Politics

“I Did Have Some Trouble Reporting the Truth”

Some journalists covering Israel and Palestine say an “illusive concept of impartiality” led them to face persistent doubts and skewed editing for years. Is that changing now?

Several people wearing flak jackets labeled "press" stand in front of a pile of rubble on a clear day
Journalists cover the destroyed Jala Tower, which housed international press offices, following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on May 15. Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, after Hamas members kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, Israeli forces arrested hundreds of Palestinians, and the Israeli response quickly grew into an on-the-ground military operation in Gaza. In the subsequent seven-week assault, according to a United Nations report, 2,251 Palestinians were killed—1,462 of them civilians—along with 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians. At least four journalists were killed.

Omar was an Arab American reporter on the ground in 2014 for a major American newspaper. (Omar is not his real name.) When he tried to cover the mass Palestinian causalities, he began to get what he saw as perplexing orders from his editor’s bosses.

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“They wanted us to do journalism in the service of IDF talking points,” he said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “They were very keen on us doing stories where we can find rocket batteries that Hamas was using to fire rockets into southern Israel, and they wanted us to map out the proximity to schools and UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] sites that were housing people that were internally displaced.” Omar said his immediate editors tried to focus on reporting what he was seeing on the ground, but they faced resistance.

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“We have the world’s best editors, who were really sincere about their desire to be truthful in the reporting on what’s happening. And then we had another tier of editor above them who were more mindful of the tone of the media organization, and dictated a lot of the tone,” he said over the phone.

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To Omar, when a statement came from the Israel Defense Forces, senior editors at the paper treated it as fact. When Omar recorded a statement from an eyewitness on the ground that contradicted the Israeli military’s account, he said the top editors called it unreliable. “And that could be their own reporter’s eyes—not just people we were interviewing after the fact,” he said.

“I wrote this piece about the extraordinary number of people that were being killed in Gaza in 2014. It was ready to go. It had gone through so many edits. Excruciating edits. And the holdup was they wanted me to find out exactly how many children were injured by Hamas rockets in Israel. And then get reporting on the psychological impact of that on Israeli children,” he told me. “It’s this level of bending over backwards for some illusive concept of impartiality that is just so impractical and would never be applied to any story elsewhere in the organization. If a Black man gets shot by police, we do not go and try and track down how many white cops were assaulted by Black men that same year or something like that. It’s dispiriting, and upsetting,” he said.

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“Often, something we saw in real time would be scrutinized heavily in a way the IDF’s point of view was never scrutinized,” he said. “It colored every interaction.”

This experience was a familiar one to many journalists who started talking with one another on private WhatsApp chat groups and Slack channels as the latest violence broke out in Gaza and Israel. The chats are made up of dozens of journalists across a range of media organizations who are sharing stories of seeing their work doubted and altered. They’re sharing tips on how to have difficult conversations with editors who are reluctant to publish articles that focus on Palestinian voices. And they’re also talking about some positive shifts they are seeing in the coverage.

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But even with those shifts, almost no one I spoke to would allow their name to be used, a sign that the fear of reprisal remains strong.

Layla, a former New York Times journalist who also asked that her real name not be used, has a theory about what’s changed. “The collective political consciousness has shifted largely because of Black Lives Matter,” she told me. “Last summer, our newsrooms as a reflection of a larger society had to take a hard look at state violence, how we perceive it, how we cover it, in a way we haven’t done before.”

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Layla, who is Palestinian American, shocked even herself when she eventually quit the Times. “I’d been there for seven years at this point. And when the big escalation happened in summer of 2014, and they were massacring civilians in Gaza, the NYT coverage, as usual, violated all the basic principles that they insist on sticking to for just about every other story,” she told me. “The thing that really killed me was this ‘rocket tracker.’ ” She was referencing this graphic-driven article that charted the number of rockets fired from Gaza alongside the cumulative number of deaths, the vast majority of them Palestinians.

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“It was a depressive couple of weeks of crying in the restroom,” she said. “I also had a close ally in the opinion department who was forwarding me all the responses those editors were having about pitches. And the sheer racism and dehumanization from rank-and-file opinion editors when talking about Palestinians was just jarring. And these are people in my union—people who were my co-workers.”

