You have to ask if any of the WaPo reporters now covering the Gaza-Israel conflict remembers how to do basic, objective reporting of a news story. Anyway, the editors who allow such biased reporting to appear, and who insert the often stupid headlines, also have to take much of the blame.
Our main lesson today comes from this piece in today’s paper, bylined by William Booth from Gaza City. The headline is, “After overnight invasion, ‘we now have Israelis in our houses,’ a Gazan says.”
What I want to note, regarding this piece and another that ran beside it, bylined by Booth and two other, from “Jerusalem”, are some of the ways in which the reporting of speech acts can carry a heavy freight of meaning and implication that is quite inappropriate in a news article. Yes, Journalism 101, but it seems Booth and his colleagues need some reminding of this.
A speech act: Someone speaks. How to report it? “She said” or “he said” is nearly always the most straightforward and honest.
Or, you could alter that verb, depending on the way the person made the utterance: “She yelled”, “she whispered”, “she muttered”, “she screeched”… Be careful with these, though because some of them, depending on the context, carry some freight of judgment/implication.
Then, there are speech-reporting verbs that clearly carry the weight of the reporter’s judgment of the speaker. As here, where Booth writes about Hamas politician Musheer Al Masri that, “Masri boasted that Hamas cadres have fired Kornet anti-tank guided missiles… ” Oh! So because the guy is from Hamas, Booth feels it’s quite okay to portray him as some kind of boastful blowhard? Why didn’t he write that “Masri said…”, or possibly “Masri claimed…”? (But “claimed” carries some implication of the writer’s doubt as to the veracity of the claim. “Said” is nearly always better.)
If we’re into describing politicians as “boasting”, how about we use it for many of the extremely blowhard comments made by Netanyahu? But no. The WaPo/CraPo wouldn’t do that, would it?
And in the very next para, we have an even more brazen attempt to use slanted reporting of a speech act to demean a Hamas person . Booth writes,
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, standing in front of Shifa Hospital, where members of the Islamist militant movement gather to brief — and spin — the media, said…
Oh my goodness! He feels the need to remind his readers that every so often it is possible that officials who are “briefing” the media are also trying to “spin” them? When will we see this reminder inserted into reporting of a media briefing from a US or Israeli official? In the WaPo/CraPo, probably never.
The other piece— to which Booth contributed, along with lead byliner Sudarsan Raghavan and rookie local hire Ruth Eglash– is much more consistent in its use of “saids”. Actually, there are a lot of “saids” in it, since the piece is nearly wholly a compilation of media briefings issued by various bodies (primarily, “the Israeli military”, which is kind of weird; shouldn’t they write “the IDF Spokesman”?) Because of its reliance on official briefings– spinnings?– this piece could have been “reported” from just about anywhere, including the couch in my basement.
But as you get lower down in this story, there is one intriguing use of a speech-act-reporting word other than “said”, and a little sentence that baldly carries a “potent” judgment that is completely out of place in a piece of news reporting.
The speech-act-reporting word in question is “acknowledged”, as in “Netanyahu also acknowledged that ‘there is no guarantee of 100 percent success’ in the push to destroy the tunnels.” “Acknowledged” is one of the SARW’s that conveys the writer’s judgment not of the author of the speech act in question but of the truth value of the proposition contained in the speech act. (Other SARW’s that do this include “realized that”, “understood that”, and so on.)
In the context there, the WaPo writers’ use of “acknowledged” conveys that they think that what Netanyahu was saying at that point was true and reasonable. As it happens, I agree with that judgment (but not the possible further implication, that Netanyahu is altogether pretty “reasonable”– unlike that boastful braggart over at Hamas!) But my agreeing with the judgment is not the point. That kind of judgment should not be in a news article. Rather than “acknowledged”, the writers should have used “said”– or, in this context, “added”. Keep it neutral, guys!
But there, at the end of the next paragraph, we have an amazing piece of (pro-Israeli) judgment:
An expansion of the ground offensive, military analysts said, could entail a broadening of the mission to seek and destroy rocket launchers, weapons infrastructure and storage facilities, and perhaps even eliminate key Hamas commanders and officials. Even as Israel has relentlessly bombarded Gaza, Hamas militants have succeeded in firing hundreds of rockets into southern and central Israel, rattling Israelis. As long as the militants possess rockets and tunnels, they remain a potent threat to Israel.
That latter judgment is something they (or I) could write in an op-ed– or, if these news reporters heard a military analyst say it, they could report that. But no. It is presented as, quite simply and baldly, their own judgment. I wonder if they’d claim that, because the first of the three sentences there included an attribution of some technical-military judgments to (completely unidentified) “military analysts”, then that attribution should somehow carry over to the third of the sentences? But I don’t think so, since the second sentence seems to include (gasp!) a tiny shadow of their own reporting.
So wow. A “potent threat to Israel”. That is scary, no? No wonder we Americans should all be expected to line up like zombies and support each and any action the Israeli military might take to defuse that threat…
Um, a bit of neutrality, please, WaPo reporters? If you are going to do some actual reporting on the threat perceptions that people involved in this conflict have (though that is not what you’re doing here), then surely we should have some mention of the threat perceptions of the 1.8 million Palestinians of Gaza, the vast majority of whom are civilians.
I shall not hold my breath.
One last question I have is whether William Booth, now described as “The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief”, though just a few days ago he was in London, speaks enough Arabic to do his own on-the-ground reporting. If not, then the “native informant” colleague who actually helped him do the reporting should have been given the byline, or at least a co-byline, on the Gaza-datelined piece. In the Jerusalem-datelined piece, no “local informants” are identified either– except Ruth Eglash, who is given a tagline at the bottom of truly grandiose length. So we’re told there that she previously worked as a “senior editor at The Jerusalem Post.” And that is supposed to burnish her journalistic credentials??