Israeli media in "Pillar of Defense": professional reporting or just another IDF Spokesperson?
Israeli media outlets were wrong to repeat unverified IDF statements during the military operation in Gaza November 2012
Operation "Pillar of Defense" blurred the distinction between the IDF spokesperson and Israeli media outlets more than ever. The latter relied on IDF reports in the social media, avoided fact-checking and criticism, and in several cases provided the Israeli public with incorrect reports. We would expect the media, especially at a time of war, to fulfill its duties – which are different than the IDF's.
The following video excerpt (in Hebrew) is taken from Israel's Channel 2 main news broadcast on Sunday, November 18th. It was the central item in the broadcast and it dealt with the IDF's military activity in Gaza. Throughout the entire item, two points can be spotted: first, almost all of the material was provided by the IDF spokesperson; second, most of the information is inaccurate.
Part of Nir Dvori's report, Channel 2's main news broadcast, 18 November 2012 (Hebrew)
The reports we examine below were highlighted in the broadcast headlines, a fact that denoted their special importance.
The headlines of both the broadcast and the item present a very clear picture: the reserve soldiers lack nothing and are ready to enter the Gaza Strip; the IDF is attacking and hitting terrorists in the strip; its actions are "surgical", avoiding civilian casualties, despite the fact that Hamas activists take shelter among civilians.
Only that this does not correspond with the actual facts.
"We killed Hamas' rocket corps commander". Or did we? The beginning of the item quotes almost verbatim the IDF spokesperson's statement on Twitter [Hebrew] regarding the killing of Hamas' rocket corps commander Yehya Abaya, whose house was bombed:
Widespread attacks throughout the Gaza Strip: by order of the Chief of Staff, the Air Force is increasing its attacks and hitting a number of senior Islamic Jihad and Hamas field commanders. This afternoon Yehya Abaya, the commander of Hama's rocket corps that fired the rockets on Gush Dan [Tel Aviv area] and most of the rockets into Israel, was hit.
As a matter of fact, by the time the story was broadcast, two facts were already known: first, Abaya is not Hamas' rocket corps commander; second, the house bombed by the IDF was not Abaya's, but actualy belonged to the Al-Dalu family, and at least 10 family members were killed in the attack ,among them women and children. By the time channel 2 broadcast the story major Israeli media outlets had already reported about the IDF's mistaken identification and report. But Channel 2, who enjoys the highest viewer rating, stuck to the IDF Spokesperson's statement. Consequently, a large number of viewers were misinformed, and were not aware of the repercussions of the actual events.
"An operational Hamas communications infrastructure was destroyed". Or was it? Immediately afterwards, the military correspondent Nir Dvori reports about additional attacks, including that of a high-rise building in Gaza. As a video footage of the attack is shown, Dvori narrates:
The Air Force – aided by accurate intelligence from the Military Intelligence and Shabak [General Security Service] – attacks rocket launch sites, mostly located underground, and now also launch sites located under high-rise buildings and within heavily populated areas. This requires precise hits as well as efforts to avoid hitting innocent people. Some of the targets are approved personally by the Chief of Staff.
The high-rise building described by Dvori is the same building that already appeared in a video issued by the IDF Spokesperson. This video featured in a report [Hebrew] aired on channel 2 several hours earlier, about an attack on a Hamas "operational communications infrastructure".
As a matter of fact, the building that was attacked accommodates news bureaus from all over the world; the floor that was hit houses the offices of Sky News and several other foreign networks. At least six journalists were injured in the attack. In this case, too, the IDF changed its version later, claiming that the target was the Al Aqsa TV station associated with Hamas. Mark Regev, PM Netanyahu's spokesman, said in an interview with Al Jazeera:
There is the Al Aqsa station, which is a Hamas command and control facility, just as in other totalitarian regimes the media is used by the regime for command and control and also for security purposes. From our point of view that's not a legitimate journalist...
Later the IDF provided yet another version, when IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich accused Hamas of using journalists as "human shields" in the building.
To complete our review, we must refer to the coverage of the second air strike by the IDF on the same building. The IDF Spokesperson's report [Hebrew] on the attack said that "senior operatives in the Islamic Jihad's rocket launching unit were eliminated". But when comparing the list of casualties published by the Palestinian Ministry of Health to the list published by the IDF Spokesperson, it turns out that the only person on the IDF list who was indeed harmed was Ramez Harb, whom even the IDF claimed was in charge of Islamic Jihad's media operations in the Gaza Brigade. Salam Sweilem, who was not mentioned in the IDF report, was also killed in the attack, and several journalists were injured. The title of the IDF report is inaccurate at best, but in this case too, Israeli media outlets were quick to repeat it.
The reserve soldiers have all they need (well, except for equipment and food) Dvori's item moves on to another video produced by the IDF Spokesperson unit. Spectators who are unfamiliar with the IDF Spokesperson logo that appears at the bottom of the screen would never suspect this is the source of the footage. It shows the IDF Chief of Staff conversing with reserve soldiers at the gathering point of the infantry and the armored corps, after they have completed their deployment, and they tell the Chief of Staff that all their equipment is in place. This is the picture that the IDF Spokesperson chooses to portray, and the one which Channel 2 chooses to highlight in the broadcast headlines.
