Reporting on War and Conflict: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated May 2024

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on wars in both Ukraine and Gaza published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.

Language & Word Choice

February 24, 2022
When will/can journalists describe the attacks Russia has begun on Ukraine as a “war”?

When breaking news unfolds before our eyes, newsrooms do their best to keep up with accurate descriptions of events at hand. But, in cases where caution is required and an inaccurate descriptor might be read (perhaps in bad faith) as sensationalist or overdramatic, you may see reporters and editors rely on quotes from institutional voices to determine language choices like these. For instance, many mainstream U.S. news headlines and articles referred to the original attacks as a “large-scale” or “full-scale” invasion via quotes from defense officials.

War is loosely defined as armed conflict between groups or nations, but it’s possible that many outlets hold back on using “war” to describe current events unless an official declaration is made by a country involved (despite Vladimir Putin’s February 21, 2022 speech, which stopped just short of such a decree). Though some outlets like the Guardian and USA Today reported that Russia had “declared war” and some stated Ukraine was bracing for “war” and that the U.S. was preparing for “war refugees,” I predicted many U.S. outlets would refrain from calling these attacks “war” until either a high ranking U.S. official used the term and thus could be quoted, or public discourse made avoiding the term untenable.

 

March 24, 2022
Can or should journalists and those writing on Russia’s attacks on Ukraine use terms like “war crimes” or “genocide” to describe them?

This question has been raised since Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Russia’s attacks on his country as genocide in March 2022. Terms like “genocide” and even “insurrection” or “coup” have both colloquial definitions (what the public understands the term to mean) and legal definitions. Due to their duty to accuracy and also legal liability, news organizations will often only use such terms as their legal definition rather than wade into a grey area.

Thus, despite what the court of public opinion may deem Russia’s attacks, you’ll likely see news organizations only use “genocide” or “war crimes” in the context of quotes from world leaders until direct declarations or charges are made. For instance, the U.S. formally declared that Russian troops have committed war crimes on March 23, 2022.

The legal definition of genocide originates in international law, and if the U.S.’s acknowledgement of Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya — nearly five years later — is any indication, its application to Ukraine may be far away. Philip Gourevitch at the New Yorker, however, made the case that calling Russia’s actions anything else, like “atrocities,” diminishes the enormity of Putin’s goals when time is of the essence to save lives.

It’s crucial that newsrooms use language that meets the moment and helps audiences understand our collective problems. That requires serious consideration of alternatives that both preserve journalistic ethics and accuracy and respect the urgency of the challenges ahead.

 

October 12, 2023

Speaking of disinformation, Poynter released a handy tip sheet on how to avoid misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war.

 

October 26, 2023

Our friends at Outlier Media published a letter to their audience this week explaining how they are and are not covering global conflict. If your local newsroom is struggling with the same editorial decisions, I cannot recommend this example of trust-building communication enough. Use it as a template or just inspiration.

As we all struggle with the misinformation running rampant across social media, it might be worth seeing for yourself just how difficult moderation and policy decisions can be. TechDirt recently released a game called Trust & Safety Tycoon that puts you in the driver’s seat. Take it for a spin and let me know how you do!

 

November 2, 2023

Worth sharing: On the Media has released another one of its social media-friendly Breaking News Consumers’ Handbooks, this time on Israel and Gaza. Let it remind you and yours how to avoid the online fog of war.

 

November 30, 2023

Interrupting Criminalization is an initiative which works “to end the growing criminalization and incarceration of women, LGBTQ, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color.” They recently published a new media guide in their “Don’t Be a Copagandist” series focused on reporting on Israel and Palestine. It includes guidance on discerning between opposition to Israel’s action, anti-Zionism, and antisemitism, as well as how to avoid language which stereotypes or equivocates.

While reading the news this week, I came across this 2016 New York Times story on the differences between “truce,” “cease-fire,” and “armistice.” If you’re reporting on Gaza, be sure to take a look.

Must-Reads

The increasingly complicated Russia-Ukraine crisis, explained
The 24/7 news cycle often means that individual articles and broadcasts frame updates to ongoing stories in a way that assumes the audience is keeping up with every daily brief. But not everyone has the time to do that. That’s why explainers on complex stories like Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are necessary for news organizations to highlight and amplify. Vox has kept a running list of updates in a timeline format that is helpful for those trying to catch up.

