Western Coverage of the Israel-Hamas War

Media treatment of the events has generated its own bitter controversies.

The aftershocks of Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack on Israel have only grown over the past five weeks. Israel and the Gaza Strip have been dealt the toughest blows. But the seemingly intractable conflict has a singular ability to reverberate globally, and the region’s gravest chapter in decades has led to acute strife on American college campuses, the largest protests in years in capital cities across the world, political infighting exceptional even by DC’s toxic standards and fear among Jews and Arabs inside and outside the Middle East.

Media coverage of the events has generated its own bitter controversies, which is not surprising given the enormous complexity of these events and the history leading up to them.

How have approaches to reporting on the war varied? And which examples set the best example? While it’s obviously impossible define an entire country’s coverage where no such monolith exists, a look at headline coverage in prominent outlets in Canada, the US and Europe spotlight just how difficult it’s been to cover these tragic events, and perhaps how best to do so going forward.

Catherine Tait, president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada, defended the broadcaster’s coverage of the war in a contentious meeting last week with Canadian MPs. The CBC’s policy against its reporters labeling Hamas a terrorist organization (the label can appear when attributed to others) and its misleading attribution of the October 17 Gaza City hospital strike to Israel drew the bulk of the ire from conservative legislatures. Tait acknowledged flaws in the very early hospital reporting, which the CBC shared with a raft of major international outlets.

The reasoning she offered for avoiding the “terrorist” phrasing in this and other stories was more nuanced, or at least would be to Americans who’ve even casually followed the news over the past 25 years. “The word is extremely politically charged and if journalists use the word, they enter into a debate that is not our business,” Tait said. “Our business is to remain independent and fact-based.” She also pointed out that news other organizations including Agence France-Presse, the BBC and Reuters follow the protocol.

Tait’s explanation makes sense even if it’s difficult for Americans to grasp. If there’s one message major US outlets, and the White House, have hammered home with clarity since October 7, it’s that Hamas is a terrorist organization. But I don’t see quite as clearly as Tait that reporters making that designation signal their bias. Terrorism is inextricable from politics, but its definition is a rather simple one, despite the complicated situations behind most terrorism. Still, Tait and the CBC should be commended for sticking to objectivity, even if the results of that drive upset some people.

The CBC’s status as a public broadcaster might not influence the “terrorist” decision, but it explains in part the strict, if imperfect, adherence to just-the-facts reporting so often lacking in the US, especially on the for-profit broadcast news networks that dominate ratings. For that, and the CBC’s devotion to informing all of Canada’s multilingual citizens across six time zones, increased government scrutiny is a small price to pay.

It also explains the deep, powerful and fair dive into Benjamin Netanyahu’s politicking, including collusion with Qatar to aid Hamas that led several of his ministers to resign in protest—in the long lead-up to the October 7 atrocities.  

That’s not to say American outlets haven’t published pieces similarly critical of Israel. Thomas Friedman is just one prominent journalist who wrote of Netanyahu’s cozying up to Qatar, and the Times came down harshly on Netanyahu as he hobbled the Israeli judiciary. But while mainstream US platforms have become more critical of Israel as the civilian toll in Gaza rises, it’s hard to imagine them so thoroughly dismantling Israeli leadership three weeks after the attacks.

Therein lies a central question surrounding the public and media debate: how can one distinguish criticism of Israel from antisemitism. I’d wager on this front that the especially tangled web of identity politics in the US has confused a good deal of the war coverage and conversations surrounding it here.

Although identity, and the coexistence of diverse identities, can indeed get complicated, the stances of so many Americans, in particular young ones, on this conflict are binary: Israel is the oppressor. Palestinians are the oppressed, and are therefore more deserving of support. I’ve not seen this reductive attitude seep into much mainstream media coverage, where the Times is now encouraging “humanitarian pauses” in Gaza, but it’s certainly a scourge on social media and in certain protests.

Mainstream US media isn’t off the hook, however. I would be happily surprised to see the Times offer an analysis, amidst this crisis, as thorough as the CBC’s of the Netanyahu-Qatar-Iran relationship. Unfortunately, the Times and its biggest competitors have been more likely to give prominent space to Capitol Hill squabbling and furious donors to Ivy League universities whose presidents haven’t offered full-throated enough support for Israel.

Meanwhile, an admittedly broad overview of European coverage of the war shows top publications following the lead of many bloc politicians—Emmanuel Macron called for a ceasefire over the weekend—in more aggressively (than American organizations, at least) shifting focus away from the October 7 attacks and focusing on the horrors unfolding in Gaza.

Fault lines run deep across the European media landscape given the many distinct cultures it contains. The response in Germany, whose history is so starkly intertwined with Israel’s, has revolved around a 200% rise in anti-Semitic incidents since October 7 and, during recent commemorations of the Kristallnacht anniversary, public denunciations of such hate more potent, to my eye, than those found in America.

Germany has been famously intent on atoning for its World War II history, and the response there by political and media leaders reflects that. In Cataluña, no stranger to regional acrimony and division, La Vanguardia applauded German PM Olaf Scholz’s unvarnished denunciation of antisemitism and the country’s prioritizing “conscientiousness over history.” This from a paper in Spain, which essentially codified a policy of silence regarding mass murders during the Franco dictatorship.

Perhaps media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict cannot be separated from the history of the place producing it.

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