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Borderless Journalism in Gaza

BBC, CNN-I, and Al Jazeera English offer nuanced coverage of Gaza war
January 21, 2009

CAIRO – In television terms, Gaza has been déjà vu all over again. U.S. television has been dominated by talking heads parroting Israel’s talking points, the wide shots of bombs exploding and smoke pillars that have become the white noise of Middle East conflict, and the occasional glimpse of a body bag.

Here in the Arab world, it is all blood and outrage. Coverage has been dominated by gruesome scenes of dead and wounded civilians (many of them children), angry commentators, and demonstrations on the streets of many Arab capitals.

It is the same kind of distorted prism through which Americans and Arabs have been viewing events in this part of the world since 9/11.

Standing somewhere in the no man’s land between these starkly different visions are the three main English-language broadcasters seen in this region, the BBC, CNN International, and, most importantly, upstart Al Jazeera English (AJE).

Balance is the goal of any quality news organization. But in the U.S., the quest for balance in this complex and highly-charged conflict has sometimes seemed contrived.

Take ABC anchor Charles Gibson’s lead-in to a “children of war” piece on the January 8 World News Tonight: “Youngsters on both sides of the border are being killed, injured, and traumatized by the fighting in Gaza,” he reported. But is that strictly true? By the day the piece aired, according to UNICEF, 292 Palestinian children had been killed, with hundreds more wounded. The number has since grown. Of the three Israeli civilian deaths at that point, none were children. There is certainly no doubt that the last few weeks have been traumatic for Israeli children living in towns near the border, but in the shorthand of U.S. TV news, their suffering and that of Palestinian children in Gaza became indistinguishable.

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In contrast, coverage generated by the major trans-border broadcasters has been far more nuanced and comprehensive. London-based Tim Whewell’s in-depth and carefully reported five-and-a-half minute piece, “The case for war crimes,” on the BBC’s Newsnight, is not something likely to have been aired on U.S. television, while Palestinian producers, such as the BBC’s Rushdie Abualouf, have supplied a steady stream of original footage and reporting from inside Gaza.

Like the BBC, the staff of CNN International is drawn from many countries. As a result, it has been producing coverage markedly different from that seen on its sister channel in the U.S. An American diplomat here in the Middle East told me that he and a colleague were working out in the embassy gym one day with the television on. The embassy gets a feed from Armed Forces Radio and Television, so diplomats have access to CNN’s domestic service. Out of curiosity, they started switching back and forth between CNN Domestic and CNN International. “We couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. The domestic CNN was dominated by commentary supporting Israeli actions, while the international feed was focused on the devastation on the ground.

But with its mix of Arab and Western correspondents, news executives from Canadian, British, and Arab networks, and access to the regional infrastructure and expertise of Al Jazeera Arabic, AJE is a channel born to cover this conflict.

Two correspondents from AJE were in Gaza when Israel sealed the border in mid-December: Ayman Mohyeldin, an American who started his career as a producer for NBC and CNN, and Sherine Tadros, a British-Egyptian former staffer at Al Arabiya who was sent to Gaza as a producer but moved on camera when the fighting began. Their reporting has been nothing short of riveting.

But it is the comprehensive nature of the coverage, the seamless integration of news and programming, which has resulted in a body of work that not only brings viewers into the heart of the conflict, but sets the war in its political, geographic and historical context.

Whether in the field or in the studio, AJE’s coverage has been cool and collected, largely free of the emotion that is often in evidence on its sister Arabic-language network; and the word “martyr,” used by Al Jazeera Arabic and many other Arab news organizations to describe Palestinian dead, has not crossed the lips of AJE’s staffers.

The overarching title of AJE’s coverage, “War On Gaza,” telegraphed the channel’s perspective—“on” not “in” was a conscious choice. The reporting reflected a distinct attitude; an implicit sense of identification with the Palestinian victims—the civilians, not the Hamas fighters—evident, for example, in a crawl at the bottom of the screen listing the names and ages of some of the more than 300 Palestinian children killed.

But it is an engaged journalism borne of empathy that, to this viewer’s mind, stopped short of betraying an overt bias against Israel—much to the disappointment of some Arabs, such as a guest columnist in Qatar’s As Sharq newspaper, who charged that “the English-language channel either consciously or unconsciously is moving within the orbit of the Israeli approach.”

AJE’s correspondents inside Israel—veterans of the BBC, ITN and CNN—have been aggressive in their approach, as in reporter James Bays’s questioning of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but they have also not shied away from reporting on the impact of Hamas missiles on Israeli citizens.

AJE, which is currently advertising to hire more than forty additional staffers, is aggressively stepping into the breach left by the American networks, which have largely abandoned the Middle East. A few weeks before the Gaza crisis broke, CBS News fired most of the staff of its Israel bureau. ABC recently cut a deal to use the BBC’s reporting from Baghdad. The evening newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC together gave just 434 minutes of airtime to Iraq in 2008, according to the Tyndall Report, and there were days in the first two weeks of the Gaza war when the networks did not bother to air a piece on the conflict.

They are, essentially, ceding reporting of the region (and much of the world) to others. Ironically, in the long run, given the U.S. networks’ track record in recent years, that may be a good thing—if these alternatives become more available to the average American. For the moment, BBC America is seen on some cable systems, CNN-I cannot be viewed inside the U.S., and, with a few localized exceptions, Al Jazeera English is only available streamed online via Livestation and YouTube.

The kind of borderless journalism these channels increasingly offer creates the potential to replace the myopic coverage that has fueled misunderstanding since 9/11.

It is a style of journalism in which worldviews are not quite so fixed, audiences are exposed to more than just their own preconceived notions, and a new definition of balance just might be found.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.