The racial bias in western media’s Ukraine coverage is shameful
Nadine White, the Independent
Far too many journalists made racist comments when reporting on Ukraine and those impacted by further Russian invasion. Not only do these comments advance white supremacy, but they also illustrate a double standard in how wars are covered in western media depending on who is doing the invading and what the victims look like. Nadine White explains these examples and their consequences at the Independent, making her a must-read.

Call Out Bigotry in Reporting on the Ukraine Invasion
Issac J. Bailey, Nieman Reports

‘They seem so like us’: In depicting Ukraine’s plight, some in media use offensive comparisons
Sarah Ellison and Travis M. Andrews, Washington Post

For Ukraine — and all news coverage — journalists need to pay attention to word choices
Doris Truong, Poynter

What is an oligarch?
Al Tompkins, Poynter
If you’ve kept an eye on sanctions sought by the U.S. and EU on Russia in early 2022, you may have heard about efforts to capture the assets of Russian oligarchs. Poynter does a good job of quickly explaining Russian oligarchy (aka how the rich and powerful influence the government). But I think it’s equally important to consider how using the term “oligarchs” to denote a nefarious cabal in an enemy country stands in contrast to how we describe the U.S. elite who amass great wealth and use it to influence the government. For more context, I’d highly recommend the Guardian’s “Big Money” series on America’s super-rich; ProPublica’s deep dive into how the wealthiest avoid U.S. income tax; and an essay from Abigail Disney (yes, that Disney) on the ideology of dynastic wealth.

How journalists decide which images from Ukraine are too awful to publish
Paul Farhi, Washington Post
(This does begin with a graphic image.)

The Fight to Feed the Ukrainian Resistance
Taras Kaidan and Mariana Matveichuk, Bloomberg
Bloomberg’s behind the scenes look at how relief kitchens are feeding Ukraine is a bittersweet read. It offers a small serving of hope among the tragic reporting on Russia’s war on Ukraine while raising awareness of what its citizens are going through.

Ukraine’s reporters adapt amid media restrictions and pressure of war
Isobel Koshiw, The Guardian
War reporting is a completely different world. The Guardian spoke with journalists on the ground in Ukraine to understand the decisions they’re forced to make between investigative stories and national security. It’s a fascinating look at how contextual the field’s ethics can and must be.

The media navigates a war of words for reporting on Gaza and Israel
Paul Farhi, The Washington Post
Debate over word choices are a time-honored newsroom tradition. But when the stakes are high — as in language that blames or exonerates parties in a war, for instance — these seemingly hair-splitting arguments take on a unique importance. This Washington Post piece examines the many difficult choices reporters and editors are making while reporting on the Israel-Hamas war. I highly recommend this one, folks. It’ll change how you consume this coverage.

Some Major Newsrooms Tell Reporters: Don’t Say “Terrorism”
Daniel King, Mother Jones
Mother Jones dives into the specific debate over the term “terrorism” and how some newsrooms are banning the word.

Regarding the Pain of Others in Israel and Gaza: How Do We Trust What We See?
Fred Ritchin, Vanity Fair
A new essay in Vanity Fair by photojournalist Fred Ritchin explores the epistemic realities of visual journalism in an era of vast misinformation. He considers the ways producers and consumers of visual media treat its responsibilities to tell the truth differently than those of text media and what that means for us all.

The Israel-Hamas War Is Drowning X in Disinformation
David Gilbert, Wired
I know, I know: you may be just as tired of talking about X and Elon Musk as I am, especially considering how few people actually use the platform. But, like it or not, it was and to some extent remains a significant influence on journalism. So, it’s important that we understand how, as one researcher tells WIRED, “Elon Musk’s changes to the platform work entirely to the benefit of terrorists and war propagandists.” It’s all about the profit structure.

Journalism targeting children, teens explains Middle East conflict in age-appropriate ways
Aralynn McMane, International News Media Association
It’s difficult enough to report on Israel and Gaza from the fog of war, let alone explain it all to children. Luckily, the International News Media Association spoke with the editor of Austria weekly Kleine Kinderzeitung, which has been doing this quite successfully, to learn their best practices. Consider taking on this challenge for your own youth audiences.

