Untangling the Web: Covering Schalit's release, online

The prisoner exchange deal with Hamas didn't exactly take us by surprise, but it did highlight some fundamental issues of ethical journalism.

By ELANA KIRSH
October 31, 2011 12:56
Gilad Schalit on phone to parents

Gilad Schalit on phone to parents 311. (photo credit: IDF Spokesman's Office)

The day that Gilad Schalit returned to Israel from Gaza after five years in captivity was arguably the biggest news day that the JPost Internet desk has ever seen, but it didn’t take us by surprise. The previous Tuesday – when I came out of a yoga class to find that the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas had been signed, and 37 missed calls on my cell phone – that was a surprise. Terror attacks take us by surprise, natural disasters, unexpected resignations, but this historic day, for the nation and for Israeli news media alike, went almost entirely to plan.

This put us in a rare situation; working in the news business in Israel we’re used to having to think on the fly. I had almost a week to put together lists of every article that could be written on the deal, liaise with reporters and the editors at the print edition, write preparatory e-mails with instructions, check that our servers would hold expected traffic spikes and call Breaking News editors in for extra shifts.

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But despite all the planning, or perhaps even because of it, covering this story highlighted some fundamental issues for online journalism. The story concerned issues of the highest national significance, of security and international diplomacy, and also had highly personal aspects – families, pain and privacy. As a result, Israeli readers didn’t just turn to news media for the news, they were looking for something deeper, and this stark contrast made the day of the exchange unique to cover from both an editorial and a personal perspective.

The days after the agreement was signed and then ratified by the cabinet brought to light the absurdity of the fact that an entire nation, a nation so fractured and yet so united, had become so wrapped up, obsessed even, in the plight of one young man. We were all hanging out to see Gilad back, to see the Schalit family reunited, to find out that he was in good health. On a personal level, I can appreciate and relate to the sentiments behind this; how the Jewish people’s historic narrative, and shared experiences such as serving in the army, hold the nation together. But professionally, it strikes me that there was something almost voyeuristic in the Israeli connection with Gilad Schalit. And of course, where voyeurism arises, tabloid media is always there to help out.

To avoid yellow coverage which tends to feed such tendencies, we carefully considered where to draw the line. Which photos would we publish and which would we pass on? Which specific stories were examples of good journalism, and which were little more than trash?

In every individual deliberation, the solution was to stick to the actual news. Gilad back on Israeli soil – definitely news. Gilad meets Netanyahu – top story. Gilad reunites with his family – of course we’re going to report that. Gilad sleeps through the night – starting to cross the line, though it could be some indication of the long-term effects of his traumatic ordeal. Gilad goes to the beach with his dad – and we’ve crossed it. Despite having become an icon during his years hidden away deep in the Gaza Strip, Schalit has a right to his privacy, and both we as the media and we as Israelis have no right to violate it.

On the day of the swap, Gilad’s every move was news, granted, but from the day after onwards, we need report only facts that relate to the nation as a whole, rather than to sensationalist impulses to turn heavy real-life situations into reality TV trash.

Such considerations led me to think about differences between the Israeli, Hebrew press, and Western, largely English-language media. There’s something distinctly familial, even provincial about Hebrew media, and though of course Google translate can bring down these barriers, it seems to be something of a “from Hebrew speakers to Hebrew speakers” attitude. That stories published on Israeli news sites are like stories told around the Shabbat table – just for the family and not for wider consumption. Sites such as Walla! and Ynet, and most Israeli media, focused on the emotional aspects rather than the details of the deal. And that didn’t just go for Gilad and his family. Stories of terror victims’ families petitioning against Palestinian prisoner's releases also had a distinctly personal edge to them; just as Gilad became “everyone’s son,” we had all lost loved ones in terror attacks, whether we actually had or not.

Of course, the retelling of such stories is not a problem in and of itself – it’s just not news. Color stories are definitely a valid part of news coverage across all media – it’s not to this that I object. It’s when the color story becomes the main story, rather complementary content, that ethical issues arise. For example, the day after the swap we decided that while readers would be interested to see photos of Gilad starting to get back to “normal life,” we wouldn’t feature them as our top story. These photos were purely human interest – there was no new story. None of the Hebrew media made the same call.

On the day of the exchange itself we took similar considerations into account when deciding whether and where to publish Egyptian reports that Gilad now speaks fluent Arabic, Palestinian reports that he was dressed in a Hamas uniform and Israeli reports that he might be driven rather than airlifted from Tel Nof Air Force Base to Mitzpe Hila. We kept asking: What is the news here? What’s the main headline? And moving on from that, which extra details will keep readers more informed, and which tidbits would merely satisfy their curiosity?

Another challenge that news sites face on a regular basis is how to keep the site fresh, but this took on a different meaning on the day that Schalit was released. Though we were inundated with new details throughout the day, they were just that – details. The headline on the top of the site could have been ‘Gilad Schalit returns to Israel, 477 Palestinian prisoners released’ all day. That was the biggest, most important news. On top of that, with the notable exception of the unexpected Egyptian interview with Gilad and a few other minor details, we could almost have written the story the night before. Everything was planned, all of the editors on the desk and the reporters in field knew stages 1-10 of the deal back-to-front, and essentially everything went as expected.

