Not directly and clearly referring to this as a lethally violent act is inexcusable from reporters of any level, certainly from journalists working for a newspaper of the Times’ standing.
By Emanuel Miller, Honest Reporting
Mere days after The New York Times published a piece about life-saving efforts in the fight against COVID-19 by Israeli army experts which opened by saying that “The Israeli Defense Ministry’s research-and-development arm is best known for pioneering cutting-edge ways to kill people and blow things up,” the Times has botched another lead and social media post.
Despite coming under intense scrutiny, the journalist in question, David Halbfinger, described the killing of an Israeli soldier this morning as follows:
“A 21-year-old Israeli soldier was killed early Tuesday when he was struck in the head by a heavy rock as his unit was completing a nighttime arrest mission in a Palestinian village near Jenin, in the northern West Bank, the army said.”
The sentence was copied in full by The Times’ social media staff, who used it as the text to accompany social media posts on Twitter and Facebook, further amplifying the effect.
Journalists have a responsibility to accurately, fairly report events. Reporters have a duty to share all the facts. Rocks don’t hit people by themselves, just as car doesn’t drive into people of their own volition.
Not directly and clearly referring to this as a lethally violent act is inexcusable from reporters of any level, certainly from journalists working for a newspaper of The New York Times’ standing. The rock didn’t simply strike the soldier of its own volition. It was thrown from a height and struck the soldier with great force.
Journalists didn’t write “Twin Towers implode after planes collide with World Trade Center.” Reporters don’t say “Man dead with knife in heart.” This was a deliberate act, and it should be referred to as such.
To be sure, reporters may claim with some justification that they can only mention what is known. In this case, it is known that a soldier died after being hit by a rock. The identity of the assailant is not yet known.
Missing the Bigger Picture
But that would be to miss the bigger picture: as the lead was already written in the “he said, she said” format, in which journalists prefer to describe events through the words of organizations and individuals, the standard and professional journalistic practice would be to include the IDF’s assertion that this particular rock was thrown by one of a gang of Palestinian youth. Why did Halbfinger deem this not worthy of mention?
With two such lapses occurring within the space of a few days, it’s clear that journalists need to take more care than ever before in writing their lead paragraphs. Firstly because these are the very first sentences of any article, as thus read by far more viewers than the last few paragraphs, which only a small percentage will read. And secondly because these sentences are often candidates for being copied into social media posts, whereupon they take on a status similar to headlines: They are seen by many, many more people and therefore are of greater consequence and impact than the rest of the article.
One headline, one lead paragraph, one social media post has limited impact, but enough of them in a row begin to form the public understanding of the situation as a whole. In this case the message many readers will receive is that Israel is a violent actor, and when Israeli soldiers die it is because of magical rocks that were thrown by… nobody.