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Thinking fast and slow in reporting Israel-Gaza fighting

Media Analysis
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Washington DC, May 7—At some level, you have to feel sorry for the members of the American corporate media reporting on the periodic clashes between Israel and the resistance forces in Gaza. Reporting in any situation of war or civil conflict is a harrowing, high-stake business. You have some amount of fear about your own safety and that of your loved ones. Getting details of a murky, fast-moving story can be really hard. You have to tread numerous super-fine lines of journalistic judgment/ethics in how you gather the news and report it. And meantime, you’re working under pressure of very tight deadlines on a “big”, high-stakes story…

I know about this. I reported on Lebanon’s complex and destructive civil war for several years, in a situation in which I was living in Beirut, was married to a Lebanese person, and had two children with him… all right there, in Beirut. I covered the early months of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88—from the Iraqi side, while my spouse was covering it from the Iranian side. And twice, I was sent to Egypt to cover major instances of potentially revolutionary civil violence there.

So yes, I know about the pressures.

I was recalling these experiences as I followed the reporting these past days on the most recent Israel-Gaza fighting in (especially) the New York Times and the Washington Post. And I concluded that one good way to understand how the reporters on the ground do their work under such pressures is to use the framework provided by Nobel Economics Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his 2013 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman’s thesis is that, for most of people’s daily lives and perhaps especially in high-stress situations, they do not “think through” everything they’re doing in any in-depth, systematic way. Rather, they rely on speedy cognitive shortcuts– “heuristics”, as he calls them—to guide their actions in a way that may seem almost intuitive to them at the time. But then, when they find the heuristics don’t work for them or on other, more deliberately chosen occasions when they’re no longer in the high-stress situation, they do the more in-depth, reflective, and slower thinking that is needed to refine or update their heuristics.

The reporting on the recent Gaza-Israel clashes in both the NYT and the WaPo was almost a textbook example of “fast” and then slightly “slower” thinking in action. The story of those clashes started, fairly slowly, on Friday, May 3. (The story of Israel’s deadly siege of Gaza had of course started 13 years earlier.) But then, the clashes heated up on May 5.

So the reporting those papers’ reporters did on May 5 that appeared in the May 6 print edition of their papers was their first substantial take on this story. You could see their use of Kahneman-style heuristics (aka, anti-Palestinian kneejerk reactions) on full display!

Israel’s military actions as a “response” to something the Palestinians had initiated? Check (for both papers.) Misleading and skewed descriptions of the casualties on each side? Check (for the WaPo—see photo below.) Misleading choice and use of photographs? Check (for the NYT, see their presentation of four photographs in this photo.)

Militants in Gaza vs. civilians in Israel on the front page of the New York Times.

Militants in Gaza vs. civilians in Israel on the front page of the New York Times.

(Actually, I’ve produced a handy 12-point checklist that ambitious young journalists who want to get ahead in US corporate media can use when they’re reporting on Israel-Gaza clashes—and that the rest of us can use to play “Anti-Palestinian Bias Bingo” when we’re reading such reporting. It could become a thing, don’t you think?)

The journalism these reporters and editors produced on May 6, that appeared in the online versions of their papers that day, and then in the print editions today, was noticeably less biased than the work they produced May 5—though still far from fully objective. I surmise that by May 6, the journos were acting under less overall pressure. A de-facto ceasefire had been reached, and thus they had the chance to do some in-depth, “slower” thinking about what they were doing and were less reliant on their kneejerk heuristics.

But how did these reporters develop their deeply anti-Palestinian crisis-reporting heuristics in the first place?

From the Washington Post on May 6, 2019, Israelis are killed, but Palestinians just die.

From the Washington Post on May 6, 2019, Israelis are killed, but Palestinians just die.

It’s key to note that all this reporting—even that portion that’s performed, possibly at great personal risk, by named Palestinians in Gaza—comes out through Israel, where it is melded into a single composite story with the Jerusalem dateline, by the Jerusalem-based “bureau chief.” That has two implications. First, all reporting that comes out through Israel is subject to Israeli military censorship. Second, the reporting provided by Gaza-based correspondents is edited by the Jerusalem bureau before it is filed back to headquarters; and the people in the Jerusalem bureau generally live and work deeply immersed in the society and the cultural norms of Israel’s Jewish-Israeli elite. (Plus, they are personally vulnerable to Israeli censorship, gag orders or even expulsion orders if they ever transgress too much.)

Then, the editors in these papers’ headquarters in Washington or New York who make all the final decisions are similarly immersed in the society and cultural norms of their local elites. These norms may (or may not) currently be changing a little but they have remained strongly pro-Israeli for the past half century. Plus, everyone in these big newsrooms is quite aware of the vigilance and the commercial heft of different parts of the pro-Israeli lobby.

When I was working for the Christian Science Monitor, it was our good fortune that the Christian Science church underwrote the paper’s finances, so it was not reliant on advertisers. (That changed later, when the Monitor came to rely more on income from advertising.) Other news outlets have not been not so lucky. They’ve always had to stay aware of the harm that pro-Israeli discourse-suppression outfits like the Boston-based CAMERA could do to them if they failed to toe the official Israeli line.

