The 'halo effect' shields NGOs from media scrutiny
Human rights groups' claims are accepted without a drop of skepticism.
A familiar scenario: A non-governmental organization (NGO) issues a report on alleged Israeli human rights violations, and it's instantly and automatically newsworthy. The Israeli and foreign media uncritically, even eagerly, promote the NGO's politicized agenda, regardless of the NGO's credibility or the veracity of the allegations.
This "halo effect," whereby the claims of human rights groups are accepted without a modicum of scrutiny, often results in Israel's vilification on the international stage for violating "international humanitarian law" or demonized as an "apartheid state" to be shunned and boycotted. By publishing these stories, the media reinforces the halo effect and becomes partner to the damage done.
The typical article on Israeli "violations" has a number of common denominators. Beyond the ubiquitous headline championing a human rights NGO and condemning Israel, the NGO's "evidence" and sensational accusations are repeated, left unchallenged by the reporter. By dint of its presumed independence and stated lofty goals, the NGO is considered more truthful than the government. The media pits universal human rights against Israel, leaving it to respond on the defensive. This might make for "good" journalism, but does it tell the whole story?
IN RECENT weeks, local, highly political rights groups - funded by the EU and by European governments - have received worldwide coverage for their attacks on Israel. Consider the publicity afforded to Physicians for Human Rights - Israel (PHR-I) when it accused the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) of denying Gazans life-saving health care in Israel unless the patients informed on family and friends. PHR-I's report was published in hundreds of major media outlets, and Israel was portrayed as cruel and inhumane, as opposed to genuinely concerned for the security of its citizens.
Yet, despite the importance of this story, did reporters question PHR-I's reliability? Rather, the halo effect shielded it from past mistakes. Three months ago, PHR-I reported that a cancer patient in Gaza died while awaiting a permit to receive treatment in Israel, only to admit days later that the "deceased" was still alive. The patient was attempting to evade a security check. Even if we give PHR-I the benefit of the doubt, that it was unknowingly misled by the patient's family, surely similar self-serving "evidence" from Palestinians and provided by PHR-I should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. But it was not.
A TELLING, but more subtle form of the halo effect was also manifest in The Jerusalem Post's coverage of Yesh Din during the last week of July. The Post published no less than three articles on the same data sheet alleging a failure by the IDF to report, investigate and indict soldiers for crimes against Palestinians ("Israeli rights group: IDF fails to indict soldiers," July 29; "IDF refutes report on misconduct claims," July 30; "Yesh Din renews complaint of IDF probes," July 31). The second in the series added value to the story, including a previously unavailable official IDF response and a subsequent reply from Yesh Din. However, the third article provided nothing more than Yesh Din's perspective on its back-and-forth with the IDF. This repetition failed to provide the reader with any fresh information. Needless to say, none of the articles assumed a critical point of view regarding Yesh Din's speculative conclusions drawn from an absence of data. The media merely served as a pawn in Yesh Din's politicized war against the justice system.
Should journalists report allegations of human rights violations by Israel? Absolutely, they have a duty to do so. However, journalistic integrity demands an equal duty to ask tough questions of NGOs and critically examine their claims. Human rights groups deserve the same scrutiny as any other actor in the theater of the Arab-Israeli conflict - no more, but certainly no less. A truly effective media should lead civil society in discussing the implications of security policy, and even suggest viable alternatives. However, this valuable role is jeopardized by blind repetition of NGO allegations without obtaining independent verification or giving due consideration to their political agendas.
The writer is managing editor of NGO Monitor.