Reporting Conflict 101

We are living in an era in which balanced news is becoming a fading relic, much like the concept of a newspaper tossed onto your front doorstep every morning.

biased reporting_521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
biased reporting_521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
FOR THE PAST YEAR, I’VE been teaching journalism to American students in Israel. My semester-long course, called “Reporting Conflict,” is offered through NYU-Tel Aviv, the newest of New York University’s more than 10 study-abroad programs.
My students, most of them in Israel for the first time, come into class with very specific ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Often, their minds are already made up and the experience of living here just helps confirm what they already believe. If I had to broad-brush these beliefs quickly and crudely, they would break down into two camps. Camp One: Israel is an apartheid state and is continuing its neo-colonialist oppression of Palestine and its racist, discriminatory behavior toward its Arab minority. Camp Two: Israel is a miracle state that is portrayed unfairly in the media and is being delegitimized by various activists, so-called human rights groups and ultra-liberal self-hating Jews who would ignore the realities of the Middle East.
My job, as I see it, is to shake up the students’ foregone conclusions and open their eyes to the nuances in our troubled region. But most of all, my job is to teach them how to report fairly.
Some are keen to discover what fair reporting looks like. But many others are excited to take their newly acquired reporting skills and do stories that fit in exactly with the worldview they had before they stepped off the plane. I’ve had the darnedest time trying to get them to do pieces that would be considered fair by a panel of judges that I keep in my head – the professors I had at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism 18 years ago.
It is perhaps too much to expect reporters to be completely unbiased, I argue in class. But they should at least be fair and balanced.
To clarify, my mandate is to teach a course on reporting conflict, so it is by no means limited to covering the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We look at issues faced by journalists reporting over the past decade from Iraq and Afghanistan, where I’ve also worked, and we read some of the best stories done in those countries, as well as in the Balkans and Africa. We closely follow the coverage of the Arab Spring.
But because I believe that journalism has to have a strong practical component, I try to get the students out reporting – whether together or individually – as much as possible. That means that what’s in front of their faces is the local story. Due to the university’s travel restrictions, they’re not allowed to visit the West Bank, much less the Gaza Strip. This semester, we pushed it as far as visiting the Shuafat refugee camp, which is inside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, and Skyped with a Palestinian journalist in Gaza during a class focusing on the debate over Israel’s closure policy.
BUT AFTER WATCHING THE coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress the other day, I was reminded why my job is so difficult. After the speech, I went channel surfing, as is my wont on a hot news day. On CNN, they went straight to the most popular Washington pundits, most of whom seemed duly impressed with Netanyahu’s speech and the number of standing ovations he’d received. A Fox News commentator was saying his amens, while a BBC anchor was jumping to a London-based Palestinian critic. On Al-Jazeera, a triple-split screen had reporters standing by in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza, each of whom had a different way of saying that Netanyahu’s speech was full of what Palestinians consider non-starters. A few minutes later, Nabil Sha’ath, an advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that Netanyahu’s words were tantamount to a declaration of war.
I think the proliferation of media outlets is a great thing for a democracy. And I think it’s an embarrassment that Al Jazeera English is largely unavailable to viewers in the US, apparently because cable companies won’t carry it. But what worries me is that we are living in an era in which balanced news is becoming a fading relic, much like the concept of a newspaper tossed onto your front doorstep every morning. While I still get mine, I’ve yet to meet anyone under 30 who pays for and receives an actual newspaper each day. The students I teach prefer to click, tweet, post and livestream. Sometimes, young journalists whose copy I edit speak not in terms of when their story was published, but what the “timestamp” was. When I find them deep in a book, it’s their Kindle or Nook.
These young peoples’ lives are increasingly electronic, and the kind of journalism they will do must fit this reality. But it seems this reality is becoming so compartmentalized that the idea of balanced journalism doesn’t really make much sense. Unlike the papers and magazines I grew up on, today you only need to read what you want to read. I fear that the ideals I’m trying to instill sound valiant – and antiquated. Before they get to a job at a newspaper, magazine or wire service – if they can find such a job – today’s young journalists will have already been blogging for years. And through the blogosphere, the wide range of online magazines, and the myriad of other news outlets, they’re learning that a good slant and a sassy take is so much more compelling than solid reporting, good sourcing, and balanced writing. And it’s so much more likely to go viral.
I have a new assignment in mind for next fall’s curriculum: Go out and do a story that supports the opposite viewpoint from the one you hold. If I can go from broad-brush colors to getting students to notice the grays in the story of this conflict, perhaps I will have achieved something.