Gaza reports more than 11,100 killed. That’s one out of every 200 people.
Ruby Mellen, Artur Galocha and Júlia Ledur, The Washington Post
The Washington Post has published a gripping interactive story on the scale of devastation in Gaza. When we’re faced with numbers like the thousands killed so far in this conflict, it can be difficult for the information to really sink in. Graphic (in the illustrative sense, not the violent sense) representations of such tragedies are one way we can turn the abstract into the concrete. This effort does it well.

Coverage of Gaza War in The New York Times and Other Major Newspapers Heavily Favored Israel, Analysis Shows
Adam Johnson and Othman Ali, The Intercept
New research from The Intercept presents the type of content analysis that translates feelings of unfair or biased coverage into quantitative data. By calculating how often reports used words like “Israeli” versus “Palestinian,” or “slaughter” and “horrific” versus “killed” or “died,” the research efficiently lays out how major U.S. media has framed the Israel-Hamas war.

In Rafah, we sit in flimsy tents as the bombs fall. There is no escape: we can only wait for the worst
Bahzad Al-Akhras, The Guardian
Please read this firsthand account of what it’s like to live in Rafah, an overcrowded city in Gaza where many fled to avoid Israeli attacks only to find themselves among them again. Not only do we have a responsibility to bear witness to such atrocities, we must understand them in order to stop and prevent them. Read this one and share it.

Palestine and the Power of Language
Elena Dudum, Time
This powerful essay follows her experiences in a history class where the professor and classmates used the passive voice to repeatedly obscure the agency of Israel in conversations about Palestine. It’s a nuanced, somber story that effectively explains how word choices and grammar build the realities in which we live.

What would have happened to friends and family if Gaza was home?
Alyssa Fowers, Leslie Shapiro, Cate Brown and Hajar Harb, The Washington Post
The Washington Post has created an incredible and useful visualization of what the average Gazan is experiencing in terms of the impact on their social and familial lives. Scroll through it to put yourself in the shoes of just one person trying to survive in Gaza.

‘Lavender’: The AI machine directing Israel’s bombing spree in Gaza
Yuval Abraham, +972 Magazine
Earlier this week, +972 Magazine and Local Call published an investigation into an artificial intelligence-based program used by the Israeli army. They spoke with six Israeli intelligence officers with first-hand knowledge and those testimonies were also provided to The Guardian before publication. As they report, “during the first weeks of the war, the army almost completely relied on Lavender, which clocked as many as 37,000 Palestinians as suspected militants — and their homes — for possible air strikes.”

 

What ideas and frameworks might help journalists and writers understand the framings we’ve seen above as they’re happening and subvert them?

Anyone writing for the public should have a solid understanding of framing — how a problem is defined, and who is responsible for creating and solving it — and what it looks like in the wild. Learning how this works at different levels, as the writers below illustrate, can help journalists see how their work defines the power dynamics of conflict.

Critical Voices

Pointing out racist/classist double standards in how Western media and governments respond to war in Europe vs the rest of the world is not "hijacking" the moment to shift focus elsewhere. It's demanding that this humanitarianism be extended to all people regardless of background

As Abdallah Fayyad of the Boston Globe illustrates, this conversation isn’t a zero-sum game. Empathy is not a pie, where a bigger slice here means a smaller slice there.

The reason people don’t empathize with refugees from non white nations is that they see war and destruction as part of those nations’ culture when in fact war is the culture of the aggressor

Stereotypes like comedian Mohanad Elshieky describes come from many places, news media included. “War is the culture of the aggressor” is the key here.

Secondly, and this is important students. Focus on the language. Whereas in certain Muslim countries, individuals taking up arms to defend their sovereignty makes them armed insurgents. In Europe, they are scared citizens fighting for their liberty, which is of course a right!

Journalist Jacky Kemigisa wrote an enthusiastic thread on how coverage of Ukraine looks different than that of other recent wars. This tweet raises a great question: whose fighting is overtly supported and whose is not?

6700 protesters arrested in Russia for protesting the war is obvious evidence of an authoritarian police state where dissent is not allowed but 10,000 Black Lives Matter protesters arrested in the US is obviously just serving and protecting.

