Oct 1 2006

Newsworthy and Unnewsworthy Deaths

[Note: This piece is a sidebar to “Lives in the Balance.”]

On August 8, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “Arabs have often argued that Americans have a double standard in the Middle East: We are more solicitous of casualties in Israel than in Gaza or Lebanon. I think they’re right, for a variety of reasons.” Indeed, in the New York Times, some of the deadliest attacks in Lebanon were mentioned in passing, or filed under headlines that would seem to diminish their importance.

On August 2, Human Rights Watch released a report that documented Israeli attacks on civilians. The report was harsh in its conclusions, noting that Israel’s excuse for civilian deaths in Lebanon—that Hezbollah fighters hide among non-combatants, therefore endangering that population—does not explain some of the more deadly attacks, which have happened away from any alleged Hezbollah activity. The Times (8/3/06) relayed this information about halfway through a story headlined: “Civilians Lose as Fighters Slip Into Fog of War.” The subhead read, “Lebanese Deaths Show Dilemma for Israel.”

Shortly after, an Israeli airstrike killed about 30 farm workers near the border with Syria. Those deaths were mentioned in the Times on August 5, under a headline that focused instead on infrastructural damage: “Israeli Raids Destroy Bridges North of Beirut.” An Israeli attack several days later on August 8 in the Beirut suburb of Al-Shiya killed dozens of people. But readers of the Times were left mostly unaware, save for a passing mention in the paper’s August 10 edition of a funeral for some of the victims.

The Human Rights Watch investigation provided some key examples of Lebanese deaths that barely registered in the New York Times. On July 13, a Lebanese cleric and 10 members of his family were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Dweir. The incident merited one sentence the following day in a Times story headlined “Israel Blockades Lebanon; Wide Strikes by Hezbollah.” A massive series of airstrikes in the Lebanese town of Sreifa on July 19 merited a brief mention in the Times on July 20; dozens of civilians were thought to have been killed. (Weeks later the Times reported from the town to survey the damage—8/16/06.)

By contrast, deaths in Israel—though much less common—often seemed to be deemed more newsworthy. When 12 Israelis were killed (eight civilians and four soldiers), the New York Times put the story at the top of the August 4 front page, under the unambiguous headline “12 Israelis Die; Sheik Threatens to Bomb Tel Aviv.” Three days later a Hezbollah rocket attack killed a group of Israeli reservists, which merited front-page placement under the headline “Rocket Barrage Kills 15 Israelis Close to Border.”

Some stories of Lebanese casualties are granted more attention; the airstrikes on an apartment building in Qana, for example, were considered more newsworthy than some of these other incidents. But when one considers that Lebanese civilians suffered at least 20 times as many deaths as Israeli civilians—one has to wonder why the coverage did not consistently reflect that reality.