The Media Today

Q&A: David Patrikarakos on covering war in Israel and Gaza

November 8, 2023
Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Mohammed Al Masri)

In April 2014, David Patrikarakos, a British author and war correspondent, was one of the first Western journalists in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine, when the local police station was taken by a pro-Russian militia. Come July, he learned via Twitter that Ukrainian forces had taken back Sloviansk and sent the separatists fleeing to Donetsk, where Patrikarakos was reporting at the time. Not that the nearby mortar fire or the region’s newly formed republic had his undivided attention. For most of his career, Patrikarakos has specialized in covering the Middle East; he wrote a book about Iran, and reported on Israel and Palestine, and on Iraq. Even as he could hear shelling from his hotel room in Donetsk, he was following along online as war erupted in multiple theaters in the Middle East.

A month earlier, the terrorist organization ISIS—known for its violent propaganda on YouTube and Twitter—unexpectedly took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Meanwhile, Israel was at war with Hamas; as Israel bombed Gaza, Palestinian Twitter accounts relayed the destruction to the world, while the Israel Defense Forces used the same platform to share their version of events. News, images, and videos of the violence took over Patrikarakos’s social media feeds, despite the distance. “War had never been so close, visceral, or ubiquitous,” he wrote. From his hotel room, he began to understand that he was “caught up in two wars: one fought on the ground with tanks and artillery, and an information war fought largely through social media.”

It was in that hotel room that Patrikarakos had the idea for War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Shaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. Published in 2017, the book is “about war, about stories, the narratives of conflict, and the conflict of narratives.” Following Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack on Israel and the latest iteration of war in Gaza, the themes and lessons from the book, and from the conflicts of 2014 generally, are newly relevant. 

Recently, Patrikarakos has reported again from both Ukraine and Israel. Earlier this week, after returning from the latter country, I spoke with him about his experiences revisiting familiar war zones, the narrative wars being fought around them, and whether social media has the same impact on war reporting as it did ten years ago. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KL: You just got back from Israel. What were your immediate impressions from your reporting? Are there any stories you witnessed that are missing from global coverage?

DP: I began by watching the IDF’s one-hour showreel, for want of a better word, of the October 7 atrocities. The IDF didn’t show us everything, but we’re talking about images of burned baby corpses; we’re talking about someone being beaten to death with a trowel. That was pretty visceral. As long as we’ve been having wars, people have been writing and speaking and broadcasting about them. But this is, I would say, the most mediatized conflict in the world—and certainly the most emotive. To see all of that noise, sound—whatever you call it—boil down to those very visceral images was quite striking. And obviously, as [the situation in] Gaza is unfolding, we’ve seen similar sorts of horrific images.

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In terms of things that are not being reported: in all of this we do need to remember that Gaza is just one part of what was once thought to be a future Palestinian state. The West Bank is another, and people there are very angry. We have huge [Israeli] settlements, encroachments from people who believe that God—“the divine realtor”—gave them bits of land that perhaps don’t belong to them. That is something that I think the world is not thinking about at the moment. I was there, and I would advise people to have a look at what’s happening in the West Bank.

Were you able to watch or read any local media while you were in Israel? What should we know about it, if you did?

In the aftermath of everything is just a lot of anger, a lot of fear. Israel is a country that was born in trauma and trauma has always existed in the state, either overtly or just below the surface. Right now, Israelis are traumatized after what happened. It’s palpable. After we’d seen the IDF video, someone said, how did this happen? And the IDF guy said, look, we failed. You could tell they were really struck by this, and I think that’s reflected in the media. It’s a lot of anger, a lot of rage, a lot of fear of what’s to come.

In your book, you write about three different trends of modern warfare: a power shift from traditional hierarchies to individuals, wars being fought between states and nebulous non-state actors, and the increasing importance of narrative in war. What do you think is the relevance of the war of narrative today, and what new themes are emerging?

