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News outlets backtrack on Gaza blast after relying on Hamas as key source

A woman holds a pillow near the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, the site of a blast that killed hundreds on October 17. In the aftermath, Hamas and Israel traded blame.
Mahmud Hams
AFP via Getty Images
A woman holds a pillow near the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, the site of a blast that killed hundreds on October 17. In the aftermath, Hamas and Israel traded blame.

For the latest updates on the Israel-Hamas war, follow our digital live coverage.

When the fog of war envelopes the pursuit of breaking news, the journalism that follows often suffers.

The stakes cannot be higher. The sources can prove unreliable. Concrete facts are often scant. And yet readers reward publications that push out information instantaneously.

The initial coverage of a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital last week offers a fresh reminder of how hard it can be to get the news right — and what happens when it goes awry. The list of those news organizations that fell short is long and illustrious, including The New York Times, the BBC, Reuters, The Associated Press and more.

The news coverage was said to help inspire furious protests across the Middle East that scuttled some of President Biden's efforts at easing tensions through diplomacy. The Israeli government accused the BBC of a "modern blood libel," invoking centuries-old slanders against Jews as killers. That came after the BBC's Jon Donnison told viewers just hours after the incident, "The Israeli military has been contacted for comment and they say they are investigating. But it is hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes."

The BBC later issued a statementciting the full breadth of its coverage but saying that the degree of speculation in his report was, in retrospect, wrong.

On Monday, The New York Times went further. It publicly acknowledged that its initial coverage had served its readers — and the facts — poorly. It relied upon allegations from Hamas government officials to report that an Israeli missile strike had killed hundreds of civilians at the hospital. "The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was," Times editors wrote.

The Israeli government has denied the Hamas claim, asserting the blast came from a failed rocket that they say was fired by the militant group known as Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israel's stance has since been backed by U.S. and Canadian intelligence assessments. Other outside institutions have cast increasing doubt upon the validity of Hamas' allegations, although it's still not clear what actually happened.

Despite its measured tone, The Times' editor's note was an unusual concession by the paper of the magnitude of its failings.

"The early versions of the coverage — and the prominence it received in a headline, news alert and social media channels — relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified," it read. The paper said it would re-examine its protocols and safeguards for covering breaking news in light of the incident.

Citing Hamas poses particular problems

The original headline atop the paper's website and sent out in push alerts to millions of subscribers read: "Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians say." The Times now reports that almost every element of the accusation is in doubt as Hamas has failed to provide evidence of the Israeli involvement or even the remnants of the explosion. The question of how deadly the blast proved to be — disputed by the Israelis — is also unresolved.

The Times is far from alone in relaying the claims of interested parties as facts. Other news outlets also cited Hamas, which governs Gaza, in their coverage of the hospital explosion. In its initial dispatch, Reuters called the blast an "Israeli air strike," citing Gaza officials. The AP cited the "Health Ministry" in its headline.

Yet Hamas is much more than that. It is deemed by the U.S. and the European Union to be a terrorist organization. Indeed, it just unleashed the most deadly attack in Israeli history, with more than 1,400 people dead, and more than 200 people taken hostage.

And Hamas is the source of much of the information — and misinformation — about events in Gaza. Last week, for example, a Hamas spokesman denied in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep that militants from the group had slaughtered hundreds of civilians at a music concert in the Israeli desert, despite accounts by survivors, Israeli officials and journalists for major news outlets. (Inskeep pointedly noted that the attackers did kill civilians.)

In retaliation, Israel unleashed a wave of strikes. Gaza's health ministry says more than 5,000 people have been killed. That figure underscores the difficulty of reporting on this conflict; given Hamas' authority in Gaza, reporters must seek information and comment from the group — and verify it independently as best they can despite the difficulties.

News outlets struggle to get reporters inside Gaza

Unlike in some other war zones, such as in Ukraine, it's nearly impossible for outside reporters to get into Gaza, even from Israel. Most news outlets are either covering it remotely or relying on local journalists whose families are themselves at risk from Israeli strikes.

The Times' selection of journalists has come under sharp scrutiny in recent days as well. An Israeli diplomat chastised the paper for employing Soliman Hijjy as a freelance videographer in Gaza to document the conflict. On numerous occasions over the past 11 years, Hijjy has praised Adolf Hitler or invoked the Nazi leader in social media postings. A spokesperson for the Times says the paper reviewed those "problematic" postings last year, when the issue was first raised, and took actions "to ensure he understood our concerns and could adhere to our standards."

The statement says Hijjy has done so and "has delivered important and impartial work at great personal risk during this conflict."

Israel's past actions cast a shadow

For its part, the Israeli government has been accused by human rights groups of hitting civilian targets in the past. And its credibility has also been challenged: For instance, the Israeli military initially denied that one of its soldiers hadfired the shot last year that killed the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh of Al Jazeera.

The Israeli military conducted its own investigation and subsequently confirmed that an Israeli soldier had likely fired the lethal shot but did not disclose the shooter's name. A government spokesperson's expression of sorrow for her death, a year later, was deemed insufficient by Abu Akleh's family. (An FBI investigation, opened last year, has not been resolved.)

Last week, The Washington Free Beacon's Drew Holden documented a series of prominent news outlets and public figures that appeared to rely on Hamas' claims as authoritative with little or scant acknowledgement of how little had been verified before publication.

By contrast, the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights put out a call on the day of the blast for the protection of civilian life and for the incident to be the subject of an independent investigation. It notably did not project blame.

The audiences' perceptions of media outlets' fairness determine how much trust they have — not just in the veracity of specific coverage but the independence of their journalists. Speed may matter a lot to readers, viewers and listeners. Accuracy and fairness still matter more, especially when stakes are so high.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.