A journalistic rite of passage

Visiting reporters learn about conflict at the source.

Young professionals and students from around the world participate in a one week seminar organized by IDC Herzliya to explore the challenges of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (photo credit: MICS,IDC)
Young professionals and students from around the world participate in a one week seminar organized by IDC Herzliya to explore the challenges of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
(photo credit: MICS,IDC)
It certainly brought the message home with great clarity. On the last day of a week-long Media In Conflict seminar taking place at The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya for a group of young international journalists, the news broke that former IDC student and freelance correspondent Steven Sotloff had been beheaded by Islamic State terrorists.
(See page 34 for a tribute by The Media Line.) “When I realized during the graduation ceremony, that Sotloff had been studying right here at the IDC just a few years ago, it came again as a shock how dangerous this profession may be,” said Andreas Vuller (name changed upon request), a freelance journalist from Germany who travels for work to countries like Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
“For me, I do not aim to be in the front lines of the conflicts, though I admire the colleagues who take that risk to tell the stories which have to been told.”
Telling the story of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was the primary focus of the sixth annual MIC seminar, an IDC student initiative that has brought over 200 journalists to Israel since its inauguration. According to one of the organizers, third-year government student Shay Zavdi, the 18 participants who spent last week hearing from varied speakers and visiting hotspot locations around the country represented a drop from the annual average of 40. Ironically, over a dozen accepted attendees to the conflict seminar backed out due this summer’s conflict in the South.
“Six years ago, the idea behind the seminar was presenting hasbara [public diplomacy] for Israel. But that has evolved into an academic seminar for journalism professionals that doesn’t only talk about the conflict through Israel’s point of view, but discusses conflict coverage and the challenge of understanding and presenting the different narratives,” said Zavdi.
To do that, the organizers brought a wide spectrum of speakers to talk to the group: The IDC’s Miri Eisin (former IDF colonel) speaking about narratives in the Israel-Palestinian conflict; a session with representatives of The Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of Palestinian and Israeli bereaved families; a visit to Gush Etzion where they met with Cheryl Mandel from Alon Shvut, mother of fallen soldier LT. Daniel Mandel, and West Bank Arab resident Abu Akhmad; a lecture by right-wing advocate Elyakim Haetzni on Israel’s legal claim over the West Bank; and a talk with Yediot Aharonot war correspondent Tzadok Yechezkeli, who was critically wounded while covering the war in Georgia in 2008.
“The diverse lineup enabled the participants to understand that conflicts are not as simple as they seem – especially our conflict,” said Zaydi. “We tend to think we know the whole story when we really only know a fraction of it.”
German participant Vuller expressed a similar sentiment, professing to understand the conflict but hungry to learn more about it behind the headlines.
“From the German perspective, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always present in the media but without much background most of the time,” he said. “As a journalist, I prefer to meet the people behind the story – that’s what I hoped the seminar would deliver, and so it did. For example, meeting with representatives from settlements contributed greatly to my personal understanding. I do not agree with their arguments, but it is very helpful to hear their stories.”
For the visiting journalists – who arrived from the US, Romania, France, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt and other spots around the globe – parachuting into the middle of the post-Gaza-war Israeli reality presented them with the opportunity to confront their preconceived notions about their views of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“One of the many things I liked and learned from the seminar was meeting normal citizens instead of public officials and discovering how different their views can be and how adamant they are about their opinions,” said Danny Tsai, a 25-year-old news editor for China Central Television in Beijing. “It made me realize how heavily our reports can shape our audience’s opinion, which can directly affect how the conflict develops, for worse or better. This reminds me how important it is to present a balanced and earnest report.”
“I was also a bit surprised how the different political wings in Israel can hold such different ideas. Sure, every government has a left wing and a right wing, but before this, I always thought that Israel, as a united community, would hold similar opinions when it comes to the conflict issue, which threatens its very own existence,” he said.
Another uniquely Israeli element of the conflict that Tsai discovered was the issue of too much media coverage and too much focus on the region. “I got the impression that many of the speakers were frustrated not only because of so much coverage of the conflict, but because of the focus of the coverage. During the war, everyone focused on dead children in Gaza and not how Israel was forced into taking military action,” he said.
“Some governmental officials emphasized the fact that they see the conflict as ‘over-covered’ – an argument I do not understand,” added Vuller. “On the one hand, there is the wish for indepth reporting, and on the other hand it seems too much for them if the worldwide media is able to receive too many details of the conflict.”
With the Islamic State assault on journalists fresh in their minds, the visiting group was undoubtedly not viewing the field of journalism with rose-tinted glasses. The point of how dangerous the field can be was driven home during a closing talk from Yediot’s Yechezkeli.
“He told them that journalists need to make their own calculations and decide whether the risk is worth it,” said Zavdi. “He said that he had done many crazy things, but you don’t really think about them at the time. Only later do you understand how dangerous it was. I think it really moved some of them, with the news of Sotloff being so fresh.”
According to Chinese participant Tsai, the talk provided his colleagues with some of the dilemmas facing journalists in extreme conflict situations. And despite the allure of chasing the big story and exposing the truth, there are personal considerations that should be paramount.
“I think safety should always come first,” he said. “Sure, the true story is what we pursue, but I think we should only risk our safety for a story with real content that matters – not just a photo with a terrorist that will make you famous.”
Both Tsai and Vuller expressed a desire to return to Israel to further probe the fabric of the conflict here and what makes it tick. For Zavdi, that’s a sign of success.
“They took away the fact that Israeli society is very complex and that not everyone agrees – both in Jewish and Arab society,” he said. “From meeting with such a wide range of personalities, I think they understood that our conflict situation is not black or white, and that when reporting on areas like this, they need to see things in color.”