Here’s a fun question: If the news media were trying to start World War III, what would they do differently?
The way the news business has acquitted itself this week, it sure seems as if it’s trying to instigate all-out global conflict.
On Tuesday, the world was confronted with shocking news: An Israeli airstrike had leveled the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, killing at least 500 civilians. The problem with the story is that it was not true — not even a little bit true.
Yes, there was an explosion in the general vicinity of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, in a nearby parking lot. The hospital was not destroyed or even hit directly by the explosion. In a conversation with Agence France-Presse, a European intelligence officer placed the estimated civilian death toll from the explosion at around “50 at most.”
Perhaps more importantly, there is no evidence of an Israeli missile strike. In fact, separate assessments by both Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies suggest the damage was caused by the failed launch of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket in Gaza, resulting in an explosion at ground level that killed people gathered near the hospital.
The media, unfortunately, were a lot faster than the facts. “At least 500 killed in Israeli airstrike on Gaza City hospital, Gaza Health Ministry says,” read a Los Angeles Times headline. At Reuters, it was: “Hundreds killed in Israeli air strike on Gaza hospital — health authorities.” As of this writing, the Reuters story on this incident remains largely uncorrected, reporting “hundreds” of deaths and repeating unfounded claims that an “Israeli air strike” caused them.
“Hundreds of people have been killed in an Israeli air strike on a hospital in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials,” the BBC reported. When Israeli officials disputed the allegations, the BBC was careful in its coverage of the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) denials to note, “The BBC has not been able to verify” the IDF’s “claims.” Apparently, BBC journalists hadn’t even thought of verifying the claims in their original story.
Some newsrooms even sent “breaking news” push alerts to cellphones, guaranteeing that the original, false version of events as relayed by Gaza officials would be cemented in everyone’s minds — particularly in Arab countries, where sensitivities about this conflict are already high.
The immediate reaction from the public was shock, as each new headline carried with it some grisly new detail about the alleged airstrike. But the dopamine high of horror soon gave way upon the undeniable fact that the hospital was still in one piece. Then it turned out that the death toll was not even close to what was initially reported. Finally, there was all the evidence pointing to anti-Israel terrorists as responsible for the explosion.
In other words, the media failed spectacularly to adhere to even the most basic principles of newsgathering. Practically nothing reported turned out to be true. The organizations publishing this nonsense would have known this had they applied even the slightest scrutiny to the story.
But they didn’t. And the consequences of this go much deeper than just the news industry’s ongoing credibility crisis.
The Middle East is a powder keg. The Israel-Palestine conflict is always fraught, of course, but this moment is even more sensitive than usual. It could even turn into a second front in what, combined with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is starting to feel an awful lot like a world war.
“News” of a non-existent hospital airstrike didn’t appear in a vacuum. It quickly ricocheted around the Middle East, sparking highly volatile protests in Baghdad, Istanbul, Beirut, Amman, Doha, Tehran, Cairo and elsewhere. Some protests turned violent, with demonstrators swarming Israeli and U.S. embassies.
“News” of the rocket strike landed with such a bang, in fact, that Jordan canceled a planned summit featuring President Joe Biden, Jordan King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Biden responded by canceling his trip to Jordan altogether.
All this because journalists didn’t bother to check, instead basing allegations of an Israeli war crime entirely on the say-so of a group dedicated solely to the destruction of Israel. The story was “too good to check,” even if the only source is known to lie if it advances the cause.
Some have attempted to defend the legacy media with messages along the lines of, “It’s hard to get it right when the story moves so quickly,” but this kind of media disaster goes far beyond sloppy and ignorant. Reuters, the LA Times and the BBC have a combined four centuries of newsgathering experience. This isn’t their first time covering an active war zone. There are rules for these types of things. They knew those rules, but they ignored them, probably to publish claims that confirmed their own biases.
But this type of bias, for this specific region and with these specific players, is especially dangerous — far more dangerous than the type of bias with which most American readers are familiar. These editors are going to get people killed. Actually, they probably already have.
And to blame lazy or biased editors is actually the charitable interpretation. A more cynical person might suspect that, for some in the media, the entire newsgathering and reporting process is simply a means to an end.
Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.
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