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Pressed to Speculate: On the Rockets from Lebanon

Headlines run wild on the second-front front
January 8, 2009

News reports early this morning reported that at least two rockets were fired today from Lebanon into northern Israel, prompting speculation of a possible second front for Israel as it continues its heavy offensive in the Gaza Strip. Reuters was cautious about characterizing the attack: “Lebanon criticises rocket attack into Israel,” read one
headline, and “Lebanon minister says Hezbollah not behind attack,” read another. On its Web site, The New York Times led with an article entitled, simply, “Rockets Fired From Lebanon Into Israel.”

Not so the International Herald Tribune, which ran an AP article with the speculative headline: “2nd Front? Rockets land in Israel’s north.” The story’s lead presses the point: “Residents of this northern Israeli town awoke Thursday to one of their country’s worst nightmares: Rockets from Lebanon, and a possible second front in a battle that has raged for two weeks in the Gaza Strip.” UK news Web site Sky News asks: “Israel: Facing War On Two Fronts?” And a Slate morning news roundup echoes the thought with the simple but pregnant query: “A Second Front?”

We’ll soon see where the second-front situation leads. But the rush to label the rocket attack—the responsibility for which hasn’t yet been assigned to any one group—is unnecessary. Addressing the possible consequences of the attack is one thing (in the body of the article, or in a separate editorial); blaring it in the headline seems like a
misguided attempt to stir up a forecasting frenzy. No one denies the importance of context—and the bloody history between Israel and Lebanon—in covering the current Gaza conflict; it’s entirely true that you can’t look forward without looking back. But the same goes for wrapping an as-yet isolated incident in that context without pausing for further news and investigation—in effect, to wait and see if the evidence matches speculation.

The Israeli daily Haaretz, for one, retained its calm, reporting the facts in its headline and leading with, again, the facts: at least two Katyusha rockets were fired from south Lebanon, exploded in northern Israel, and left two people lightly wounded. One of them hit the roof of a nursing home, and in, retaliation, Israel Defense Forces troops fired (immediately) five
artillery shells at Lebanon. After noting both governments’ responses, reporter Jack Khoury focused on the effect the rockets had on the nursing home and the surrounding area. At the article’s end, he succinctly mentioned the historical context that has prompted the second-front speculation, and the preparations Israel has been making on those grounds (“The cabinet also had a northern front in mind when it approved a call-up of thousands of IDF reservists last week”).

Lest the account seem too entrenched in minute details (most of the nursing home residents were at breakfast, Khoury reported, which helped keep them from harm) without addressing the big picture, its gloom-inducing kicker is a quote from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Wednesday: a warning should Israel attack Lebanon, and a reference to the Second Lebanon War. No one reading that account is likely to forget 2006.

And more basically, there is nothing wrong with reporting the facts, and waiting for further developments to draw conclusions. In wartime, it’s a strategy more advisable than littering the headlines so instantaneously with question marks.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.