We have to be clear that the war on the ground, fought out by tanks and guns and bullets, is always going to be the key conflict. But surrounding it you have this war fought out by tweets and posts and shares. My book has its genesis in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The dominant paradigm of war that we have—especially if you are British or American—is World War II. That was a clear war with two sides: the winner defeats the loser; they impose a political settlement; the war ends. What Putin was doing was sending troops across the border to carve off a bit [of Ukrainian territory], pump in Russian propaganda, and destabilize Ukraine to the degree that it could never join the European Union or NATO. And that is a political, not a military, goal. Putin had no intention to march to Kyiv, raise the Russian flag over the Rada [the Ukrainian Parliament], and then annex Ukraine. That changed, but at the time his ultimate goal was to destabilize it politically and economically.

So narratives are really important. Israel/Hamas is an interesting one, because when we strip away all the noise, the military outcome of this war is predetermined. Hamas cannot defeat Israel; Israel cannot destroy all of Hamas, whatever it says it’s going to do. I don’t mean to diminish the suffering on both sides but it becomes a process in which the military outcome is predetermined. Yes, they have to fight; yes, Israel needs to take out as many terrorists as possible, especially after what happened. But this is the paradoxical logic of strategy.

When Napoleon marches on Moscow, the more successful he becomes. [But] the closer he gets to Moscow and the more victories he has, the weaker he becomes, because he’s further from his lines, from supplies. The more the Russian army falls back, the stronger it gets because it’s going back to its own place. And it’s a bit like this with Israel and Hamas. The more Israel goes into Gaza, messes the place up, kills Hamas terrorists, the more civilian casualties you’re going to get. The more it succeeds, the more Hamas wins because Hamas cannot, despite the horrendous thing it did on October 7, inflict an ongoing number of huge casualties on the Israeli population. The only way Hamas wins is to brandish to the world its own corpses. The more Israel is successful, the more it loses. The more Hamas loses, the more it’s successful. This is about shaping narratives. Narratives don’t blow up tunnels. But if you don’t win the discursive war, you’re generally in trouble.

In terms of the narrative of war reaching a broader audience, Hamas and ISIS have both distributed raw, violent footage to drive support. The IDF brought the media to the screening of the footage from the October 7 attacks. Obviously it’s very different showing the media footage at a private screening than broadcasting it, but what are your thoughts on the IDF operating this playbook?

First of all, they didn’t show the worst stuff. Israel could have done this many times before with terrorist atrocities. They did it, in the end, because there were so many people saying that what happened is not true. They did it pretty responsibly—they didn’t let anyone record anything and they didn’t let anyone take any photographs. I don’t think the IDF wanted to do it. I think it was a last resort. I think that they understood it would be traumatic. And you’ve got to understand something else—which is every time you see thousands of [Hamas] guys just walking through an Israeli kibbutz like that, it makes [the Israeli government] look terrible. I think every single Israeli looks at that and says, what the fuck?

Context and framing is everything today. When these things are themselves being scrutinized for political implications, how do you make sure to include all the necessary context? How do you make sure that you don’t allow the context and framing to become greater than the story you’re telling?

There probably is never enough context for a single article, right? What’s all the necessary context you need for the Arab-Israeli conflict? I mean, Christ, it’s books-worth. You try to put in the context you feel is relevant, which obviously is problematic because we talk about an emotive situation and we’re constrained by words, in the end. In the type of articles I write, from the ground, you’re telling a story. The context has to work with that narrative meaning and it can’t get in the way, otherwise it becomes confusing. You have to put it in the terms that you think are most relevant to explain it as fairly as possible for the immediate article you’re writing, because anything beyond that is not realistic. But that’s the problem with truth—whose truth? Because there’s black and there’s white, and it comes down to people looking at the same facts and drawing their own conclusions. There’s nothing really you can do about that.  

