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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The results of using stringers

Now that the US Army has actually arrested photographer Bilal Hussein in Iraq and charged him with assisting the insurgency, the New York Times is finally a bit concerned about the dependency of the Western media on local 'stringers in war zones.'
Several editors and reporters overseeing Iraqi coverage for Western news organizations said they worked hard to vet their local hires for sectarian and political ties that could slant their coverage, and offered extensive training in the rules of Western journalism. But there are no official background checks that can be conducted, as American and European companies routinely do when making domestic hires. Rather, news organizations try to get to know their prospective Iraqi hires in person and then judge them by the work they produce.

“A person is usually recommended by another journalist and brought in for an interview, and you sit down and have a long discussion with that person,” said John Daniszewski, The Associated Press’s international editor. “Like any job applicant in the states, people go through a probationary period. They are given lessons, it’s like an apprenticeship relationship.”

Mr. Daniszewski added, “When you are working side by side, you get to know the person, and if the person seems unreliable, or if you ever see someone not completely honest with you, he is out the door.”

The reporters and editors said that they often had to filter out obvious sectarian biases from news copy, and, as a matter of policy, would not run statistics like death counts from the field without official confirmation from the military. But, these journalists emphasized, there is a big difference between bias seeping into news copy and insurgents infiltrating news organizations.
And they even mention the use of stringers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, although it's way understated:
David Schlesinger, the editor in chief of Reuters, said, “using local staff is something we do everywhere in the world. But it’s become so dangerous in Iraq, we’re even more dependent on local staff there than in other places.”

In any foreign outpost, Western news organizations rely on locals to get the job done, often as drivers or translators. “The reliance on local staff is nothing new, whether it be in the West Bank, or Gaza or other places,” said Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “News organizations know how to vet and scrutinize information.”
But in the 'West Bank' and Gaza, the stringers are far more than drivers and translators:
Most foreign journalists are not fluent in either Arabic or Hebrew, rendering them dependent on a network of local Palestinian "fixers," mostly young, educated Palestinians who speak Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Palestinian fixers, who until recently have been fully accredited by Israel's Government Press Office, know their way around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, arrange interviews with Palestinian officials, and introduce journalists to their own circle of local acquaintances. As a rule, working with a good fixer translates into getting interviews with top Palestinian leaders and moving safely around the territories. An Arabic-speaking Israeli journalist who avoids using fixers noted that most fixers trumpet the PLO narrative and terminology of the conflict, which frequently collides with established historical facts and international law. Moreover, Palestinian security forces watch carefully what is said by local residents to both foreign and local journalists.

According to senior foreign news sources based in Jerusalem, the vast majority of Palestinian fixers - often close friends of Palestinian employees of Jerusalem-based foreign news agencies - are ideologically motivated by the Palestinian cause, and actively encourage journalists to report exclusively on the "evils" of the Israeli occupation, rather than on the lack of democratic freedoms or human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza.


Palestinian camera operators, frequently residents of the West Bank, today film the vast majority of foreign TV news coverage in the territories. Foreign news agencies have become dependent on Palestinians, since Israeli camera people are prohibited by the IDF from working in the Palestinian areas. Palestinian camera operators are also far less expensive than their Israeli or foreign news colleagues.

The result is that TV news pictures, broadcast internationally from the territories, focus daily on Palestinian dead and wounded, massive demonstrations and funerals, close-ups of local hospital and morgue victims, homes of mourning Palestinian families, and destroyed Palestinian buildings and fields. Missing is a measure of balance that might show images of the Palestinian-initiated violence, including shootings, bombings, and rocket attacks on Israeli troops and civilians, that prompt Israeli military responses.

Perhaps the best example of the pitfalls of reliance on Palestinian cameramen was the filming of the death of young Muhammad al-Dura by Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahama working for France 2 television. While al-Dura, apparently killed in the crossfire between Israeli troops and Palestinian police, became a symbol of the intifada and was used as a blood libel against Israel, the photographer later denied claiming that the IDF killed the boy.

Following several formal investigations, the raw footage of the shooting revealed that Palestinian photographers were part of the event and submitted edited footage to foreign networks. Another German inquiry went even further by concluding that Palestinians staged the killing with the cooperation of some foreign journalists and the United Nations.
And you thought it was bad in Iraq? Should this be how the West gets its news? And by the way, what took the New York Times so long to realize this is a problem?


At 12:59 PM, Blogger treppenwitz said...

This has always been what worries me about how the foreign media gets its information about our region. They generally come here and hook up with a local reporter who will write background material, and often entire reports, that will be used by the visiting journalists.

While this system has its upside (like providing historical and geographic context), the downside is that a huge percentage of the locals who provide this service to foreign media are extremely left wing.

Two Israelis arguing left/right politics both have access to enough context to be able to accept or reject parts of the other's arguments that don't add up. But a foreign journalist who is spoon fed a steady diet of self-flagellation and defeatism is going to accept it all at face value because he/she has nothing against which to weigh it for accuracy or fairness.


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