But there was another factor which influenced our story selection. Many people have since told me that they were on their favorite news site/s all day, compulsively pressing F5. They weren’t looking for the most important headline of the day – they already knew it. So why were they clicking then, what were they looking for?

To my reading, they were looking to find out details, but also seeking something deeper, something emotional. There was an unease and a dissonance which permeated Israeli society surrounding this high-profile deal; happiness at Gilad’s return was mixed with a sinking feeling in our communal stomach at the implications of signing such a deal and releasing so many terrorists. The situation was and is far from black and white, and Israeli media somehow fell into the role of trying to make sense of the cognitive dissonance, rather than simply reporting current events, of distributing comfort, relief and reassurance, alongside news dispatches.

Again, while I feel connected with the nation’s heart in this way, and I understand it on an emotional level, I don’t think news media should take on this role. Just because Israeli society may want the emotional coverage, and indeed some outlets may oblige, doesn’t make it news, and it certainly doesn’t make for good journalism. On top of that, such coverage just adds fuel to the fire – Israelis had seemingly already lost the ability to think clearly about Gilad Schalit; they didn’t need any more help connecting to the tear-jerking side of the story.

So, in our quest to find the balance, we started the day at 5 a.m. with a forward looking headline: Gilad Schalit expected home after 1,941 days in captivity. This was the main story, the one which could have stayed top of the site all day, but in future tense. Then, as each stage progressed, we’d decide what was most important and create a new version of the top story, waiting first for confirmation from the IDF Spokesman, or from our reporters out in the field around the country, rather than mindlessly throwing unchecked facts into cyberspace just to get clicks. Mid-morning we took a call from our military reporter, Yaakov Katz, and excitedly put up the headline that all Israelis were waiting to see: IDF confirms: Gilad Schalit is now on Israeli soil. In a way, this particular version of the story traversed the line between the type of journalism to which we aspire, and the therapist role thrust on Israeli media in such tense times. Here, the news itself provided the comfort which Israelis were seeking as they pounded F5.

And so we continued this way throughout the day, constantly deliberating, to find the balance between what was newest, most important and most interesting.

Integrating Internet-specific elements into our coverage of the Schalit story was another challenge, which we took on while focusing on the news itself, deciding whether to play psychologist and trying not to fall into the trap of tabloid tricks. Once we had a comprehensive list of all the stories that our reporters were planning to write, three methods were put into play: splitting the story into bite-size pieces for Internet users, making use of photos and videos to complement the written word, and incorporating interactive elements.

Online readers tend to go for summaries over depth, skimming over the headlines rather than methodically clicking into and reading stories one through 10, so we separated the story out to allow readers to scan the homepage and choose which part of the story most interested them. For example – we kept Gilad’s movements and the Palestinian prisoner releases separate throughout the day, despite them being two parts of the same exchange deal. We kept Israeli reactions separate from international leaders', and celebrations in Gaza and the West Bank separate from the crowd which gathered in Mitzpe Hila to welcome Gilad home. Our aim was to break down and tailor the news in the way which most suited our medium.

Our video editor worked solely on cutting, editing and rendering the appropriate clips for each story, and one Breaking News editor was tasked with combing through photos from news agencies, the IDF, our JPost photographer and our reporters to keep the slideshows updated. Even more than usual, this was a day when a picture was worth a thousand words. Though at some point in the morning our top headline did read ‘Egyptian TV shows photos of Gilad Schalit in Egypt,’ as that was the newest and most interesting development in the story, it would have meant very little without the pictures. These same pictures, of course, were also crucial to both television and print coverage of the story.

For the interactive element, the main additions to JPost coverage were a live blog, reader polls throughout the day, and of course our talkback system, all of which are unique to the online medium. One Breaking News editor spent almost his entire shift scanning social media, following our reporters’ tweets online, and updating the blog with every new piece of information on the story, minute-by-minute, as it happened. Not surprisingly, the polls received record responses, and discussion on our talkback forums was also at an all-time high. Similarly, traffic on the site throughout the day hit figures never seen by our site – a testament to how many people, both in Israel and around the world, were gripped by the story.

Looking back though, something about covering this story still doesn’t sit right, despite our good intentions, and constant efforts to check ourselves and avoid unethical reporting. When I watched the first footage of Schalit being pulled by a Hamas guard, of the Egyptian interview about which so much has been said and written since, when I saw him first meet with IDF medics in Gaza, I found myself trying to answer a series of questions: Did he seem terrified? Strained? Shy? Was he acting weird, had he changed?

The who, what, why, when, where, how – they had largely already been answered. Instead, these questions came from the gut. These were emotional questions, rather the sharp, critical, probing questions which make for good news articles.

And how could I possibly answer them? Apart from the 2009 video released by Hamas which was played on loop on Israeli television at the time, what clues do any of us really have as to who Schalit is and how he “normally” acts?

This national-personal tension brought something decidedly strange to covering this story online, especially because everyone involved was feeling what all Israelis were feeling, while simultaneously trying to stay away from the “info-tainment” style embraced by so much of Israeli media. As is so often the case, it boiled down to a balancing act – finding a way to report with both integrity and sensitivity. Such days give editors and journalists alike a chance to shine, but they also present the biggest challenges to industry professionalism – right when everyone is looking straight at us.

The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager


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