Note: This post was originally written for openDemocracy.
The Palestine-Israel conflict poses a moral dilemma for journalists. But being objective does not necessarily mean being neutral, and being fair does not mean refraining from making a judgement.
As reporters swarm the besieged streets of the shrinking Gaza strip, there has been an inundation of harrowing images and reports throwing Israel and its motives into utter disrepute. Palestinian mothers crying in anguish over the death of their children, families searching through rubble for survivors, hospitals littered with blood drenched casualties of the Israeli war machine – these images swell up inside us contempt for the perpetuators of such crimes.
Yet despite the international condemnation, the motives for these actions have been a hotly debated. I have even found it to be a polarising topic within my own circle of friends, despite most of them being strongly against the killing of innocent civilians. Was it the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers? Are they looking for tunnels or for revenge? Is Hamas rocket fire to blame?
Disregarding the constantly changing narrative (and the fact most of these reasons have been largely discredited), social media has been rife with accusations of propaganda from both sides. I myself have been accused of spamming pro-Palestinian articles on /r/worldnews – an internet community that has been targeted by pro-Israel groups such as the JIDF.
So the question remains – is it morally acceptable for reporters to pick a side? Certainly as journalists we have a duty to be impartial when reporting the facts, even though this can be argued to be a futile task. Any effort to disseminate news on a contentious issue will inherently cause accusations of media bias, “because journalists are human beings and journalism is not an exact science,” said Hilary Aked, writing for OpenDemocracy in 2012. “There is a great deal of truth in the assertion that to some extent one’s critique will depend on how the conflict is viewed,” she added.
We are emotional beings at our very core, and view all issues through the lens or prism of our own emotional sensibilities. And so it is of no surprise then that many of us turn to social media to express our outrage when we feel an injusticehas occurred. Quite simply, a significant majority of those who stand by the Palestinians do so because it is difficult to watch an injustice and not speak out. This is in itself a biological response, and is universal to humanity. For over a century now academics have studied this very issue, using anthropological and historical evidence to conclude that this sense of injustice is found everywhere, spanning across all cultures and periods of human history.
The process of evolution itself has carved this sense into humans. Those who witness others being subjected to injustice often respond as though it was an act of aggression towards themselves. This can be a powerful motivational condition. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote it in 1963: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Despite damning evidence of disproportionate aggression and international war crimes, many Israelis argue that they are the ones who have been demonised, and claim it is they who are in fact the victims of injustice. In turn many such persons choose to discredit opposing views as unduly partisan. But can it really be the case that those all over the world who all condemn the violence – international bodies, humanitarian organisations, world leaders, and so on – are simply liars, paid shills, or anti-Semitic?
In 1956, Leon Festinger and two colleagues released a classic work of social psychology that studied this very kind of unwarranted belief. When prophecy fails follows the story of a small cult that wholly committed themselves to an apocalyptic prophesy told by a woman named Dorothy Martin. She claimed to have received a message from a fictional planet, which revealed the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. What they found was that some of the group became increasingly dogmatic in their beliefs when the supposed prophesy was unfulfilled. The authors described this as a coping mechanism, and was one of the first published cases of cognitive dissonance – the discomfort one feels when confronted by information that conflicts with or significantly alters their worldview.
Fast forward half a century – in 2013, Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law, gave compelling evidence to the source of this diminished ability to reason. His paper, entitled Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government”, demonstrated hard evidence of motivated reasoning, a symptom of cognitive dissonance and part of this coping mechanism. His conclusion, as described by journalist Chris Mooney, is that partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [those] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”
Essentially, Kahan found that even when presented with the facts, motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe by ignoring contrary data. As summarised by Marty Kaplan, writing for AlterNet:
“It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem. The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are. We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalise what our emotions already want to believe.”
This finding is very problematic, for if we are to come to any kind of truth on this matter, or any issue in fact, we must open our hearts and minds to honest and open discourse. As objective observers we must accept that there is propaganda from both sides, but quite often this fact is used to validate unreasonable beliefs.
For instance, to assume Hamas have the same capability as Israel and its allies when it comes to disseminating propaganda seems wholly illogical. From government backed Hasbara to organisations such as CAMERA, this battle of hearts and minds has not been fought on a level playing field. It is only due to the concerted efforts of activists and the public at large that world opinion is now firmly on the side of the Palestinians. This change is largely attributed to the advent of the digital age and the feeling of injustice we have touched upon.
Some argue that as reporters we have a duty to remain neutral in such conflicts, and certainly, this is reflected in the ethics of journalism, particularly when it comes to broadcast in the UK. In his paper, Delivering trust: impartiality and objectivity in a digital age, Richard Sambrook, a professor of journalism at Cardiff University and BBC journalist for three decades, outlines some of the key issues surrounding objectivity after the advent of the internet and social media. In the papers abstract he states:
“The ideas of impartiality and objectivity – at the heart of serious news journalism for most of the last century – are now under pressure and even attack in the digital a…Today, in the digital age of plenty, notions of special responsibilities being placed on those with a public voice, and different approaches for print and broadcasting, are rapidly breaking down. As the disciplines of impartiality and objectivity disintegrate, there are increased signs of propaganda, entertainment and fiction seeping into journalism. Broadcasters, regulators, politicians, and journalists are struggling to make the solutions of the last century fit the changed media characteristics and conditions in the new century.”
Through the course of the paper Sambrook proposes a number of principles to help journalism adapt to a world that increasingly demands partisan reporting. He calls for “a growing need to encourage critical awareness of the media” within the public that equips them “with the knowledge and tools to understand what they are consuming”:
“There are currently serious concerns about the quality and practices of news media and their impact on public debate. These principles, supported by greater media literacy, can help us navigate in the new digital world of information abundance and deliver journalism that is trustworthy and fulfils its public purpose.”
Yet despite our need to place an emphasis on trust and objective reporting, we as human beings have a moral obligation to, and often feel a strong impulse to, put an end to perceived injustices perpetuated on innocent victims. Martin Bell, a BBC Foreign Correspondent during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, said: “You can be fair to everybody, but you can’t stand neutrally between good and evil.”
Sambrook writes that Martin embraced “bystander reporting” while avoiding moral equivalence between the opposing sides. He says:
“Impartiality does not have to strip reporting of moral judgement (as distinct from personal opinion) as long as there is strong evidence to support it…Independence of mind, clear sourcing and evidence, accuracy, openness, and honesty are all characteristics of impartiality as well – and none of these qualities are necessarily require a report to be morally agnostic…In the circumstances of genocide, or a climate of hate speech, it might be argued that the discipline of objectivity (if not impartiality) becomes even more important … [as these] encourage free debate.”
Being objective does not necessarily mean being neutral, and being fair does not mean refraining from making a judgement. While the two may be interlinked, when the facts are laid out in front of us, free of political spin and misleading narratives, the truth does not and should not allow us to remain impassive. Ultimately if we truly believe in a practicable solution to this war of attrition, we must be objective when looking at the facts, but also brave enough to speak out against the injustices these facts reveal.
As so eloquently put by Peter Benenson in 1961, the founder of human rights charity Amnesty International:
“Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government … The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust could be united into common action, something effective could be done.”