To be U.S.-centric for a second: journalist Katelyn Burns brings up another apt comparison for the double standard of coverage.

One reason "no-fly zone" polls well, I think, is that the name refers to a great outcome while concealing a terrible process. Everybody should want Ukraine to be a zone where Russian planes don't fly. But "no-fly zone" practically refers to the U.S. engaging Russia in warfare.

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson is referring to 2022 polling by Reuters that asked Americans whether the U.S. should work with NATO to create “no-fly zones” over Ukraine to protect it from Russian attacks, without explaining what that protection truly entails. Thompson is correct that the phrase is a tricky bit of language that conceals a lot of danger. It’s journalistic malpractice to amplify such a poll without establishing an understanding of the consequences of such a move.

“We need to be able to hold both. We need to recognize that anti-colonial struggles are violent. But not all of that violence is in pursuit of a political project. As you say, violence occurs for all different sorts of reasons. We need to be able to hold that truth while also recognizing the ethical purpose of ending apartheid. And I think it’s really hard to do that when the media tries to portray this in black and white. It’s very complex, and we need to be able to hold that complexity.”

— Tareq Baconi, the president of the board of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network

This quote is from an October 2023 interview with Baconi in The New Yorker called “Where the Palestinian Political Project Goes from Here”. I recommend reading the full interview, but I think this excerpt gets at a particular tension in the current public discourse: it is challenging to hold multiple dissonant truths in our heads at once without falling into simplistic “whataboutism” and “both sides” arguments.

After all, our media systems are not built for such complexity. In fact, even as major social networks step back from news, they’re still designed to amplify content that engages our emotions. That’s important to keep in mind during times of heightened conflict.

The result is most mainstream news orgs today are either simply not equipped to determine for themselves what’s happening in some of the world’s biggest stories, or lack the confidence to allow their in-house technical specialists to cast doubt on a star reporter’s trusted source

So you end up with situations where huge, respected news organisations are reporting as fact things that have already been shown by technically adept news gatherers outside newsrooms to be false or at the very least highly uncertain. It’s hugely damaging to trust in journalism.

In October 2023, newsrooms like The New York Times were forced to correct or clarify their reporting on the origins of a bomb that hit a Gaza hospital. They and others reported that Israel had struck the hospital based on claims from Hamas that they could not immediately verify. Vanity Fair has the scoop on how this decision-making went down at the Times, whose own visual investigations team has made strides in understanding what exactly happened.

Financial Times chief data reporter John Burn-Murdoch shared his take (above) on why national newsrooms move too fast on reporting like this. His whole thread is worth a look but, in sum, he argues that a lack of data reporting expertise has real, tangible consequences on this geopolitical conflict.

Unhappy mismatch between what is representative, and what is newsworthy and then becomes perceived as representative. "I was actually talking to a journalist about this. His take: civil conversations at university are not a news story."

This is a snippet of a Bluesky conversation between Georgetown professors Dan Moynihan and Erik Voeten and Stanford professor Ken Schultz about classroom conversations on Israel and Gaza. It’s yet another example of the newsroom truism that “dog bites man” isn’t a story but “man bites dog” is — and, as Moynihan points out, its real-time consequences. Violence and threats on campus make the news and then, to the public, become representative of the overall temperature among students. Just like social media amplifies “engaging” (read: emotion-provoking) content, traditional journalistic standards often do, too.

The lack of outrage within my profession for the number of journalists killed covering what’s happening in Gaza has been deeply troubling to me.

Reporter and scholar Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks for many of us lamenting the 39 journalists who have been killed thus far. Relatedly, I found a recent Jacobin story on the bombing of Palestinian journalists and their families to be a necessary if disturbing read.

I think if you're gonna do headlines like "Iran-backed forces kill three US service members" you gotta throw in a "U.S.-backed forces kill 10,000 children in Gaza" every now and then.

Intercept editor Ali Gharib is referring, of course, to the U.S. troops killed in Jordan this week, as well as the ongoing killings in Gaza. Considering the U.S. support of Israel during this war via economic aid and weapons, this comparison serves to illustrate just how favorably Western media covers the U.S. government’s actions.

No, NYT, starvation isn't stalking Gaza's children, like some weird, abstract predator. Israel is choosing to starve Gaza's children by blocking aid. Starvation isn't committing genocide. Israel is.

