November 2023

The debate over detachment and impartiality is as old as journalism itself. The Israel-Hamas war has placed it under the spotlight again

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

“The emergency room in Shifa Hospital is often a place of gore and despair. On Thursday, it was also a lesson in the way ordinary people are squeezed between suicidal fighters and a military behemoth ….” 

So begins the January 9, 2009 article titled Fighter Sees His Paradise in Gaza’s Pain by the then New York Times Gaza correspondent Taghreed El-Khodary.

She happens to walk into the carnage of the aftermath of shelling by the Israeli military in response to Hamas firing mortar and rocket rounds from an apartment near a civilian settlement and manages to grill the “happy” militant, who turns out to be with Islamic Jihad, fighting alongside Hamas. He is smiling and trying to get ahead of the line of dead and dying civilians in the emergency room so he can go back to fighting.

“Why are you happy?” Taghreed asks him. “Look around you … don’t you see these people are hurting?”

“But I'm from the people, too,” the militant says, still smiling. “They lost their loved ones as martyrs. They should be happy. I want to be a martyr, too.”

The entire story is just 370 words. Yet for me, it is still one of the most memorable examples of war coverage I have come across as a journalist. Not only is Taghreed’s brave reporting on the insanity of war so powerful, but it is also exemplary for its objectivity for a Palestinian like her, who lives in Gaza and, like any normal human being reporting on this horrific and endless war, must have personal feelings.

Fast forward to October 17, 2023, when I heard the news of the bombing of Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza and watched on TV scenes of injured people being taken to nearby Shifa Hospital. I listened to conflicting media reports on claims of responsibility and the death toll, including this editorial on October 23 by the New York Times on why its coverage of the hospital bombing had changed several times.

Then I remembered Taghreed’s short but powerful story filed 14 years earlier, and thought about what it means to be a reporter on a personal level. Taghreed’s story could have been written only yesterday. By an eerie coincidence, even the actors (the Israeli military, Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, as well as Palestinian civilians caught between them) and the location (Shifa Hospital, where the dead and wounded were being taken from the bombed Al-Ahli Hospital) were the same.

Ever since the September 11 attacks, Western media have become increasingly dependent on local journalists in conflict zones because of the dangers facing Western journalists who report there themselves. As the former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller puts it: “A journalist’s personal connections to a subject could contribute depth and texture to their reporting,” as seen in examples such as C.J. Chivers, Anthony Shadid, and Nazila Fathi. I would add Taghreed El-Khodary’s name to that list.

The main ethical challenge is whether factors such as a reporter or editor’s identity, family history, personal relationships, or political views could affect their reporting and editing – consciously or otherwise – and compromise the veracity of their work. In that respect, I would again count Taghreed and her then-editor Ian Fisher’s work as exemplary.

The same question of objectivity applies to the reporting of a Jewish or Israeli journalist covering the war from Israel. Some might argue that impartiality and objectivity are mere pipe dreams. As such, they are difficult to define, measure and enforce. Journalists are indeed professionals, but they are also human. We are held to the highest degree of ethics and required to always show incredible journalistic detachment when it comes to the stories we are covering. 

I agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. In a war situation, we need reporters who describe what they see and hear as journalists, not as partisans. We need them to take the time to explain the nuances and talk to those with views most of us find extreme or loathsome, especially among Western audiences.

Yet we are seeing the opposite happening in the Israel-Hamas war. Conferences featuring pro-Palestinian speakers are being abruptly cancelled; views critical of Israeli policies are censored; there are demands to fire the presidents of universities that allow Palestinian voices on their campus to be heard.

To avoid a conflict of interest, some argue that we need to see the full biographies reporters, any affiliations they or their families may have with either side in a conflict; and any other online public data easily searched and used by media watchdogs or partisan readers with an agenda**.

When this is not viable due to concerns over a reporter’s safety, an ombudsman can play an important role as mediator between a publication and its readers. The current level of partisanship and cancel culture make it hard for news editors to strictly follow the ethical rule that a hint of the appearance of bias requires the elimination of any apparent conflict-of-interest, even if none actually exists.

“A clear divide [exists] between editorial opinion pages and news pages. Reporters do not take sides and are not influenced by the editorial page,” the New York Times former foreign editor, Susan Chira, once said.

Sadly, Taghreed had to suspend and later on abandon her reporting from Gaza after 2009. Her work had placed her and her sources in danger after it emerged that the Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, had a son serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.

*More in-depth analysis of Taghreed El-Khodary’s reporting and her editor Ian Fisher’s editing in a Q&A format and the readers’ comments on the New York Times’ Middle East coverage can be found here

**Those interested in reading about a real-life dilemma about a journalist’s personal connections, and if these connections can influence their feelings about the issues they cover, should visit the Columbia University Journalism School case study titled Conflicted: The New York Times and the Bias Question

Ilgın Yorulmaz is a freelance reporter for BBC World Turkish. She is the Second Vice President of the FCCJ.