DAGGERS & DIAMONDS
It’s no shocker that roughly 60% of Americans don’t read beyond the headlines of news stories — as was revealed in an in-depth study in 2014 by the American Press Institute. (The true number is undoubtedly higher, since how many people would admit to researchers than they prefer to be airheads about world events?)
This sad situation ought to compel major media outlets to work harder to ensure their own heds (the shorthand slang that we use in the business) are as clear and honest as possible. By ‘honest,’ we mean not only simple facts, but the proper context and impressions conveyed to readers surrounding those facts. The New York Times failed to do so recently, earning a dagger* for a story by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren titled “1 Israeli and 3 Palestinians Killed in Attacks in West Bank.” [What’s a dagger versus a diamond? Please see footnote below.]
[A version of this story was first published in The Mideast Reporter]
Readers who took the time to jump into the text would have learned that three Palestinians had been shot dead by Israeli civilians and soldiers only after assaulting Israeli Jews in separate attacks. One of those victims, a 21-year-old Israeli woman, was fatally stabbed. Unfortunately, the hed does not distinguish one killing from another in terms of what caused them.
To be fair, it’s unlikely that Ms. Rudoren, despite an anti-Israel bias that is hard to miss in much of her journalism, had anything to do with writing the hed. In the U.S. newspaper world, given its traditions, time zones and fierce deadlines, that job is almost always left to editors back at headquarters—which in this case means a skyscraper on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, where the Times’s foreign news desk (run by editor Joe Kahn) is based.
But given how often the heds of Middle East stories in the Times are skewed inaccurately against Israel in recent years (until they are invariably and quietly fixed), the paper surely needs to explore revamping its practices. After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an obsession for its editors; just consider the wordcounts and inches they have devoted to the subject in recent decades versus other tragic global conflicts. Moreover, the newspaper is arguably the most influential media outlet in the world, a reputation it deserves from its spectacular coverage of so many other topics.
On the subject of civilian casualties, the New York Times and many other big outlets shortchanged their readers during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war. Behaving more like stenographers cloning each other’s copy rather than being skeptical, independent journalists, they often swallowed phony figures provided by Hamas to the UN about the number of civilians in Gaza who were killed versus those who were terrorist operatives. [See the August 2014 exposé “The Media Intifada: Bad Math, Ugly Truths About New York Times In Israel-Hamas War.”] By doing so, they helped Hamas in the war (if unwittingly, or not), and helped fuel anti-Semitism and terrorism globally.
It is now incumbent upon our major media colleagues to fashion heds that more accurately and fairly frame the stories—especially to distinguish between civilians who are killed during the current terror wave in Israel and the West Bank from the attackers who are initiating the killing.
Here’s one possible solution to the recurring hed cases at the Times. In our business, we know that headline writing is not easy. There are often space constraints (less so on the Internet) and time pressures. But before going to press, the copy desk could wake up the Jerusalem chief or her staffers and bounce their heds off them in advance. After all, it’s their bylines and tag lines on the stories. They personally bear (and must bear) the consequences—not some anonymous editor who is perhaps not reading the copy carefully, or who perhaps has a partisan view of the conflict. At the very least, the Times should be coming clean with readers about how these Middle East heds are created, and by whom.
In this case, the headline was eventually changed to what it should have been (or should have conveyed) originally: “Israeli Woman and 3 Palestinian Attackers Killed in West Bank.”
The newspaper might also impanel a few nonpartisan editors (perhaps blessed by the paper’s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan) to sign off on the heds. If this sounds excessive, consider that the corrections they are being forced to make on their Mideast heds in recent years are getting to be… well, a bit excessive, no?
—Richard Behar (with a hat tip to media attorney Andrew Lachow—for the tip)