have been staged for effect, exploiting the victims in an unwholesome manner. In so doing, they are no longer news photographs – they are propaganda.”

And little has changed – Walter Conkrite may have passed on, but the bleeds still lead – except of course, when the bleeder isn’t considered ‘newsworthy’ enough for a by-line.

In the July 23 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald, the laughably titled ‘World Focus’ column announced the deaths of fifty-two Gazans. On the same day, headlines screamed the politics of building permits in Jerusalem, and stories on housing settlements garnered half a page. For the humanitarian in all of us, it is a merciless reminder of the insignificance of Palestinian lives: fifty-two people died at a wedding reception in Gaza and all the tragedy merited was thirty-four words.

The tragedy occurred when a bomb went off at a wedding reception of a relative of Mohammed Dahlan, former security chief in Gaza and now the Palestinian Authority’s new security minister. In Hamas-run Gaza, political opponents (namely Fatah supporters) are tortured or executed by Hamas for alleged collusion with Israel. So when a Fatah minister’s family fall victim to terrorism, why doesn’t it meet the standards of newsworthiness?

Sure, the big stories of the day, like municipal housing disputes or the long queues at security checkpoints, are valid and duly concerning, but the deaths of scores of innocent Palestinians should be a leading story. The question must be asked – where in the world is Jason Koutsoukis? Or does he only report on Gazan casualties when the perpetrators are Israeli?

Captions can make all the difference when reporting on the Middle East, as this photo proves (AFP)

Captions can make all the difference when reporting on the Middle East, as this photo proves (AFP)

AFP photographer Ahmad Gharabli was on hand during violent demonstrations by ultra-Orthodox residents of Jerusalem against the opening of a parking lot on the Sabbath, and against the case of an ultra-orthodox woman accused of child abuse. The photo he snapped [left] spoke volumes, and he captioned the photo as follows:

An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man gestures during clashes with Israeli forces following demonstrations against the arrest of a woman accused of child abuse in Jerusalem on July 16, 2009. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed with police for a third day in protest at an ‘unjustified’ arrest of a religious woman and the opening of a parking lot on Saturdays, the Jewish holy day of rest. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images”

The photo was used used by The Australian in their report to illustrate a July 20 story on US-Israel conflict over East Jerusalem construction. The caption read as follows:

“An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man gestures during clashes with Israeli forces following demonstrations in Jerusalem. Picture: AFP”

The only meaning readers draw from this provocative photo is that Israelis are brazenly defying the US, with one flip of the bird suddenly representative of an entire nation. Did you notice the “demonstrations” had nothing whatsoever to do with the published story? So how can the editor knowingly choose such an unrelated image and make the subtle association on the readers’ behalf – especially when the picture was front and centre on the world home page?

The truth is, new media can be especially murky. The space between comment and fact, the delineation between the skill or professionalism of the writer or journalist, and the unmoderated marketplace of reader talkback opens up a new can of worms.

Independent operations like New Matilda or ABC Unleashed are amongst those who deliberately blur the lines and present their case as news created by the people, for the people. But without moderation, comments on Middle East related pieces can and do descend into vitriolic, incendiary and largely offensive diatribes, prompting New Matilda to shut down their comment capabilities on Middle East articles, and bringing the debate to ABC Unleashed

Although they say ‘don’t believe everything you read’, opinion and knowledge of the Middle East is very much shaped by the media. A recent poll conducted by Roy Morgan highlighted this fact, with 49 per cent of respondents admitting to not knowing very much at all about “the situation” in Israel/Palestine (May 22, 2009).

So why is the media’s role in informing the public not made more concrete than simply an ethical code? There is a distinct lack of comprehensive regulatory standards when it comes to this kind of reporting, that gives credence to the axiom:

If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed.  If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

(Read a longer version here.)

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