Journalist Jonathan Cook’s tweet, above, is one of many recent criticisms of headlines from The New York Times that use passive voice or abstraction to obscure the cause of tragedies in Gaza. Another recent piece, which tells the life stories of some of the victims of Israel’s attacks, was titled simply “Lives Ended in Gaza,” as if the larger cause of death was unknown.

Human Rights Watch: Israel is using starvation as a weapon of war EU Chief: Israel is using starvation as a weapon in Gaza UN Experts: Israel is deliberately starving Palestinians in Gaza Western media: Gazans go hungry, hunt for food, sad times

Writer and scholar Assal Rad’s comparison of recent headlines points out an ongoing pattern: the obfuscation of Israel’s role in the starvation crisis in Gaza. These are just headlines of two stories, of course, but their sad tone falls flat where a call for action would be appropriate.

One of the most disrespectful and dismissive takes I’ve seen from a writer on here. The suggestion that—after 15,000 caged children have been slaughtered with our weapons—we’re all just out here virtue signaling, is beyond offensive. When I use the word “genocide,” I mean it.

Journalists Dan Sheehan and Matt Gallagher got into it on Twitter via this thread on the use of the word “genocide” in the news. As one of those writers whose job “centers on language and its nuances,” I wanted to highlight Sheehan’s response.

Journalists’ fealty to the definitions of legislative bodies only makes sense as long as those bodies are trusted by the people they serve to make such judgements. In the case of the word “genocide,” its legal application has been plagued with loopholes and hair-splitting since its invention, NPR reported — in 2010.

If the industry standard is to avoid using the term “genocide” in relation to Gaza until it is legally determined to be one by The International Court of Justice, then — if history tells us anything — we’ll be decades late in using our platforms to help society solve this problem.

Reframing Headlines

February 24, 2022

How the Ukraine crisis is already hitting Americans' wallets

Sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Russia in an attempt to avoid a full invasion of Ukraine made headlines in February 2022. The tweet accompanying the above headline from CBS News was critiqued for blaming ongoing economic issues on these relatively new sanctions — a specious argument that doesn’t even really reflect the story inside. But the headline does something else harmful: erasing Russia’s actions from the narrative.

The conflict is not just a “Ukraine crisis” and naming only Ukraine in headlines unduly places blame on the victims of Russian aggression. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the problem and headlines and reporting should be sure not to elide Russia’s actions and antagonism. The New York Times headline on the same topic below does this well.

Russia Is Sowing Conflict in Ukraine. What Does That Mean for the U.S. Economy?

 

March 3, 2022

Biden wages first showdown of new Cold War-style duel with Russia

Why does this CNN headline make Biden’s February 24, 2022 address sound like the climactic scene of an old Western movie? Adding dramatic flourish to reporting on a literal war is wholly unnecessary. But as researcher Hussein Kesvani points out below, it’s part of a larger pattern of platforms spreading news that triggers high emotions for engagement.

memeification, the marvel-isation, the spectacle of an ongoing war rendered as entertainment etc. This is less about a lack of empathy or understanding of human suffering, and far more indicative of platforms doing what they were designed to do in producing everything as content

Whether they’d admit it or not, news and content producers respond to that engagement by creating more emotion-laden content. Editors should avoid framing all war-related stories as spectacle, like the Guardian did with their headline on the same speech below.

‘Putin chose this war,’ Biden says as he announces new sanctions – US politics as it happened

 

March 10, 2022

Rising gas prices due to disruptions in the global oil market thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made many headlines, and for good reason. U.S. society, as many experience it, is built around cars. Expensive gas is a true financial problem for many families. There are many different ways to explain this event to audiences. Some local U.S. news organizations have run full steam into tracking the daily rise in prices like they’re election polls — as in, too aggressively and with too little context to be anything but emotionally triggering.

What communities need when faced with a collective problem is accurate framing, i.e. what the problem is, who is responsible for creating it, what solutions are possible, and who is responsible for solving it.

Americans are paying dearly for gas as prices reach fresh highs

The above headline from CBS News addresses what the problem is but not where it came from. Who’s to blame, then? Whoever you want.

