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Navigating the fog of war: Stanford’s discussion on media coverage of the Israel-Hamas war

Journalism lecturer Janine Zacharia discussed the challenges news media face when reporting on the Middle East conflict.

Journalism lecturer Janine Zacharia at a public discussion, titled “The Fog of War – The Challenges and Dilemmas of Covering the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” hosted by Stanford’s Department of Communication on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

On Monday, Stanford lecturer and former Middle East correspondent Janine Zacharia shared her insights on how major news organizations report on the Israel-Hamas war and the challenges journalists face in covering such a complex and polarizing issue.

Zacharia spoke during a public discussion, titled “The Fog of War – The Challenges and Dilemmas of Covering the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” hosted by Stanford’s Department of Communication. It was one of many educational events organized by the university in recent weeks aimed at deepening understanding of the conflict’s history and complexities.

“The topics of these events vary widely, but the overall goals are similar, namely: How can professors and programs at Stanford use their expertise and experience to foster discussions that help illuminate what is happening?” said James T. Hamilton, the Hearst Professor of Communication and director of the Stanford Journalism Program, who moderated the discussion with Zacharia.

A key focus of Monday’s discussion was the influence of social media on traditional news media’s ability to shape public perception of wars, particularly the ongoing strife between Israel and Hamas. Zacharia examined how digital platforms like TikTok have both augmented and complicated the narrative, offering a more diverse range of perspectives but also presenting challenges in verifying information.

“We’re living in this era of noise, where it’s made so much harder,” she said.

Zacharia also addressed the issue of media bias, discussing the professional challenges journalists encounter in ensuring balanced reporting amidst accusations of favoritism.

“There’s not always an agenda there,” she said. “Sometimes they’re doing the best they can with a very limited set of options.”

Zacharia urged readers to resist making judgments about whether a journalist or a news outlet is biased based on just one story. Instead, one should consider a news outlet’s full portfolio over a span of several weeks of work before deciding.

Zacharia is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy lecturer in the Department of Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences where she teaches news reporting, writing fundamentals, and foreign correspondence. She reported full-time on Israel, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy for nearly two decades including as the Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post, chief diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News, Washington bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, and Jerusalem correspondent for Reuters.

Social media and misinformation

Social media has changed the way information is gathered and consumed. Zacharia noted that such sites produce too many “hot takes,” facilitate the rapid spread of false information, and make it difficult to find credible news.

“I think that if you’re going to get your news via social media, you [have] to be really careful,” she said.

Zacharia said she still turns to the often-maligned mainstream media for news about the war because she knows their journalists are following a set of standards. “The difference between fake news and a legitimate credible fact-based news organization is the credible fact-based news organization admits error,” said Zacharia, referring to the correction the New York Times issued when it mistakenly blamed Israel for a hospital bombing in Gaza.

Zacharia noted that many young people feel pressured to take sides on a particular issue on social media.

“What you’re posting, what you’re liking – don’t you guys feel scrutinized?” she asked the audience, adding that going forward, she hopes critical inquiry will drive discussions of controversial topics like war.

Reporting dueling narratives

Hamilton noted that when covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, different narratives of occupation and conflict evolve depending on when a reporter chooses to start their timeline of the conflict.

Zacharia agreed and said that critics often get the most animated about the history section of news stories about the war.

She said that which historical details a reporter includes depends on what kind of story they’re writing. A breaking news story likely won’t include historical explainers, while longer stories will need a paragraph or two. She said such articles about the current war must mention Israel withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Hamas winning the 2006 election, and the 2007 Fatah-Hamas conflict.

But Zacharia said that journalists can only do so much. “You have to give a person the basics at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, I would say, to understand,” she said. “But then it should prompt you, the reader or consumer, to actually do a little more homework.”

Editorial judgment calls

News editors often must make fast and complicated decisions about which stories to highlight. When covering Israel and Palestine, Zacharia said that what is “new” still has the greatest currency in journalism and often dictates which stories rise to the front page of a major newspaper. She noted that some readers will try to quantify how much suffering is highlighted on one side of the conflict versus the other.

“Everybody is suffering. It’s a suffering place right now. So, I think you try and find stories that are compelling, important…,” she said.

Another challenge for journalists is deciding on appropriate language. For example, describing Hamas fighters as “militants” or “terrorists” or calling Israel’s invasion of Gaza a “genocide” is highly controversial and can lead to backlash. “I was trained to describe the act: ‘A suicide bomber blows himself up in a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem,’ ” she said. “You know what that is. You can visualize it.”

But she acknowledged that there may never be language that satisfies all readers. “You do your best with these situations, and I think being as specific as possible is the way to go,” she said.

Increasingly, journalists are under scrutiny for reporting on people, places, or conflicts to which they have no connection. Zacharia recalled a time when she asked a local editor in Detroit whether someone from outside the community could come and write a story about poverty there. The editor said no because she thought it was important that the person telling the story actually be from the community.

Now, however, reporters like Zacharia – who is Jewish – covering the Israel-Hamas war face the opposite dilemma and are being criticized for having any personal connection to the region.

To those critics, Zacharia said: “Judge me by my work, not by who I am. Read the stories, and then get back to me about the identity question.”