Do you remember this riveting photo that ran in various media outlets — on the front page, above the fold, across four columns of the Washington Post, for instance — that showed journalist Jihad Masharawi grieving over his dead son? Those reports claimed that the child had been killed by an Israeli rocket. It turns out, months later, that we find out it was most likely from a Hamas rocket.
The original picture is the one to the left, albeit it with a somewhat new caption. It reads:
FILE – In this Nov. 14, 2012 file photo, Jihad Masharawi weeps while he holds the body of his 11-month old son Ahmad, at Shifa hospital following an Israeli air strike on their family house, in Gaza City. A U.N. report indicates an errant Palestinian rocket, not an Israeli airstrike, likely killed the baby of Masharawi during fighting in the Hamas-ruled territory last November. The death of Omar al-Masharawi, became a symbol of what Palestinians see as Israeli aggression during eight days of fighting that killed more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis.
Obviously that should be corrected. But the way the initial story was handled is fascinating, particularly in light of how corrections were handled.
Back in November, we saw a story about the story behind the photo that featured the comments of BBC Middle East Bureau Chief Paul Danahar and others. For example:
“We’re all one team in Gaza,” Danahar told me, saying that Misharawi is a BBC video and photo editor. After spending a “few hours” with his grieving colleague, he wrote on Twitter, ”Questioned asked here is: if Israel can kill a man riding on a moving motorbike (as they did last month) how did Jihad’s son get killed.”
This gets into the territory of how we cover the ethics of war fighting and the role religion plays into it. To boil extremely complicated stories down to the matter here in the initial story, the Jewish nation of Israel claims to avoid civilian casualties. Palestinian Muslims fighting them justify the targeting of civilians. There are war ethics debates regarding disproportionate force, human rights allowances, and much more. I say “the initial story” because there’s nothing conclusive about who fired the rocket and no one is claiming that the Palestinian rocket firing was trying to harm Palestinian civilians even if it was trying to harm Israeli citizens.
When the photo first ran, Israel defenders said it was a prime example of some media’s rush to judgement. Palestinian supporters said the photo, which spread all over social media, simply depicted Israeli aggression.
Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton defended running the photo by appealing to the “truth” it depicted:
That the man is Palestinian — not a terrorist but a journalist — and that the bomb was dropped by Israelis, to my mind, is almost beside the point. This photo depicted loss and pain, the horrific cost to innocents on both sides of the violence in the Middle East.
But many Post readers saw it differently. Jewish groups and American Jews in large numbers wrote to the ombudsman and to Post editors, protesting the photo as biased.
MaryAnne Golon, The Post’s director of photography, explained to me that the purpose of any front-page photo, regardless of subject, is to move the reader, whether through its beauty, sentiment or drama.
“When we looked at the selection that night of Middle East photos from the wire services, this photo got everyone in the gut,” Golon said. “It went straight to the heart, this sobbing man who just lost his baby son.”
Post staff then authenticated and verified the facts behind the Associated Press photo. The dead baby was real. The bombing was real….
I think we can all agree that the Gaza rocket fire is reprehensible and is aimed at terrorizing Israeli civilians. It’s disruptive and traumatic. But let’s be clear: The overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza are like bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.
Perhaps this photo can show how terrorizing, traumatic and deadly those bee stings can be to the families of the dozens of Israelis killed by them and the families of the hundreds of Israelis injured by them.
Anyway, this Pexton column needs to have a correction inserted, as the earlier piece did. It also needs to address the claim made that the Post “authenticated and verified the facts behind” the photo. If that’s the case, what happened? And how will those who made the errors be held accountable?
The Post did run this Associated Press piece, which updated the story. There was also this staff reflection, lacking somewhat in its own right. An editor’s note ran in Wednesday’s paper — not on the front page but on page A2 — and there was an interesting piece from Paul Farhi about what went wrong. He discusses the fog of war as well as how propaganda campaigns play a role:
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said the issue is further complicated by Hamas and Hezbollah, the Islamist groups that oppose Israel in Gaza and southern Lebanon, respectively.
“You have to understand that the media is as much of a battlefield for them as anything going on” on the ground, he said. “You are dealing with terrorist organizations that will exploit and manipulate the media. They know how the Western press works and how to use it to their advantage.”
Both organizations, Oren said, use civilian deaths to turn public opinion against Israel, even if those deaths occur under ambiguous circumstances. This should make any news organization wary about attributing particular casualties.
The photo would not have been as newsworthy to Western media organizations if the caption had said it was unclear how the baby had died, said Eric Rozenman, Washington director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a watchdog group. That’s because the image played into preconceived notions about Israel’s military might.
The lesson for the news media is to use caution in reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict Rozenman said. “If you really didn’t know the circumstances for the information in a , then it ought to have a flag on it” saying as much, he added.
Whether it’s as newsworthy to admit what you don’t know or not, it’s the only right thing to do. And I think we still need to know what happened as it relates to the Post‘s claim of independent fact checking as to who was responsible. And editor’s explanation for why the correction took a while to make was because the staff was verifying information. That should be done on the front end even more than the back end.
There’s no way to make up for a mistake like this. In the future, though, it’s important to remember to be certain of claims published in the paper. If a mistake is made, as they sadly will be since we’re all human, corrections should be issued fully and promptly and without too much defensiveness.
And when it comes to the horrors of war, it would just be nicer to see more coverage of religion and ethics angles all around. This applies to US war efforts as well as other countries.