My Word: Headlines and bottom lines

The news is what you see and what you don’t get to see, and why you do or don’t get to see it.

A VENDOR sells newspapers in South Africa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VENDOR sells newspapers in South Africa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Without giving away trade secrets, I can reveal that a group of Jerusalem Post staff gathered at Jerusalem’s Hotel Yehuda one recent Friday morning for a “fun day.” Being a bunch of newspaper people, our definition of fun included a lively discussion on headlines. We were roughly split into two camps, largely along generational lines: those who think “the sexier the better” and those who fear hyping a story with a headline that teases but turns out to be a letdown. We, of course, all strive for interesting stories, but there’s a limit to how much you can spice up a budget debate, for example, however important.
Part of the differences of opinion stemmed from the shorter shelf life of stories on the Internet compared to those which sit on the printed page. An advantage of the former is the ease with which they can be edited and changed, while print journalists like to quip that the difference between doctors and reporters is that doctors bury their mistakes, while reporters publish theirs.
There are headlines which do their writers credit and others which were born in sin. Such was the headline that topped an AP story online last week. “Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem.”
Not only did it project a boring “There go those Israelis again”-type tone, it failed miserably to provide the main news: That Abdel Rahman al-Shalodi had been shot as he tried to flee the site of the light rail stop where he had just rammed his car into a crowd of passengers, killing three-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun and wounding eight other people. Karen Jemima Mosquera, 22, one of the wounded, died four days after the October 22 attack.
The AP headline was changed after complaints flooded in, but the damage was already done. The headline stemming from a stereotype helped perpetuate it.
Journalists are a strange breed. Like most vocations, we have our in-jokes and share laughs that outsiders don’t understand, let alone find funny. Israeli journalists belong to a special category of their own, known in Hebrew as the branja.
I recently read an interesting feature in Tablet magazine about local coverage of Operation Protective Edge (an occupational hazard of journalists is thinking reading about the job counts as relaxation). Under the (long but accurate) headline “Why the Gaza War Looked Different on Israeli TV Than It Did on CNN,” veteran Channel 2 television anchor Yonit Levi and diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal looked at the coverage of the hostilities and some of the implications for reaching a peace deal.
“During the 50 days of the war in Gaza, Israelis and the rest of the world were watching two completely different wars,” they wrote. “In Israel, the country was under attack and it was all happening on live television: The camera leaped between different cities being targeted – showing the rocket’s trajectory from the Gazan border, the subsequent sirens, and civilians taking shelter in Israel and, often, the rocket’s interception by the Iron Dome anti-missile system several minutes later – moments of deep anxiety, followed by relief, over and over, throughout the day. Israeli networks cooperating with the IDF’s Home Front Command aired banners clearly stating which region was under attack, and in some areas where the sirens weren’t loud enough, this turned out to be life-saving information.
“It might be difficult for an outsider to understand, but when your child is spending their summer vacation running to find shelter – with merely a 15-second warning in the South, 90 seconds in Tel Aviv – one has limited emotional capacity to see what is happening to the children on the other side. When you add to that the fact Hamas controlled all data and information coming from Gaza – and banned Israeli reporters – you see the juxtaposition emerging. The world showed the war in Gaza, and its effect on Gazans, while on Israeli television Gaza was a sidebar.”
Their conclusion was that the tremendous differences in the way the war was perceived in Israel and the rest of the world will have a long-term effect on the ultimate outcome: “The worldwide conviction is that the only realistic solution to the gruesome pictures of destruction and death that were broadcast on TV is to step up efforts to negotiate a two-state solution – an effort that seems even more pressing now than it did before the war. Israel, on the other hand, sees a dark reality in which a piece of land that was evacuated and turned over to the Palestinians became a haven for terrorists who shot missiles into homes and dug tunnels into communities in order to launch further attacks. Good luck to anyone trying to convince Israelis to withdraw again.”
This week I watched a Channel 10 special broadcast offering a behind-the-scenes look at the way its reporters and staff had operated around the clock during the operation in Gaza. “War diary” (a headline more succinct than original) also showed some of those only-in-Israel situations. One reporter recalled his dilemma over whether to cover the story of the death of a close friend or hand it over to someone who could be more objective; many discussed the need to balance full and honest reporting with the natural tendency not to launch an all-out war on policy while soldiers are still fighting on the ground; all tried to juggle commitments at home with emotionally draining and in some cases dangerous work.
For Israeli journalists, of all political persuasions, the war was personal. And it was very close to home – so close for some of those shown on Channel 10 that they sent their families to safer quarters up North for at least part of the time.
Among the most typically Israeli aspects of the war, however, were the comments by more than one soldier (and at one point by a broadcaster): Don’t show my face, they requested, my mother doesn’t know I’m here.
“It’s incredible,” declared my son. “They’re not scared of going into battle. They’re not scared of Hamas. They’re scared of their mothers.”
I’m relieved my just turned 13-year-old did not use the kind of language reportedly employed by a senior but unnamed official in the Obama administration talking to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Goldberg writes: “‘The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,’ this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.”
The headline of the piece, for the record, is “The Crisis in US-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.” It is virtually a self-fulfilling prophesy. Other insults leveled against Netanyahu in the piece – later rejected by National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey – included that he is “Aspergery” and “scared to launch wars,” avoiding open conflict with Iran over its nuclear program.
Well, some of my best friends, as they say, are Aspergery. They are excellent journalists – they might have problems with deadlines, but they are incredibly hardworking.
As for avoiding war with Iran, one would have thought that was a good thing. Certainly it’s a policy favored by President Obama himself. And I’m not the first to point out that Netanyahu, unlike Obama, has participated in real wars and dangerous military operations.
On Wednesday, The Jerusalem Post published its 25,000th issue. (Don’t even try to estimate how many headlines that adds up to.) Goldberg is among the many writers whose name has appeared in the Post in some of those 25,000 issues. His regular humor column in the magazine section made me laugh in a much nicer way than his serious writing today.
At the fun day, in part a reward for the extra work during the war, after we had finished dissecting headlines and Internet hits, and before we relaxed by the pool, we treated ourselves to a show by mentalist Yona Shnitzer. Even the most cynical among us were astounded by some of his feats. Shnitzer was only willing to say that many were based on the power of suggestion. That’s one very powerful force. It can be transmitted via headlines and stories and travels faster and wider than Ebola.
Here’s wishing my colleagues many, many more (peaceful) deadlines together. And let’s hope that our headlines never become the issue.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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