On Saturday, Oct. 3, an Israeli couple and their 2-year-old son were walking in the Old City of Jerusalem when a 19-year-old Palestinian man attacked them with a knife.
The attacker, Muhanad Halabi, killed 21-year-old Aharon Bennett and stabbed his wife many times, leaving a knife stuck in her neck as she went desperately looking for help. A local man, a rabbi, heard the commotion and rushed to the scene. Nehemia Lavi, 41, tried to stop the killing, but the attacker grabbed Lavi’s gun, shot him to death and also shot 2-year-old Natan, hitting him in the leg.
Halabi was still firing when Israeli police arrived and shot him, killing him.
These facts are beyond dispute. A Palestinian man attacked a young family. He killed two men, also injured a baby and nearly murdered his mother. The police killed the attacker.
I want to make that part perfectly clear before I tell you about the headlines reporting the story.
Al Jazeera English quickly sent out a tweet reporting: “Palestinian shot dead after fatal stabbing in Jerusalem; 2 Israeli victims also killed.” The Twitter message linked to a website story with a similar headline. The death of the attacker was the news; the Israelis’ deaths were secondary, coming after the semicolon.
Here’s how the BBC described it: “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two.” Notice the disembodied “Jerusalem attack,” without a hint of a perpetrator. Notice we’re not told who the “Jerusalem attack” killed. We do know that the main subject of the headline, who was shot dead, was Palestinian. The Jewish Israeli victims are essentially not noted.
To long-time observers of media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tendentious wording from Al Jazeera and the BBC will hardly come as a surprise.
This, on the other hand, will come as a shock: The Washington Post story on the Jerusalem attack was the most egregious of all. “Palestinian is Killed After a Fatal Attack,” read that headline.
If you didn’t trouble to read beyond that, as many people do, all you knew is that a Palestinian was killed. Nothing more.
That tragic incident was just one of a series of Palestinian attacks against Israelis in recent days. The upsurge in violence is the result of a number of factors, which I will resist listing here. After years, nay, decades of covering the dispute, everyone has a point of view on who bears the greatest responsibility for the stalled conflict.
For news reporters (and headline writers) that creates a challenge. Journalists (not commentators) are required to keep their opinions out of the news they cover. But when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians, the personal views of the writers have been creeping into international coverage for years.
The examples from the Old City murders are particularly transparent, with the prejudice shouting its presence from the headlines.
The journalistic transgression was so egregious that Al Jazeera English apologized. It deserves credit for doing something that the Washington Post and the BBC should emulate.
In an editors’ note the next day AJE acknowledged the criticism from “many people in our audience,” who said the tweet and the corresponding headline with similar wording minimized the killing of Israelis. (It also misled about the character of the event, but the apology did not address that.) “The criticism is valid,” the editors said, “and we regret the wording.”
With violence increasing and drawing attention back to the conflict, this event is a timely reminder for journalists and for news consumers. Subtle bias shapes the opinions of readers, policy makers, and potential combatants. It has a very real impact.
Journalists have a responsibility to safeguard the integrity of their work.
The rest of us, news consumers, must remain alert to bias and, with today’s many open social media platforms, we should communicate and protest when unfair coverage appears. After all, the killings, stoked at least in part by tendentious media coverage, are likely to continue.