There are a couple of ironies in all this. Firstly, organizations like CAMERA have always been (and remain) active users and threateners of the use of commercial boycott in their campaign to suppress public discourse they don’t like– even as they and their pro-Israeli colleagues have been working in legislatures all around the country to outlaw the boycott efforts that they don’t like!

Secondly, a headspinning irony about Daniel Kahneman’s expertise. As a “behavioral” economist, he has developed some good ways of explaining how humans think and act in different situations. But the context in which he developed these theories is more than a little troubling. As he says in the introduction to Thinking, Fast and Slow, he developed most of these theories while he and his Israeli colleague Amos Tvirsky were working as consultants to the Israeli Air Force, trying to optimize the training of the IAF’s pilots and gunners.

Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow approach is nonetheless helpful in analyzing the behavior of media workers in Israel and Gaza. It indicates that it will probably be hard to improve these people’s behavior while they are in the midst of covering a “big” story. But there may well be ways outside of that pressure-cooker to get them to undertake some of the more reflective slow thinking that’s needed if they’re going to change their in-action heuristics.

I recall from my time in Lebanon in the 1970s that we faced numerous conundrums over how to do our work informatively, ethically, and to deadline. We all used heuristics (or “rules of thumb”) as we did our reporting. But then, when the situation was calmer, we’d sit around together and try to finetune these rules of thumb. You couldn’t do this clarificatory work while you were in the Reuters bureau, banging out those 20 paras of breaking news at high speed to give to the waiting telex operator. (Back in the day.)

So yes, there are almost certainly ways we can engage with people at all stages of the reporting stream: with the correspondents in the field, the bureau chiefs, and the newsroom editors. The best time to do so is doubtless NOT when they’re in the middle of working on a “big” story. And we could use an inverted version of my tongue-in-cheek “Ambitious young journalists’ checklist” as we do so… We could ask, for example, whether a journalist or editor really thinks that a deceased/killed person on the Israeli side should be given more value and more honor than one on the Palestinian side, and so on.

But the thing about heuristics is that they’re sticky. If they have seemed to work for someone over a period of time, then she or he might find it hard to change them. Thus, the work of challenging or refining them needs to be ongoing.

Plus, in the context of media work, they are “sticky” in a broader context, too, since the way that elite newspapers like these two shape and present their reporting inevitably helps to shape the way that their readers and the broader public see and understand the world over the long term.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to values. Do people in the media see all human lives as equally valuable, all humans as equally endowed with rights, and each person’s suffering as equally harmful? By constantly asking such questions of people working in different roles in the corporate media, we can hope, over time, to improve the heuristics they use in their work.

Helena Cobban
About Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.

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5 Responses

  1. genesto
    genesto on May 9, 2019, 12:43 pm

    I have read a fair amount of “Thinking ,Fast and Slow” .With all due respect to Ms Cobban, I really don’t believe this is about heuristics at all. Given all the time in the world to study this subject carefully and thoughtfully, these heavily-biased journalists would still write much of the same things. This is primarily because many of these journalists are staunch Zionists. As for the remainder, it is because of the tremendous pressure exerted on them by the Israel lobby through these publications’ advertisers and by way of the Zionist portion of the readership. Basically, they are told to toe the line or risk damaging, or even ending, their careers.

    The mainstream press is bought and paid for on this issue, leaving only the marginalized sector of the press to publish the truth.

  2. brent
    brent on May 9, 2019, 1:57 pm

    This is an informative article for those interested in the how and the why vs those who think primarily in terms of which side is right, which wrong. This analysis would have applied over 50 years ago up until today. And may possibly apply 10 years from now.

    What to do about it beyond agitation for the adherence to journalistic integrity, something that has also been ongoing for a very long time to one extent or another. Over the years the narrative has been cultivating, Israel is the victim of irrational violence and denial of the right to exist while the bad things that happen to Palestinians, they bring them on themselves.. This narrative has long underpinned the positions in Congress and American political thinking. The amount of talent and resources to “work” or “play” America has been astounding and remains in high gear. The other side will do well discuss how to put its advantages to work, change the narrative, and play the system. The focus has tended to focus on who is right vs how to make lemonade from the lemon.

    The Jewish supremacy concept in Israel will not fly with America, its Congress and people, especially its Jewish ones. They are the ones with the clout to set things right. There is no defense against resistance through equality without violence.

    • genesto
      genesto on May 9, 2019, 6:03 pm

      This is yet another case of one side having the numbers while the other has the money. So far, on this issue and many others, money is talking louder than numbers, in great part because the majority of the numbers either are ignorant of the truth or, knowing the truth, doubt their ability to overcome the power of the moneyed.

      This has to change if we are ever to set things right in this country, on justice for Palestine and all other progressive causes.

  3. Hastobe
    Hastobe on May 11, 2019, 1:29 pm

    It’s also interesting that the Israeli dead…per the reporting…were described as ‘civilians’. No su h descriptor applied to Palestinians leaving the reader to assume (incorrectly) that the Palestinians weren’t civilians. No mention also about those among the Palestinian dead who were children or expectant mothers…again distorting the narrative.

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