Sunday, November 25, 2007

And you could look it up

If you're tired of this refrain, go ahead and skip to another channel, but: Sports departments would rightly be wary of any news agency that declared that Boston won the '67 World Series on a field goal in double overtime. Until news desks start insisting on a similar level of routine attention to what actually happened in the recent past, newspapers will forever be doomed to run stuff like this:

The starting points for defining the border between Israel and a Palestinian state are the June 4, 1967, armistice lines that were set after Israel won control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War.

Hard to tell exactly where that went off the rails, but since it's lying on its side in a particular cornfield, we can take a few guesses. The writer wanted to say that the starting points are the June '67 borders (though Golan and Sinai have nothing and almost nothing, respectively, to do with Palestinian borders) but knows they were technically armistice lines, not formal "borders." Then he tacks on a definition that should have set off alarm bells, or at least caused some editor to flip open a World Almanac or similar reference (even Wikipedia gets the dates right). The June 4 lines can't have been set "after" the Six-Day War because the Six-Day War didn't start until June 5. The armistice lines are the ones set after the 1948-49 war.

That's an easy one to fix, as long as you're in the habit of looking stuff up. And until the desks at major news services get into that habit, newspapers would do well to cultivate it themselves. Even if it looks like less fun than the celebrity watch.

While we're here, a macro concern about the concepts that show up when the story is reduced to bullet points:

Israelis are reluctant to accept a well-armed Palestinian nation next door.

True. But conceptualizing "security" as a concern for only one side in any struggle like this one is a good way to be perpetually surprised by the ordinary. That's not to suggest Israel's security concerns aren't real. They are. It is to suggest that if your readers are shocked to find that security is a Palestinian issue as well, part of the fault is yours.



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