In Gaza Conflict, Media Face An Old, Impossible Task: Covering It

Despite sweeping changes in the ways that the news media operate in the digital age, one thing hasn't changed: the difficulties journalists face in covering the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It's almost impossible to cover it in a way seen as fair by all sides.

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Technology has changed the way that news flows and coverage of conflict in the Middle East. These days, journalists, witnesses and advocates take advantage of digital outlets and social media platforms. Still, as we hear from NPR's David Folkenflik, one dynamic has not changed - it has affected coverage and the larger conflict for decades.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffery Goldberg is weary of writing about the strife between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and not simply because there's no resolution in sight.

JEFFERY GOLDBERG: For whatever reason, if you choose to write about the Middle East, you're going to get in the neck - it's just the way it is. And if you can handle that, then you can write about it, and if you can't handle it, then you should go cover something else.

FOLKENFLIK: Goldberg, who served in the Israeli military, says people with sympathies on one side or the other parse not just his every assertion, but every phrase for signs of bias.

GOLDBERG: The same burst of Twitter nonsense will have me both as a Zionist fascist and as a self-hating Jew.

FOLKENFLIK: The very topic has been so charged that for 11 years, NPR commissioned an outside audit of its coverage on a quarterly basis. The evaluations, which ended late last year, usually identified minor failings and omissions, but no grave lapses. The latest clashes have inspired a fresh wave of criticism NPR's work, though the network's Ombudsman posted an admiring assessment last night. It is undeniable that reporters who are affected by what they see reflect their strong emotions in social media, in ways they might not on the air.

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DIANA MAGNAY: We're on the top of a hill and I think you can probably see there are lots of Israelis gathered around who are cheering when they see these kinds of Israeli strikes.

FOLKENFLIK: That's CNN foreign correspondent Diana Magnay. She was covering missile strikes on Gaza from the Israeli side last week.

MAGNAY: And it is an astonishing macabre and an awful thing really, to watch this display of fire in the air.

FOLKENFLIK: Strikes like those have led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians. In a tweet, Magnay said she had been menaced by a few of the cheering Israelis - she called them scum. After an online outcry, CNN acted quickly to reassign her to Russia. Here's retired CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton.

TOM FENTON: Fairness, like right and wrong, really is a - is a useless term when you're talking about a situation like Israel/Palestine.

FOLKENFLIK: Fenton covered the Middle East extensively for the Baltimore Sun and CBS News. He says both sides are spinning furiously to reporters but also directly to the public, with competing photographs and hash tags posted from official accounts and from those of surrogates.

FENTON: The biggest problem of course, is that it's an insoluble problem. It's the story of two different narratives, and both of which I understand - and neither which seems to mesh with the other.

FOLKENFLIK: Fenton says journalists tend to follow the stances of their governments. So American reporters tend to give more credence to Israeli pronouncements, while European reporters are more likely to tilt toward the Palestinian view. Former CNN Middle East editor Octavia Nasr says, there's been more direct coverage of what's happening in Gaza this time than in the past, in part she says, because images of destruction and death are posted instantaneously.

OCTAVIA NASR: This is the first time that we're seeing the Palestinian element play a major role in coverage, and this is not by choice of the traditional media. This is really something that was imposed on U.S. media by the New media.

FOLKENFLIK: In 2010, the Lebanese born Nasr lost her job at CNN after nearly two decades with the network - the fallout of her own tweet, signaling respect after the death of a cleric with Hezbollah, who she argued had been a moderating force. Now she says, reporters' instant dispatches are challenging the judgment of editors at American news organization.

NASR: When you had everything controlled, basically at headquarters, every single piece of information had to be filtered through several layers of editorial scrutiny and editorial judgment before it makes it to air. Now it's raw.

FOLKENFLIK: Israeli officials argue that Hamas' repeated rocket attacks are not a military strategy, but a media strategy designed to draw deadly response they can show off to TV news crews. The claim outrages many Palestinians, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the point bluntly on CNN.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I mean, it's gruesome. They use telegenicly dead Palestinians for their cost. They want - the more dead the better.

FOLKENFLIK: The fight over the coverage of the larger conflict becomes a vehicle for arguing over the conflict itself. Just as fraught and just as contacted. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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