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The relentless focus on Gaza

An NPR team's protective vests and helmets in a hotel room in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy of NPR)
NPR
An NPR team's protective vests and helmets in a hotel room in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy of NPR)

It's been six months since Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded with war. Since then, the most frequent complaint we get in the Public Editor inbox is that NPR has downplayed the suffering of Israelis while calling attention to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.

It was also one criticism of many mentioned in a column last week from an NPR editor. It raises a question: Should the news coverage of this war be proportional to the number of civilian deaths and suffering?

The answer is more complex than numerical and journalists who create the news rarely want to talk about it publicly. One NPR executive suggested that answering that question on the record was the equivalent of putting one's head above the parapet; it will definitely get blown off. Instead, he said, most journalists prefer to let the work speak for itself.

In the analysis of this question, there are a few underlying principles:

  • The lives of Israelis and Palestinians are equally valuable.
  • One story is never the whole story. Individual stories are often a close look at a specific experience or moment.
  • Newsrooms have an obligation to capture the wider picture over time, through their larger body of work.
  • Journalism is about documentation and accountability.
  • Daily journalism is a set of daily choices, informed by both the events of the day and the needs of the audience.


NPR former senior business editor Uri Berliner wrote in his critique for an online news site that NPR's coverage is biased in many areas. Among those biases, he called out a prejudice against Israel. Berliner has since resigned.

Among the storylines Berliner accuses NPR of distorting through disproportionate choices is the one that has "Israel doing something bad." He says, "That's meant highlighting the suffering of Palestinians at almost every turn while downplaying the atrocities of October 7, overlooking how Hamas intentionally puts Palestinian civilians in peril, and giving little weight to the explosion of antisemitic hate around the world."

He doesn't specify what he means by "Israel doing something bad," but it's a safe assumption that he is talking about the daily coverage of Israel's attempt to destroy Hamas by bombing Gaza, which has killed 37,000 people, and the implicit and explicit suggestions that that response is disproportionate.

Others share this view that NPR's coverage is biased and uneven. Among the specific NPR conventions they object to:

  • NPR does not label Hamas a terrorist organization.
  • NPR does not often report how many of the 37,000 dead in Gaza were Hamas fighters.
  • Stories about Palestinian suffering do not always include a reminder that Hamas on Oct. 7 invaded Israel and raped, kidnapped and murdered civilians, including children and elderly people.
  • That the number of stories that only focus on the suffering in Gaza outweighs in sheer number the stories that only focus on the suffering of Israelis.
  • That NPR does not say often enough that the reason so many people have died in Gaza is because Hamas fighters are hidden among civilians.
  • When quoting the Gaza health authorities, NPR does not point out that this is actually Hamas.
  • When critics accuse Israel of a war crime, Israel is not always given a chance to respond.


Another critic is the Anti-Defamation League, which sent a letter to NPR and other news organizations with 13,000 signatures on it, offering similar complaints.

"Our primary concern lies in the way many media outlets, including NPR, are reporting on the conflict," the letter read. "Some reports use language that equivocates, excuses, or justifies violence, minimizing the horrors perpetrated on October 7 and the ongoing experience of the hostages."

I disagree with this assertion. I can find no stories that excuse or justify Oct. 7. Still, about half of the letters coming into the Public Editor inbox since Oct. 7 make similar assertions that NPR is biased against Israel, or against Jewish people.

The novelist Jonathan Kellerman wrote me to say: "The fact that there may be greater numerical suffering in Gaza, at present, doesn't justify the rather obsessive, one-sided attention NPR has paid to that, at the expense of providing context from the Israeli side. ... Let's be clear: the people of Gaza are suffering due to Hamas and its Iranian sponsor."

Steven Feldman wrote on April 14: "The recent biased coverage of the Israel-Hamas war has compelled me to contact you. ... There are multiple stories about how the war has affected individual Gazan residents ... but those stories never ask if the residents continue to support Hamas or whether they think Hamas should return the Israeli hostages."

A recent campaign of letters to NPR led by the Lawfare Project similarly critiqued NPR for not running enough stories about Israeli suffering. "The daily interviews with individuals from Gaza, though important, often omit crucial perspectives from Israeli refugees and families of hostages held by Hamas. ... It is imperative to offer a balanced narrative that encompasses the experiences and viewpoints of all affected parties."

The themes running through the many complaints about NPR's coverage of the war narrow in on the proportion of stories NPR tells about the human suffering in Gaza. They don't suggest what the proper mix is, but the letter writers find the current coverage difficult to consume.

In a call with me, Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL, said that more than just the mix of stories, "The lack of comment [from Israel] is a problem. So very often we see stories that are essentially one-sided." He added: "The lack of any surrounding context makes it very hard for listeners to ascertain what's going on."

For each of the individual objections, there is a response:

  • Refusing to label Hamas as terrorists? Showing, rather than telling, is a journalism best practice. That includes using neutral language over pejorative terms and letting the facts tell the story. NPR's reporting on the horrors of Oct. 7, including witness accounts, of the violence, the smells and the wreckage left behind, gives the audience the information to make up their own minds about the Hamas attackers.
  • Israel reports that 12,000 of the dead are Hamas fighters. Hamas reports that 6,000 of their fighters are dead. The actual number is unverifiable. When civilians are killed in a military operation, journalists are supposed to ask questions, hold the powerful accountable, and tell the stories of the innocent.
  • There are indeed more stories about what's happening in Gaza than what's happening in Israel. There are more people dead and displaced. And new attacks on Gaza happen daily. When attacks on Israel occur from Hamas or others, they are covered.
  • If every story about suffering in Gaza included a reminder of the Oct. 7 attack, that could suggest that Gazans deserve their current reality.
  • NPR reports often that Israel justifies its actions because Hamas fighters are hidden among civilians. Suggestions that it does not are simply not true. Does it report this fact in every single story about Palestinian suffering? No. But it does so often enough that NPR audience members are likely to have seen that information.