Layla told me she tried to raise her concerns with Susan Chira, who was then a top Times editor, and Dean Baquet, the executive editor. Layla said she got frustrating responses. “The line was basically, if we’re being criticized by people who are pro-Israel, and you’re also complaining, then we’re doing the right thing,” she said. Not long after, she quit.

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Chira, now the editor in chief of the Marshall Project, wrote in response, “I’m afraid since you don’t name the reporter, I have no specific memory of an exchange. I believe the quality of NYTimes reporting on both sides’ perspectives speaks for itself.” Danielle Rhoades Ha, a New York Times spokeswoman, said Layla’s characterization of her conversation with Baquet was “not accurate.” She referred to a video of Baquet discussing the issue in 2014. In it, he says in part, “Just as many critics who say we are biased against Israel, I get just as many emails saying the opposite. I promise you—and just as virulent.”

Despite her frustrations, Layla does believe things are changing, in part because, while there used to be so few Arab Americans in mainstream newsrooms, now “there’s enough of us to have community groups,” she said. Some have published open letters to their editors demanding more impartial reporting on Israel and Palestine. Others have focused on smaller fights at their workplaces.

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Peter Beinart, a writer and editor-at-large at Jewish Currents, a progressive Jewish magazine, told me the battles about stories are often fought in these details. “There’s a whole carefully curated language around this conflict, where terms are often deployed in order to not provoke controversy or backlash,” he told me. Beinart said he believes this isn’t motivated by political slant, but rather conditioning. “One of the things that I hope that will start to happen is that people will interrogate that language and ask, ‘Maybe this is the politically safe language, but is it actually true?’ ”

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Beinart has already noticed changes in how reporters and outlets choose their words in recent months. He pointed to the increasing use of racist instead of phrases like racially tinged. He expects more of the press is close to bringing that bluntness when we speak about Israel. “Even putting aside what happens in the West Bank or Gaza, where Palestinians aren’t citizens at all and the state dominates their lives, it is very frightening that words like ethnonationalism or Jewish supremacy or Jewish domination would be unsafe words for most mainstream newspapers to use. Even though, in a certain sense, they really shouldn’t be controversial.”

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Beinart also said he expects the language we use about organizations like Hamas to evolve over time as well. “People are so afraid of legitimizing or justifying Hamas. And I understand why they wouldn’t—a friend of mine was killed in a Hamas bus bombing. I have a personal experience with Hamas’ violence,” he told me. Still, he said he believes some language about Hamas obscures context. “One of the things that happens is we hear about a Hamas official being killed, but Hamas is running the equivalent of a post office. It’s got a military wing in its organization, but it’s also running a civil society. So those distinctions are often lost.”

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“I did have some trouble reporting the truth,” Morgan, a reporter at a major American news outlet, told me of their reporting in Gaza in the mid-2010s. (Morgan is not the journalist’s actual name.) “Most Americans had internalized the Israeli equivalencies and narratives. It became the default for how people edit your reporting, present your stories in tweets, and write your captions, and even how we frame the story.”

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Morgan’s work was often edited in subtle ways, but they believe that just by swapping words, editors changed the narrative. “As the reporter, if you go in and this thing is happening in front of you, you can report it. But it’s little things, the terminology, the headlines, things would come out in ways I didn’t want. So I had to be extremely vigilant.”

At the time, Morgan had been reporting for days on civilian deaths, including families killed in their homes. Morgan and other journalists were risking their lives, with constant nearby bombardments.

As Morgan reported on mass deaths of Palestinian civilians, they received directives from higher up suggesting they work on other subjects not connected to the daily events of the war. Morgan recalled, “It half came straight from CAMERA,” or the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a pro-Israel media watchdog group that purports to expose skewed news articles.

