Finding the line between sensation and responsible reporting can be a difficult task. There are times when the subject of a news story will say something outrageous that causes a reporter to lay down his pen and ask, “Did you really mean that?” Over the top quotes can make a story pop — providing better placement in a newspaper and a brief “buzz” for the story. It can also distort the narrative, changing the story from the issues under discussion to comments about the issues.
I’ve played this game. When writing for the Jerusalem Post a few years back I submitted a story about a call for divestment from Israel made by the General Synod of the Church of England. The article moved from the back of the newspaper to the front page after the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey told me the vote made him “ashamed to be an Anglican” — this comment ensured the story was a three-day wonder.
On another occasions I have omitted comments from a story that were equally strong — but would have distorted the story by changing the focus from the issue to offensive or dumb comments made by one of the subjects of the story.
A recent Reuters story on comments made by a Hamas spokesman following the visit to Auschwitz by an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas brought this issue to mind. Should Reuters have given the complete quote? Should Reuters have mentioned the religious angle lying beneath the story? Let me show you what I mean. “Hamas slams Palestinian visit to ‘alleged’ Holocaust site” begins:
The Hamas Islamist group in charge of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday denounced a Palestinian official’s visit to the site of a Nazi death camp in Poland, and called the Holocaust in which 6 million European Jews perished an “alleged tragedy.”
Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who governs in the occupied West Bank, had made a rare visit by a Palestinian official to the site of the Auschwitz death camp late last month.
“It was an unjustified and unhelpful visit that served only the Zionist occupation,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas. Hamas rejects Israel’s existence and interim peace accords reached by Abbas’ more moderate Fatah group with Israel.
Barhoum further called Bandak’s visit to Auschwitz, a camp where the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, most of them Jews but also other Polish citizens, during World War Two, as “a marketing of a false Zionist alleged tragedy.”
He said he saw this as coming “at the expense of a real Palestinian tragedy,” alluding to Israel’s control over territory where Palestinians live and seek to establish a state.
The article continues with mention of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and the political split within the PA between the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah controlled West Bank. The story closes by saying:
Bandak’s visit to Auschwitz, where he laid a wreath at the invitation of a group working for tolerance in Poland, was a rare one by a Palestinian to the death camp site. Muslim officials from other countries have also paid respects there.
Last week the AP reported on plans for the trip and included the detail that Bandak was a Christian.
Ziad al-Bandak, a Christian who advises Abbas on Christian affairs, visited prisoner blocs, gas chambers and a crematorium in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, which the Germans built and operated in southern Poland during their World War II occupation of the country.
Does this nugget advance the story, or does it polarize it by adding a faith dimension to Holocaust denial and Anti-Semitism?
And, the invaluable MEMRI news service provided the full quote from the Hamas spokesman, which was much stronger than the version printed by Reuters. The report entitled “PA Official’s Auschwitz Visit Evokes Enraged Responses from Hamas” said:
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said: “The visit helped Israel to spread the lie of the Holocaust, and does not serve the Palestinian cause. It has been clearly proven that the Israeli narrative [of the Holocaust] is fraudulent. [The Israelis] exaggerate what happened in order to garner international sympathy, which for years has come at the expense of the Palestinians.”
The “lie of the Holocaust” quote is extraordinary. Its omission lowers the temperature of the story. But does the omission change the story?
The traditional school of Anglo-American journalism seeks to present the world as it is, seeking to separate the reporter’s worldview from the narrative. But is that possible? In the example I offered from my own work, I demonstrated how I sought to exercise editorial judgment in preparing a story. I led with the ashamed quote in the JPost story because I did not believe it was dumb — but others might say that it was a foolish statement that distracted from the underlying story.
Omitting mention of the Christian faith of the Palestinian statesman and downplaying the severity of the Hamas quotes, Reuters chose to exercise its editorial judgment — letting us know what it believed was important. I disagree with this judgment. To my mind the faith of Ziad al-Bandak and his position as an adviser on Christian Affairs is significant to the story as it sets up the underlying split between Hamas and Fatah — Christians are under the gun in Gaza and reports place the blame on Hamas.
I would also argue that Reuters sanitized Barhoum’s words. A story about reactions to the visit would not have been distorted by Barhoum’s extraordinary, delusional — some would say evil — comments. What say you Get Religion readers? Did Reuters let down its readers? Should it have led with the “lie of the Holocaust” or was it right to downplay these sentiments? Is Reuters denying Hamas Holocaust denial?