Soaring gas prices are a cost of Russia’s war – and Britain can’t avoid them

The Guardian headline above is a bit better. It addresses how Russia’s war on Ukraine is to blame — and accurately calls it Russia’s war.

Gas prices above $4 per gallon as Russia-Ukraine war impacts supply, disrupting global market

Finally, this Fox Business headline goes a step further to explain the connection between (what it should call) Russia’s war on Ukraine and prices. That’s the context we like to see.

Below, from the Washington Post, we have another frame entirely: that the problem at hand is not gas prices themselves but how they will impact Democrats’ election chances. (That’s not to say the Post hasn’t covered the issue of prices for consumers; it’s just an example.) This story covers how President Biden decided to ban Russian oil to punish them for their violence and sought to publicly connect rising prices to Vladimir Putin.

Democrats embrace politically risky strategy on rising gas prices

But the headline could just as easily suggest that the strategy is, if not popular, at least understandable to many Americans who support Ukraine. After all, February 2022 polls showed Americans broadly support taking action to stop Russia’s attacks without direct military action. Calling the decision “politically risky” without clarifying the origin of the problem actually implies a more damning frame — Democrats chose a risky policy so they must be partially to blame for rising gas prices — before a reader even gets to the story.

Politicians are willing to pay the price of supporting Ukraine as higher gas costs bite consumers
The above headline from CNN, in contrast, is a more responsible take on the same problem frame. It underlines the origin of rising prices without presupposing what the political costs will be or for whom.

This all, of course, is to say nothing about the complete lack of solutions presented in these examples. Rising gas prices present an opportunity for the U.S. to reconsider its dependence on fossil fuels, not only for the geopolitical implications but for its challenge to a livable Earth. It also presents the opportunity for the overlapping conversation of reliance on privatized transportation (with gas prices falling on consumers) over public investment in environmentally-friendly mass transit. The agenda-setting role of news media means greener solutions could be the core public narrative of this problem ahead of us, if we wanted it to be.

 

April 14, 2022

On April 12,2022, President Biden referred to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine as “genocide.” This is newsworthy because, as we’ve discussed in previous issues, “genocide” is a term with a legal definition via the International Criminal Court that prosecutes such crimes against humanity. Thus, world leaders and journalists alike are usually quite careful to use this term, since determining whether acts formally amount to genocide is a complex matter.

One of the headlines below isn’t necessarily better than the other but they do convey very different tones and different consequences for Biden’s statement. The first headline, below, comes from the Washington Post. It describes pretty plainly what Biden said, just regurgitating the fact.

The example below, however, from NPR, uses a different tone. The word “accuses” denotes charging one with a crime, in opposition to the more neutral “calls” used by WaPo. “Committing” in this context also has a denotation of criminality. (This is why advocates advise journalists against using the term “commits suicide.”) This combination implies the potential consequences of Biden’s words. Though he added that “we’ll let the lawyers decide,” a world leader choosing to use that term has a major impact on how others, including other leaders, interpret Russia’s attacks. NPR’s headline uses a few key words to quickly underline this impact.

Biden accuses Putin of committing a 'genocide' in Ukraine

 

October 12, 2023

When a long-term developing story breaks out, major news outlets will sometimes launch a page on their website that aggregates all of their articles on the topic. The name of that page is often found at the top of these stories, above the headline, in a spot some call the “eyebrow.” (News jargon is weird, I know.)

While reading this week, I noticed the “eyebrow” on the Washington Post’s page for news about Israel and Hamas read as follows:Isarel-Gaza War

Most frequently, I have seen this phrased as “Israel-Hamas War,” as with The New York Times’ own topic page, below.

Israel-Hamas War News

Now, in the wake of devastating violence, I can understand why someone might read this section and think, “Who cares? Why does this matter?”

For starters, this is about accuracy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically named Hamas in his public statement declaring Israel was at war.

But this also matters because the hyphen linking the two entities in either headline signals that each is a “side” of the war in question, and thus implicitly assigns blame for horrific acts of terror. The difference between these two phrases is the difference between separating the acts of Hamas from Gazans and lumping them together.

