Sunday, January 18, 2009

'Accuracy' and accuracy

Tonight's trivia question: What do college football and the fractious Near East have in common? Raise your hand if you said "original convincing test cases for the 'hostile media' effect" -- the idea that partisans of opposing sides can look at the same piece of "neutral" reportage and conclude that it's biased against their side.

It's tempting to conclude from the "hostile media" effect, and from the normal run of complaints about Middle East coverage, that all complaints about "accuracy" are complaints about ideology. Calls for truthful and unbiased reporting do often boil down to calls for a different kind of bias in reporting. But it's worth bearing in mind that amid the political minefields, there are still concerns about straight-up, literal, binary accuracy. And the evidence from one of the local fishwraps is starting to pile up uncomfortably high.

Last month, the Freep desk managed to pull a complete 180 on some Gaza copy: turning a "Palestinian speaking Hebrew" into a "Palestinian-speaking Hebrew." That suggests the sort of genuine unfamiliarity with the basics that -- not to be jealous or anything, but it'd get the perpetrator laughed out of a sports department in very short order. Nor have things gotten better since the current Gaza conflict erupted.

The teaser hed on the Jan. 5 front page proclaimed "Troops go deep into Gaza City." As the teaser itself (and the inside story it referred to) noted, they were doing no such thing; they were going deep into the Gaza strip, but the effect was to cut the city itself off, not to enter it. Last Sunday, the lead hed on 4A declared "Hamas, Fatah rift tears Gaza" -- interesting if true, but since the story was about public opinion in the West Bank, an important topic on its own but quite distinct from public opinion in Gaza, pretty spectacularly off the mark.

If you've done much deadline editing, you've seen how the latter mistake happens: somebody gets the day's "Gaza story" (which happens to be about the West Bank, and is fairly prescient in the bargain) and, not knowing the West Bank from Hazel Park, figures the most important word to get into the hed is "Gaza." Today's blunder, though, is different. Here's the cutline from today's 4A:

An Israeli Arab fighter flashes a victory sign in Tel Aviv, Israel, during a demonstration against Israel's military operations in Gaza.

Some background while you scrape your jaw from the floor. Arabs (Muslim and Christian) comprise about 16% to 18% of Israel's citizens, and they do most of the things that citizens do (military service usually being the big exception). They can vote. They can run for parliament. And, as Israelis in general are often good at, they can demonstrate. Which, according to all versions of the cutline I've seen (including the one at the WashTimes), is what's going on here: An Israeli Arab flashes a victory sign during a demonstration against Israel's military operations in Gaza, in Tel Aviv,Israel, Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009.

True, it's been a while since I've watched a demonstration in Tel Aviv,* but I think it's safe to say that if "Arab fighters" were running loose in the streets during one, we would have heard about it. It looks as if some Freep desker figured that "fighter" must be the safe, neutral way to describe "scary-looking person with a keffiyeh over the face," rather than having the common sense to read the damn caption and the basic area knowledge to realize that it might be -- hold on -- just a "demonstrator."

If that reading is correct,** the "Israeli Arab fighter" cutline is just a remarkably stupid blunder, but it's the sort of blunder that's impossible to tell from bias, and that ought to sound a warning bell downtown. Not just for demographic reasons (the Freep used to take some pride in its awareness of the significant Arab population in these parts), but for fundamental questions about whether the paper can credibly claim to offer an accurate portrayal of things that are happening in the broader world.

The "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter" argument has been with us for decades (the earliest specific reference I know of is from 1948). Reasonable people still wrestle with it because it's still a vexing impediment to attempts to define terrorism, and terrorism is worth defining because a calm, rational understanding of it gets us closer to the condition suggested by German legal scholar Christian Walter: A person committing certain criminal acts may (or even: must) be considered everyone’s terrorist even if he or she is someone’s freedom fighter or someone else’s law enforcement agent.

That's an ideal, and I can see why a newspaper would want to look neutral on the question of when a "fighter" is a terrorist and when he (or she***) isn't until that ideal is reached. But not distinguishing between types of substate violence is a whole world different from not being able to distinguish armed violence from civil protest. If the Freep can't tell those things apart, it's in far more serious trouble than a new home delivery schedule can fix.

* Or in Ramallah, for that matter.
** If anyone has a different account, by all means check in soonest at the comments.
*** The subtitle of Geula Cohen's autobiography, after all, is "Memoirs of a young terrorist." Worth reading if you keep up with this sort of thing.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

If "fighter" was meant to be "demonstrator" that's one thing - and serious, of course. I was wondering if a hyphen wouldn't be helpful. Is this an "Israeli-Arab" who is a "fighter" (or "demonstrator"), or is it an "Israeli" who is an "Arab fighter", that is, one who "fights Arabs"?

1:00 PM, January 19, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

I'm pretty sure it's meant to be an Israeli Arab. I can find AP photos credited to the same shooter that all appear to be from an evening antiwar protest in Jaffa. Four cutlines mention Israeli Arabs; the one that doesn't is of "an Israeli left wing activist" (so AP is making the distinction).

AP also covered a separate demonstration at the defense ministry (in the middle of T-A, if I recall correctly). This one appears to be commemorating the missing soldier Gilad Shalit, and the demonstrators are just "Israelis" in both cutlines.

1:15 PM, January 19, 2009  

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