There's more coverage of Gaza because there's more suffering in Gaza, because the story is changing daily in Gaza, because the humanitarian crisis is in Gaza and because the deaths of so many journalists in Gaza and the refusal of the IDF to let reporters travel freely in Gaza make documenting the complete story difficult, if not impossible.

"Civilian casualties and humanitarian crises cry out for scrutiny," chief international editor Didrik Schanche told me.

Given the United States' allyship with Israel, it would be particularly irresponsible for any national U.S. media outlet to take its eyes off Gaza.

"We strive to cover this conflict as fairly as possible, reporting on the impact on Israel and Israelis as well as the impact on Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere," Schanche told me in an email. "We have done extensive coverage of Israeli victims and the Hamas attack and continue to check back in on the trauma Israelis are feeling."

It's important to note that a smaller number of letter writers argue the exact opposite, that NPR mentions Oct. 7 and quotes the Israeli military too often. Maha Barrani wrote on Jan. 20: "I am tired of hearing on Morning Edition and All Things Considered how the conflict in Gaza is a result of October 7th. Really, it all just started then? ... I see it as a very basic propaganda tool."

Both sides suggest that NPR's shortcomings are contributing to polarization and even violence.

The ADL's Greenblatt told me that NPR's approach is complicit in fueling antisemitism. "What I would suggest is that reporting that doesn't contextualize why the Jewish state is doing certain things, or that provides a one-sided narrative of the actions of the Jewish state has dramatic implications, like immediate ... effects for Jewish people."

Anti-Zionism, the belief that Israel should not exist at all, animates the likes of Hamas and other militant groups throughout the Middle East. But anti-Zionism should not be confused or conflated with scrutinizing Israel, or from hearing from critics of Israel.

Greenblatt and others objected to interviews with scholars who express the sentiments of many around the world that Israel's actions are disproportionate. One example was Michel Martin's Dec. 13 interview with Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, which got heated. Martin was asking Gerges about the U.S.'s relationships with its Arab allies in the Middle East.

As Gerges described with urgency the view of the United States throughout the Arab world, he said, "President Biden is seen as actively supporting Israel's ethnic cleansing in Gaza on such a vast scale."

The interview was live, and Martin told me she was surprised by Gerges' strong language. She'd interviewed him many times before and he was even-keeled. She kept him on longer than he was scheduled to refocus him on the topic at hand. In the end, even though he was emotional, she thought listeners got value out of the sobering interview.

"Too often we act as if there are only two choices: intelligence on ice or ignorance on fire. I think we at NPR lean very hard into intelligence on ice and we are shocked when people are angry," she said. "I don't think we need to make a habit of looking for angry people — that's Fox's bread and butter — not to mention it can be very off-putting to hear, but this person is a well-recognized and respected voice. I have never known him to be a hothead and if this is his reaction to the current situation, I feel like we learned something we needed to know about the depth of anger even among well-placed individuals such as himself."

Greenblatt objected to letting the charge of "ethnic cleansing" pass without pushback or a response from Israel. He said that NPR is giving its microphones to too many analysts and voices whose unchallenged criticism of Israel walks right up to the line of antisemitism, and he argues that it is causing real-world violence.

"Hardened anti-Zionism is dangerous, just like hardened white nationalism, in terms of how it ends up manifesting in the real world," he said.

Faced with these critiques from both inside and outside, what should NPR do?

First, NPR should be clear and explicit about how its editors see the mission of daily journalism. If the job is to scrutinize those in power and give voice to those with less power, tell the audience that's your compass.

At this moment, the mission of journalism points to Gaza and NPR is doing its job.

NPR has told the stories of innocent victims in Israel. The plight of the hostages deserves editorial attention and NPR is telling that story too. But the innocence of the Israelis weighs no more or less than the innocence of the people of Gaza. And there are vastly more people dying in Gaza.

That said, this story cannot and should not be reduced to David vs. Goliath. Holding Israel accountable for its actions means finding the best forums for Israeli politicians and military leaders to answer their critics. A good example: Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep's interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The audience will be best served when this is done in ways that generate genuine answers, rather than trying to get answers from sources who are really giving speeches, as many do in live-interview environments.

Beyond that, I wish NPR would talk more about how and why it makes decisions. I often hear show hosts direct listeners to NPR's page where its coverage on the war is aggregated. It's a signal that there are more stories and more points of view. That's a start. But it could go so much further.

Explain how correspondents, producers, hosts and editors make journalistic choices as they cover this war. It can be done within a story, or by editors revealing the larger nuances of the editorial decision process.

Openness should be aimed at the audience members who wonder if there are answers to these tough questions. It won't satisfy the critics, on either side, who object when stories omit their sympathies.

Letting the work speak for itself no longer suffices. Make it clear that editorial choices aren't the result of haphazard unconscious bias, as critics assert. Instead, the work is deliberately rooted in the journalistic imperative to document the carnage of war and to examine the role of those with power.

This column was copy edited by Merrill Perlman.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country's leading voices on media ethics. Since 2002, she has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute, a global nonprofit dedicated to excellence in journalism, where she now serves as its senior vice president. She is also the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter, which advances the quality of journalism and improves fact-based expression by training journalists and working with news organizations to hone and adopt meaningful and transparent ethics practices. Under McBride's leadership, the center serves as the journalism industry's ombudsman — a place where journalists, ethicists and citizens convene to elevate American discourse and battle disinformation and bias.
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