“Israel-Hamas War” acknowledges the nuance that, though Hamas controls Gaza, it is a polarizing force that does not necessarily represent Gazans; there have not been legislative elections in Gaza since 2006. “Israel-Gaza War” on the other hand might imply that these two entities are on equal footing and the civilians of Gaza are party to the assault they now face. And to be clear, the density of Gaza means attacks on it have and will likely continue to lead to civilian casualties.

Sure, news media necessitates shorthand and we often describe wars past and present by the land represented, not their governments. Considering that long, complicated history and the condition of Gaza, I’d argue this situation requires far more sensitivity. I’d also go as far as to argue that any non-representative government that commits an act of war should be named separately from its people in coverage of the violence that follows. Good journalism requires context, especially when it comes to histories of power.

 

November 2, 2023

As the saying goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, this rings true for journalists who haven’t learned the lessons of prior coverage and its criticisms.

Back in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, two wire service photos of the resulting crisis sparked a conversation on language and framing. The Los Angeles Times recounted the story in 2017:

“One from Associated Press photographer Dave Martin showed a young black man wading through water while holding a bag and a case of soda. The accompanying description stated that he was ‘looting.’ A second photo from Chris Graythen for Getty Images showed a similar scene, but this time it was a white couple clutching bags of food. Their actions were labeled as ‘finding.’”

The difference in these terms is the level of sympathy elicited for the subject. “Looting“ implies criminality while “finding” in this context implies innocently gathering goods for survival. Based on U.S. history, I think I can reasonably suggest systemic racism played a role in the labels given to each photo.

I use this example pretty frequently in my workshops on news and language. You may understand, then, why the headline from Politico below caused me dismay.

Thousands loot United Nations aid warehouses in Gaza

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is well documented. More than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed in the past few weeks and innocent civilians are in dire need of aid. Using the word “loot,” traditionally defined as pillaging for the spoils of war, is an incredibly cynical and unsympathetic way to frame people stealing for survival.

I much prefer the simple rephrase used by CNN in the headline below. “Take” is a pretty neutral verb in this situation; it doesn’t imply criminality but does suggest the goods weren’t willingly given. The use of “basics” underlines the life-sustaining nature of the items people were searching for.

UN warns ‘civil order’ declining in Gaza as thousands take basics from warehouses

The final example below, from the BBC, I think does the best job of illustrating how dire the situation truly is. It uses the phrase “break into” to imply that the actions described may not have been lawful, but still manages to focus on the real story here: people are desperately searching for aid. This isn’t stealing for stealing’s sake — as we might think of with the word “looting.”

This headline doesn’t sensationalize the events it describes by centering crime. Its priorities are clear: audiences need to understand how bad things really are. It’s the difference between, “Look, these people committed a crime” and “Look, things are so bad these people had to commit a crime to survive.”

UN: Thousands in Gaza break into warehouses in search of aid

 

November 9, 2023

Framing is a somewhat nebulous concept, but it’s a critical one to understand as a  media maker or consumer, particularly during times of high conflict. That’s because it isn’t just about the facts, but about how the facts are presented.

I like scholar David Tewksbury’s definition of framing best: “the verbal and visual information in an article that directly or implicitly suggests what the problem is about, how it can be addressed, and who is responsible for creating and solving it.”

A key part of this definition is the “information in an article.” What is included and what is excluded from a story are often of equal import.Gaza must not be reoccupied, should be run by Palestinians, says Blinken

For example: the headline above, from the Guardian, is pretty straightforward on its face; it is a brief summary of the U.S. Secretary of State’s recent statements. But when contrasted with the headline below, from the Washington Post, it’s clear the Guardian’s writer made a distinct choice in what to leave out of this frame.

The Guardian’s choice to exclude that Blinken said Gaza should be run by Palestinians could be simply due to space constraints and prioritizing Blinken’s full name, and of course the full article does express this context. But we all know no one can read every article they see in a day, so headlines remain vital, precious real estate for telling stories. Israel is a key ally of the U.S., so Blinken’s full perspective on how this conflict should end is pertinent information.

Israel cannot reoccupy Gaza at end of conflict, says Antony Blinken

The Post’s headline writer made their own interesting choice as well by leaving out the word “Israel.” Perhaps the audience is meant to assume that the “re” in “reoccupied” implies that Israel would be the occupier again. However, I believe it’s still worth noting since there’s a big difference between post-conflict sovereignty for Palestinians and occupation by another non-Israel state.

