Oct 1 2006

Lives in the Balance

Media 'vexed' by civilian deaths in Lebanon

On August 14, the New York Times addressed one of the significant worries for U.S. media outlets covering the Israeli bombing and invasion of Lebanon: Civilians in Lebanon were the primary victims, dying in far greater numbers than Israeli military personnel and civilians combined. (Amnesty International estimated that the fighting killed about 1,000 civilians in Lebanon and about 40 in Israel—8/23/06.)

The problem for U.S. media was how to obscure that fact. As the Times put it, “Particularly vexing for many American news organizations is the struggle to determine how and in what proportion images of civilian dead and injured should be displayed in their coverage, when one side’s casualties greatly surpass the other’s.”

What’s “vexing” about this issue is that news consumers might have more sympathy for a country where many hundreds of civilians are being killed than for another where a few dozen have died—a reaction news outlets certainly don’t want to be seen as encouraging.

To avoid this, the Times reported that some outlets declare that they “do not impose a formula for fairness,” meaning they don’t feel bound to report civilian deaths in the proportions in which they occur. CNN president Jonathan Klein told the paper, “This is not a sporting event, where we’re toting up the scores of both sides.”

Others took the approach that there should be a formula—one that gave the same amount of coverage to deaths on both sides, no matter what the relative numbers. The executive producer of ABC’s World News With Charles Gibson explained to the Times that the newscast handled the problem by, in the Times’ words, running “one segment from Lebanon and one from Israel as a way to tell both sides of the fighting.”

ABC’s admission confirmed something that J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish newspaper the Forward, had noted on the radio program On the Media (7/21/06):

I think at the moment, the American press is attempting to be scrupulously balanced—X number of bombs here, X number of rockets there, a story about a family that suffered losses in Lebanon, a story about a family that suffered losses in Israel. But when you look at the death tolls, you have to ask, why is the balance so scrupulous?

Goldberg added: “And if you’re simply looking at victimization and the human casualties, you would have to ask, why is the Israeli side getting equal time?”

Not all media watchers would agree. On the July 30 broadcast of the CNN media show Reliable Sources, host Howard Kurtz asked numerous times if reporters were giving a misleading view of the conflict—that is, focusing more on Lebanese suffering—“just because the scale of destruction is greater on the Lebanon side.” Kurtz reiterated the point in a piece for the Washington Post (7/24/06), lamenting that “the very technology that enables reporters to show footage of a Lebanese father soon after his young son has been killed by a bomb blast carries not just an emotional punch but the power to distort the overall picture.”

The “distortion” of the “overall picture” according to Kurtz, was that

a heavy focus on the more than 300 civilian victims in that war-ravaged country could help tilt public opinion against the Jewish state. But that would overlook two key facts: that Israel retaliated only after Hezbollah crossed a U.N.-sanctioned border to kill and capture several Israeli soldiers, and that Hezbollah fighters hide—and hide their weapons—among civilians to make counterattacks more difficult.

Kurtz’s evidence of “distortion” was itself dubious: Israel had already “retaliated” by shelling and bombing Lebanon months before the July escalation (Chicago Tribune, 5/29/06), and had itself frequently violated the “U.N.-sanctioned border,” sometimes on a near-daily basis (London Guardian, 8/8/06). And the notion that Hezbollah fighters’ mixing with the civilian population explains Israel’s killing of civilians has been questioned (Human Rights Watch, 8/2/06; Salon, 7/28/06).

Even after the ceasefire, Kurtz wondered if journalists were going too easy on Hezbollah in reporting on the destruction in Lebanon (CNN, 8/20/06):

I’ve seen a number of stories from Lebanon this week about the role of Hezbollah in helping to rebuild the bomb-damaged areas that suffered during the war. And it almost seems like journalists have forgotten that this is the group that was, you know, just days ago firing missiles at Israeli civilians and killing men, women and children. Is it important that we keep making that connection?

It is hard to imagine Kurtz complaining that a story about domestic activities in Israel did not mention that Israeli forces had recently been killing hundreds of civilians in Lebanon.

Perhaps Kurtz was happier with reporting that took some trouble to obscure the death toll. An August 9 AP report, for example, combined the casualties on both sides of the border: “After four weeks of fighting, nearly 800 people have died on both sides.” An August 14 USA Today editorial framed the issue the same way, welcoming the cease-fire that would hopefully calm “the month-long war that has killed hundreds of civilians in Lebanon and Israel.”

The full picture of Lebanese civilian deaths was obscured in other reporting. An August 11 New York Times report on possible U.S. shipments of short-range cluster rockets to Israel noted that “some State Department officials have sought to delay the approval because of concerns over the likelihood of civilian casualties, and the diplomatic repercussions.” The paper added that the “prospect” of the use of these weapons had “raised the intense concerns over civilian casualties,” while noting matter-of-factly that Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets “have killed dozens of civilians in Israel.”

A reader might get the impression, then, that civilian casualties in Lebanon were not yet much of a problem, but could become one. That notion was further underscored by a reference to the Human Rights Watch investigation of civilian casualties in Lebanon. The Times mentioned only the report’s documentation of one cluster bomb attack that killed one civilian.

Please also see the sidebar to this article: Newsworthy and Unnewsworthy Deaths