Varying coverage of a deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza highlighted the difficulties of reporting on a rapidly escalating war in which few journalists remain on the ground while claims circulate freely on social media.
The first reports of an attack on Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City came on Tuesday afternoon Eastern time. A Gaza health ministry spokesman said an Israeli airstrike caused the explosion, which killed at least 200 people. In a televised interview, a Health Ministry spokesman later said the death toll had risen to more than 500 – which the ministry later changed to “hundreds”.
The news changed rapidly within a few hours. Several Western news organizations, including the New York Times, reported Gazan’s claims in prominent headlines and articles. They adjusted coverage after the Israeli military issued a statement urging “caution” regarding Gazan’s accusation. News organizations then reported the Israeli military’s claim that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed group aligned with Hamas.
On Wednesday, US officials agreed with Israel, saying that preliminary intelligence indicated that the launch did not come from Israel and was instead carried out by an armed Palestinian group. Much of the coverage about the eruption on Wednesday focused on US analysis.
But in the coming hours many supporters of each side had already made up their minds. Much of the Arab world rallied in support of the Palestinians, with thousands of protesters marching in cities across the Middle East on Tuesday night and Wednesday blaming Israel for hospital deaths of civilians.
Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor of The Associated Press, said it was difficult for news organizations to get a handle on the situation in Gaza because they could not always get first-hand or verified accounts. As Israel prepares for a ground offensive into Gaza, most Western journalists have evacuated the area, and those journalists who remain face shelling and shortages of water, food and electricity.
Committee for the Protection of Journalists Said It was reported on Wednesday that at least 19 journalists were killed during the clashes, 15 of whom were Palestinians.
“It is extremely difficult,” Ms Carroll said. “In Gaza, there are very few news organizations that can be on the ground and get eyewitness reporting that helps.”
Covering wars is always risky, because journalists on the ground are often at a disadvantage and because the parties to the war aggressively push information to their side.
The war between Israel and Hamas has proven to be more difficult than most conflicts, as it has generated large amounts of misleading and false information online. There are so many false claims that some people question the true claims.
It takes time to independently verify claims from all parties. In a separate conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky initially blamed Russia for a deadly September 6 missile attack in eastern Ukraine. But a New York Times investigation published 12 days later found that the cause was likely a faulty Ukrainian air defense missile. The investigation relied on examination of satellite imagery, missile fragments, witness accounts and social media posts.
Coverage of this week’s hospital explosion generally presents what was said about the explosion at the time of publication. The BBC’s initial breaking news report said, “Palestinian officials say hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli airstrike on hospital in Gaza.” The headline later read, “Israel denies airstrike on hospital in Gaza, says failed terror rocket to blame.”
The Times sent out a news alert at 2:51 pm Eastern time containing a Palestinian claim of an Israeli missile attack on the hospital. When the Israeli military’s statement appeared, The Times sent another news alert on Israel’s claim that “a failed Palestinian rocket” was responsible.
Not all major global news outlets made the same changes. Qatar government-funded news organization Al Jazeera continued report On Tuesday evening it was reported that Israel was held responsible for the attack. It included a blog post with Israel’s denial, but also included commentary from one of its own journalists, who said Israel routinely deflects blame for attacks that kill civilians onto misfiring rockets. Were. On Wednesday, Al Jazeera continued to report that the blast was an “Israeli attack”.
The BBC and Al Jazeera did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Times spokesperson said, “We report what we know as we learn it.”
“We exercise rigor and caution in what we publish, clearly citing sources and noting when a news story is breaking and likely to be updated,” he said.
Bill Gruskin, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said that media organizations must exercise “extraordinary caution” in dealing with news surrounding the Israel–Hamas conflict, and be transparent about where they get their information. “Especially when it comes from official channels that have a vested interest in propagating a particular point of view.”
Ms. Carroll echoed that sentiment, and said news organizations need to avoid trying to fill gaps in knowledge with speculation.
“There is a lot of mistrust on all sides and in all directions,” Ms. Carroll said. “It’s incredibly difficult to walk that line, it’s practically impossible to present any news in any format that will be believed by all parties.”