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“It was like a veiled letter, like, ‘You need to do some stuff that shows you’re tough on the terrorists, because you’ve been doing all these stories on the stuff that was actually happening, which was bombs hitting houses, killing many civilians.’ ”

“I’d have many, many small and large negotiations with editors to adjust details in stories. It was extremely exhausting,” Morgan told me. Morgan worried these took a toll on their status at work: “Every time you had one of those conversations, you were increasing your reputation as a frictional reporter who’s difficult to work with.”

Now, Morgan finds some relief in how the conversation has started to shift. “Speaking broadly, throughout all the topics that we cover, there’s an increased sensitivity toward not having the default person be a white, straight male, or even American,” Morgan told me. But they see the issue as even more basic. “Frankly, the issue here is—are Palestinians human? Are Arabs human? Are Muslims human? It’s hard for me to talk about it without getting angry. But that is what it’s about. It happens to be an intense example of a much broader issue, and I think there’s going to be a big change generationally that we’re already seeing in American Jews under 40 having a completely different take on this. And you can see people tweeting a lot about ‘I can’t believe I was sold on this lie in Hebrew school or Birthright.’ And some of those people are in newsrooms. You also have generations of first-, second-generation Muslims and Arabs who—increasingly, as people of color, and in issues of representation and fairness—have the confidence and ability to stick up for themselves.”

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Issa, an Arab American correspondent for a major U.S. news service, was reporting from Gaza around the same time as Morgan. (Issa isn’t his real name.) He recounted many of the same experiences about trying to report on what he and his peers were seeing. “We commiserated over the fight we were all having with our desks,” he told me. “We were all reporting similar things, and having similar fights.”

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Issa was singled out by CAMERA, which created a profile for him on its website and published a series of articles seeking to discredit him and his reporting. He said it seemed intended to intimidate him and his employer, but he wore it as a badge of honor. Still, because of industrywide budget cuts, his and other outlets scaled back their foreign operations and recalled their journalists in the region.

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“The scary part now is that there’s so many fewer foreign operations than there used to be. So, there’s less diversity,” he told me. “If the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal are intimidated, you still had correspondents running around from the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News,” he told me. “When I moved to the Middle East, there were three times as many correspondents than there are now. And when there’s fewer of us, that could only make us easier to control.”

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Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a Palestinian journalist who has worked for HuffPost, Vice, and Al Jazeera, said one memory of his coverage haunts him especially. In 2015, he was filming a documentary for Vice. He came upon a group of settlers destroying a Palestinian family’s home in the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem. He said a group of homes had been slated for eviction nearby, but not this home. After a mother who lived there came home with her young daughter, he watched as the settlers threw the young girl’s toys out of the house, removing pipes and destroying furniture. “And we’re filming, and all of a sudden, there’s a torrential downpour, and they’re locked out of their home,” he told me. “Literally if we had done all the planning with millions of dollars to try and capture the scene that unfolded in front of us that we captured by chance, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

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Shihab-Eldin said the scene was cut from the documentary by Vice. “They had completely removed that scene and added all this archival footage. Like 30 percent of the film became archival. Not only did they censor the doc, but they took out the heart of what we had captured,” he said. “They sent me a script, and it was super different than what I had written.”

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“ ‘Dude, the settlements are crazy controversial,’ ” Shihab-Eldin said he was told. “ ‘Some see them as illegal. Israel doesn’t. So we can’t show the confrontation because it will make it show too much of one side’s argument.’ ”

When we reached out to Vice to ask about this incident, a Vice spokesperson said, “Vice News does not comment on our editorial decisions.” Instead, the spokesperson referred us to Vice correspondent Hind Hassan’s more recent reports from East Jerusalem.

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Shihab-Eldin said he’s been heartened by what he’s seen the past couple of weeks. “Veteran journalists on Sky News are each day remarking on the context, focusing on the disproportionate nature, and using terminology like ethnic displacement or ethnic cleansing,” he said. “The way we talk about it has changed. Eight years ago, when I was working at the New York Times and PBS and other places, I would have to have arguments about using the word occupy, just to point out that these cities are occupied,” he told me. “Now, we’re using terms like apartheid.”

This week, Shihab-Eldin spoke publicly for the first time about the footage cut from his documentary himself.