A report from the scene about a Chief of Staff's encounter with the soldiers is indeed important, yet additional details portray a more complex picture of IDF readiness. In the course of several days, more and more reserve soldiers complained[Hebrew] about shortage of food, equipment and sleeping facilities. Channel 2 reporters had that information: on the 33rd minute of the same broadcast, field correspondent Tamir Steinman reports very briefly that soldiers turned to civilians in the south asking for food. However, Channel 2 chose not to highlight such reports and to keep them away from public attention.
Tamir Steinman's report, Channel 2's main news broadcast, minute 33, 18 November 2012 (Hebrew)
Interim conclusion Summing up the item broadcast on channel 2 during primetime, we can see that most of the video footage and additional material were received from the IDF Spokesperson and aired without verification – although it was easy to refute them already by the time they were aired.
Thus, Channel 2 – as well as other media outlets – violated basic rules of journalistic ethics and its commitment to report the truth. The Israeli public was presented with a false account of reality – at a time when a military operation was taking place, and during election period.
Not just a single incident A quick examination by Keshev reveals that there are many more such cases. The IDF Spokesperson often posts incorrect, misleading information on its website and on Twitter, which many media outlets hurry to repeat. For example, the very same day, the IDF twitted the following:
According to an UNRWA report published minutes ago, there is no need for humanitarian aid in Gaza, markets are open, medical center are open, restaurants and grocery stores are open as usual.
But reading the UNRWA report, which appears under the section "Emergency in Gaza", we discovered it actually reported quite the opposite:
Streets in Gaza have been deserted today. The ongoing airstrikes make every movement extremely dangerous; people do not leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.
Only a few food stores and the vegetable markets and bakeries were open. However, it seems that most of the food stores were almost empty of customers.
Electricity and water shortages have been reported in some areas as a consequence of damages caused by Israel Air Force shelling.
Two health centres did not operate due to their location – very close to the border – one of which sustained damage during an airstrike yesterday.
Misleading IDF reports are given prominence in additional contexts. The IDF Spokesperson produced and distributed a series of short, catchy videos titled "Hamas' Claims: True or False?". The videos became very popular on the Internet and were also aired on Israeli news websites [Hebrew]. One video asserted, among other claims, that "Hamas claims Israel used live fire against rioters near Ofer prison in Israel – False". In reality Rushdi Tamimi, a resident of Nabi Saleh, was shot with live bullets that same day and later died. Even if the IDF Spokesperson only meant to highlight the different versions regarding the location of the incident, the fact remains that IDF soldiers fired live bullets at Palestinian protesters that day, in that area – and that Israeli spectators were made to believe that such claims are essentially "false".
The IDF as a major media outlet We could cite even more mistaken, misleading reports by the IDF Spokesperson, but this not the aim of this text. We wish to pinpoint a sensitive issue for the Israeli media – the fact that the IDF has become not only a military body but also the most important media outlet in Israel.
In past wars and military operations the IDF would deliver information to military correspondents and "feed" the news desks with video footage and leaks from the field. The news desks would gather all of the material, process it in one way or another, and broadcast what they saw fit. In short – the IDF needed the correspondents, as much as they needed it for information. But in the current operation, something changed.
In an article [Hebrew] on The Seventh Eye, a major media criticism website, Yuval dror made these illuminating observations:
The message is that the IDF has become the media. This is no less than a revolution. Throughout history it was the soldiers, and later journalists, who reported from the front. They reported what they saw with their own eyes, they told their readers what was happening in the war, they provided their informed commentaries. And the military? It was busy fighting...
Now the IDF is taking over the rein. It is not waiting for reports but rather reports on its own. It films, chooses the footage, posts and shares. It does not wait for military correspondents to go live on the air and report what they are seeing or what they think they are seeing, or just repeat the messages the IDF Spokesperson sent to them; it is engaged in live-blogging of the kind used by hi-tech correspondents when a new iPhone is launched. The IDF does not wait for the media to broadcast its messages, since – aided by various technological platforms – it is the media.
We have shown above how this process – wherein the IDF becomes the main media outlet and the owner of the most important exclusive information – eventually ends with the citizens being misinformed. Israeli media outlets are largely to blame, since they choose to broadcast the IDF Spokesperson's reports without checking them or asking any questions, when they should be committed to ethics and journalistic standards.
The IDF Spokesperson, although it is easy for us as Israelis to forger that, is committed not to the telling truth but rather to aiding the IDF in achieving its operational goals. In the words of an IDF-commissioned study, the military seeks not just to "help the media carry out its role in satisfying the right of the public to know", but rather to "conceive a military-media agenda at the outset" in order to "gain legitimacy for its actions and influence the perspective from which the narrative itself is told".
Daniel Argo and Shiri Iram, Keshev
Additional publications about "Pillar of Defense" (in Hebrew):