Journalists will need to be careful how they report the developing story of the deadly clash between Israeli military forces and a flotilla of aid ships that were headed toward Gaza. The Israeli government says that its forces were fired upon as they boarded the ships. A spokesperson for the aid flotilla denies it. Diplomats from Turkey and other countries are registering disapproval of Israel. There are calls for UN action. Protest demonstrations are in the works. The Israelis defend their actions and accuse the aid flotilla organizers of links with terrorists. Critics say Israel used disproportionate force against civilians. What really happened and what are the facts behind this incident? That is what journalists need to stay focused on. They need to be careful not to be manipulated by either side, but that may not be easy. If there were no independent journalists aboard any of the ships, reporters will have to rely on statements by both sides, and the trick is figuring out how to present those viewpoints fairly and as objectively as is humanly possible.
Based on my experience covering the Middle East for Newsweek and CNN, we are likely to see the Israelis make full use of their communication skills to spin the story their way. If the past is any guide, the Palestinians and their supporters will put out a confusing, conflicting story, will fail to provide English-speaking spokespersons who give a clear account, and may miss an opportunity to influence public opinion in the United States, although so far they may have aroused sympathy in other countries such as France. Already you can see how the Israeli version of what happened is influencing news coverage. The headline for the lead AP story Monday morning said: “Israel blames organizers for flotilla deaths.” The story quoted Israeli officials, and had no quotes from the other side. This could be due to AP bias or the lack of usable quotes from the other side at that time. As for possible bias, in my experience, American journalists or their editors often worry about appearing to be unfair to Israel, and tend to place heavy weight on official Israeli versions of incidents. The same AP report had a caption on a photo of Israeli troops aboard one of the ships. It said the photo from a Turkish ship “purported” to show Israeli troops. Would the AP say “purported” when using a comparable Israeli photo? I wonder.