Monday, December 28, 2009

One year later: Emotions versus facts in Gaza reporting

I just looked at a CNN interview of Taghreed El-Khodary, a New York Times reporter in Gaza, on December 28th, 2008.

She describes the chaos and fear of Gazans in the first days of Cast Lead, as well as her own fear. Superimposed over her interview are images from Arab TV of rubble and fires.

El-Khodary begins by talking about how Hamas places its facilities in residential areas, but does not ascribe any blame whatsoever on Hamas for doing so. On the contrary, she says that Israel is trying to make Gazans turn against Hamas but that she has only heard anger against the US, Egypt, the PA and Israel, but none against Hamas by ordinary Gazans. This appears to be her way of saying that she herself is angry at Israel and not at Hamas, as this is an old reporter's trick of finding others who confirm the reporter's already preconceived notions.

Video, as a whole, is a much more emotional medium than print. While El-Khodary's written reports are edited and polished to New York Times standards of seeming objectivity and distance, her live report shows her understandable frustration and fear, which is far more visceral and powerful.

She describes how close she herself lives to a police station that was targeted as well as to a mosque that Israel had warned residents would be bombed.

Most emotionally, El-Khodary also talks about walking outside a hospital over the bodies of unrecognizable students, many still in school uniforms, waiting to be identified.

Finally, she says flatly that Israel is engaging in "collective punishment against the people of Gaza. "

This is a purely emotional statement, not a factual one, but live television does not have editors and a statement like that carries more weight than any number of carefully-written newspaper articles that may add caveats and context.

At the time of the report, El-Khodary said that over 290 were killed. According to PCHR, by the end of December 28th, some 362 had been killed.

Out of those 362, only 21 were under the age of 18. Out of those 362, only nine were women (one of those a policewoman.)

Every civilian casualty is tragic. But by any objective measure, in an area where over 75% of the residents are women or children, a rate of about 8% of the deaths being in those categories is unbelievable and unprecedented for an urban area in wartime. It indicates an almost superhuman effort to minimize civilian casualties on the part of the IDF.

The sad fact is that video cannot capture the hundreds of civilians who remain alive because of IDF policy to minimize civilian casualties, to drop thousands of flyers and send thousands of SMS messages warning civilians about upcoming strikes. A frightened reporter's live, flat statement of Israel's intentions is more visceral than any number of opposing IDF statements backed up with verifiable data.

This is not specifically CNN's fault - it is the nature of TV. Video producers are trained to look at the "human side" of the story, and to get as much live and unfiltered coverage as possible. It would be nice if 24-hour news channels would contextualize each Gaza report with the information that Israel was reacting after years of incessant rocket attacks against its citizens; that Israel went to the UN to stop the attacks and the international community did nothing, that Israel withdrew from Gaza and the attacks against southern Negev communities intensified. This is not realistic, but is means that TV coverage of a war is going to be inevitably skewed. In addition, the subtle bias of print media gets turned into a much more obvious bias of live TV.

The inescapable truth is that a single video of a dead or scared child is more powerful than mere facts, and that TV will do far more to influence public opinion than print media. The Al Dura incident showed that most starkly, and the Gaza war coverage proved it anew.