Numerous news organizations recently ran headlines that attributed a blast at a hospital in Gaza to the IDF, based on a claim by Hamas, well before any conclusive evidence surfaced. (Israel and the US have said that a botched rocket launch on the part of a Hamas-allied group was to blame, as have various independent observers, though the evidence remains in dispute.) Which side actually won in that circumstance?

I actually spoke to the IDF about this and asked, was this better for you? Everyone rushed and then had to apologize because they were wrong; if you’re looking at it from a purely media point of view, the IDF has this in its pocket the next time someone tries to rush to judgment. [But] the IDF said that it introduced complexity into the military operation and that they would rather it just hadn’t been erroneously labeled in the first place.

How much do you think about the use of the passive versus the active voice in your coverage? “Died” versus “killed,” for example. Is that something that you think about?

I think if someone was killed, you’ve got to say they were killed, right? The passive voice is an interesting thing. Orwell said never use the passive voice. There is an example of this, which is the Nazi description of the arrest and execution of Anne Frank: everything is done in the passive—she was taken—to obfuscate what was happening. You have a duty when you’re reporting on these things not to obfuscate, not to use euphemisms, and—to the degree that you can—just say directly what is happening. There are limits; we’re talking about people being disemboweled and things like that. 

Orwell has this whole thing about language and its uses, how it becomes a handmaiden to totalitarianism and various terrible things when you obfuscate. In war, there is the use of prophylactic language, especially toward soldiers—back in the day, they wouldn’t say someone died; they’d say he was “pushing up daisies.” But if you are a journalist reporting on this, you have several duties, one of which is not to shroud what you’re saying in euphemism, because you’re doing a disservice to everybody from the people who died to the people you want to actually read about this.

The twentieth century had war correspondents who had absolute authority. What is the role of the war correspondent in a world that gathers its news from social media?

I guess it was the same thing as when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. It’s another symptom of essentially the same trend or impulse, which is that there is a multiplicity of media outlets compared to what there used to be. There used to be four channels in England; now there are hundreds. What American columnist sets the tone today? That doesn’t happen anymore—that’s done by other things, TikTok influencers. 

One of the most depressing things I realize about journalism is that a lot of people don’t really read the news to be informed. They do it to inform their prejudices. It always existed; it is nothing new. It’s just become a lot worse. And we’ve got the ability for anybody who wants to go to a war zone and has a Twitter feed and a video camera to become a war correspondent. It’s probably good that no single person is an authoritative voice on any one thing, to be honest, because no one’s infallible. Least of all Walter Cronkite.

Do you have any other thoughts about the media coverage of Israel and Gaza? What am I missing?

It’s so toxic. If you’re going to make any big claims about anything, you have to make sure it’s true, because if it’s not, it’s deleterious for everyone. It just destroys credibility in the media. It makes everyone more angry. It poisons the debate even more. That is my big takeaway. It’s just this conflict. It just triggers people in ways that others don’t.

Other notable stories:

  • In media-business news, The Circus—a political documentary series on Showtime hosted by John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, and Jennifer Palmieri—will wrap up this weekend after eight seasons. Elsewhere, Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein reports on Will Lewis’s first steps as the new CEO of the Washington Post; at an initial meeting with staffers still reeling from recent cuts, Lewis “read the room, and disarmed it with a mix of self-effacing humor, non-corporate speak, and candor,” per Klein. And four former staffers at Kotaku, a site for gaming news owned by G/O Media, launched Aftermath, a new worker-owned site covering video games and culture. The Verge has more details.
  • And, after Gannett hired Bryan West to be its dedicated Taylor Swift correspondent, the internet had a lot of thoughts. Some online observers “had reservations about Gannett’s hiring a self-proclaimed Swiftie, saying they hope West’s coverage will hold pop culture’s most powerful woman accountable,” NBC’s Kalhan Rosenblatt writes. “Many said they were disappointed that a man was hired to cover a woman who makes female-centric music.” Others simply disagreed with West’s stated taste in Swift’s music.

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Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.