“I think there’s a lot of self-censorship. People are always beholden to the editors directly above them who are enforcing it,” said Salam, an Arab producer at a cable news network who asked to use an anonymized name. He said there is a group chat where his colleagues can privately discuss the ways they’ve felt unable to do their job in the coverage of Israel and Palestine. “I feel a little apprehensive saying this, but it is almost like it’s instilled in you that this is a ‘sensitive’ topic, and everything needs signoff,” he said. (Indeed, multiple editors at Slate read this piece.) He told me there are internal concerns over who exactly is making the decisions about what can and cannot be said in their coverage. “It’s easy to see how that can trickle down in the form of self-censorship,” he told me.

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Salam said that at his network, there is a strict policy against using the word Palestine. “They say Palestine as a country doesn’t exist, so we say ‘Palestinian territories,’ ” he told me. “URLs have slugs with keywords that identify the topic for SEO purposes.” Someone used “Palestine” in a slug, and he got a message from someone senior saying “We do NOT use the word Palestine in our coverage.” “And now every time there’s an article that’s out, I scour it to see,” he said, “if people are trying to slip through the net. But it’s so carefully edited.”

He added, “We have a triad—fact-checkers, standards, and legal—but on this topic, everything has to be read and OK’d by the Jerusalem bureau chief. So it’s not possible to sneak something through if you wanted to.”

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“People still use ‘Palestine’ in editorial meetings and over Slack. It’s quite funny,” he said. “I’m not sure they’re doing it as an internal act of resistance or they’re just clueless, but people do.”

Salam said he has remained mostly dispirited by the coverage, but he’s found some hope. “I remember when HRW [Human Rights Watch] accused Israel of apartheid. That was a big deal. People were like, ‘Look, this is something we can actually say now with attribution.’ Obviously, we will always have to give the right of reply to Israel, who will deny it, but the fact we can now say an NGO is now accusing Israel of practicing apartheid is a big step, because doing that before would be too opinionated,” he said.

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“I think there’s a bit of an awakening among journalists who aren’t so quick to believe the shiny government narrative that’s put in front of them. I think now with social media being so prevalent, people can see with their own eyes what’s being recorded by people who are actually there. And you’re not so dependent on government press releases,” Salam said. “Gaza can come to you through your mobile phone. The only people long ago who were covering this properly was Al Jazeera, and they were stigmatized for being ‘terrorism TV.’ ”

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As I reported this story, a nightmare professional scenario many of these journalists feared played out in real time. Emily Wilder, who had only been at the Associated Press as a news associate for two weeks, was fired after she was attacked by right-wing groups and became a focal point for attacks online.

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“I’m a little overwhelmed,” Wilder said on Thursday, not long after she was fired. “That’s the only coherent feeling at this point. It’s a lot.” Unlike most journalists quoted in this story, Wilder didn’t even cover Israel or Palestine. But the 22-year-old Arizona-based reporter was part of a pro-Palestinian group in college and tweeted about bias in coverage of Israel and Palestine. She said she was told she violated social media policy when she was fired, but said the AP declined to elaborate.

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Lauren Easton, the director of media relations for the AP, confirmed Wilder was fired for her social media posts but did not specify which ones violated policy. She added, “We have this policy so the comments of one person cannot create dangerous conditions for our journalists covering the story.”

“I’m a Jewish journalist. I’m not denying I’ve ever been involved in activism. I’m not going to claim that I don’t have opinions,” Wilder said over the phone. “Yes, I have opinions about something that is deeply important to my community. I don’t think those opinions, or my past as an activist, preclude me from ever being a journalist ever again.”

Besides, she said, “I was a news associate. I did not ever write about Israel and Palestine.”

Wilder, like a lot of reporters, has been closely watching the most recent news, and has been particularly interested in whether the language used to describe Israel’s grip on the daily lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza is shifting. She thought things might be different now.

“And then this happened,” she said. “I’ve seen people be braver with the words that they’re using. And regardless of this happening to me, I do think there’s a movement in that direction. I think that’s evidenced by the fact that I’ve gotten a lot of support that I’m really appreciating.”

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