Both headlines exhibit how subtle choices of what information is included in limited space can alter the salience of a news event.

 

January 25, 2024

The Decline of Deaths in Gaza

UN chief denounces Israel for ‘utterly unacceptable’ killings as Gaza death toll soars

Battles rage as Palestinians say Gaza toll passes 25,000

The three headlines above — from The New York Times, Politico, and Reuters, respectively — were all published within the same two days. The Times’ headline led its popular morning newsletter, referring to a segment on Israel’s attack strategy.

To be precise, “Decline of Deaths” is inaccurate — deaths are being recorded each day in Gaza. Obviously, no deaths are being reversed. What the headline refers to is the rate of deaths in Gaza; the daily toll has recently slowed.

The killing of Gazans by Israel continues nonetheless. As the other examples announce, this toll “soars” and has passed 25,000 by one count. These are clearly very different framings of the same facts, a kaleidoscopic interpretation of the same data.

The Times’ headline is misleading in the context of the facts. But what it signals is more malignant to me. A headline is supposed to mark what is most important about a story. This story’s premise is that this change in daily death toll reflects more precision by Israeli forces and it presents “both sides” of a debate — is this shift “enough” of a correction or “too much”? I find such distanced, “objective” discussion on whether the death rate is low “enough,” as if there is some ideal, justifiable number of innocents killed, repugnant. It is also extremely telling that, when ostensibly given the freedom to select its own topics of focus and given the same set of facts as other outlets, the Times’ newsletter writers and editors chose this framing of that data. They chose to focus, to make most salient to the reader, a misleading “decline” in deaths rather than the fact that these killings continue, that the toll grows each day.

It is hard for me to reconcile this editorial choice with the moral clarity I seek in modern journalism, where first and foremost human life and freedom are valued.

 

February 1, 2024

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, was the catalyst for Israel’s resulting attacks on Gaza — this much is clear. Israel has since decimated Gaza and killed upwards of 26,000 people. A new visual investigation from The Guardian illustrates as much.

But this was not the inevitable outcome. Whether you personally agree with any of them or not, choices were made by Israel from among innumerable options to get to this point.

And yet, I often find media framings of the devastation in Gaza leave out all reference to their ultimate cause. For example, the three headlines below from The Guardian, Agence France-Presse via NDTV, and CNN refer to the danger now facing many Gazans: hunger.

Famine in Gaza is being made ‘inevitable’, says UN rapporteur

Gaza Population Is "Starving To Death" Due To Aid Constraints, Says WHO

‘We are dying slowly:’ Palestinians are eating grass and drinking polluted water as famine looms across Gaza

Two of these use the word “famine” to describe this emergency. That isn’t inaccurate, exactly, but it’s a word that itself assigns no cause or blame as if it could be the result of a natural phenomenon. But is this the right word for the intentional destruction of the means of feeding a population? Moreover, the NDTV headline asserts the World Health Organization says this is “due to aid constraints.” Who is creating the obstacles to delivering aid?

The Time headline below gets us closer to accountability by using the phrase “starvation is being utilized.” “Starvation” is a stronger word choice here because it implies intention, and “utilized” makes that explicit. But who is using starvation, and for what purpose?

NBC News answers both of these questions in their headline. It not only uses the stronger choice of “starvation,” but it assigns a reason for its use (“weapon of war”) and even assigns Israel as the actor. Without this level of constant accountability, it might be easier for audiences watching these tragedies from afar to forget that human choices are behind each of these actions — and thus, they are the solution as well.

Israel accused of using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza

 

February 29, 2024

“Dressed in his U.S. Air Force uniform, Aaron Bushnell walked up to the Israeli embassy in Washington one afternoon this week and calmly described his intention to ‘engage in an extreme act of protest’ against Israel’s military offensive in Gaza,” The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Bushnell then proceeded to light himself on fire while shouting “Free Palestine!” He soon collapsed and was rushed to a local hospital where he later died.

For their investigation into Bushnell’s past The Washington Post used the headline below.

Airman who set self on fire grew up on religious compound, had anarchist past

The headline is factually accurate, but it might rub some readers the wrong way because it doesn’t feel “true” in the sense that it highlights certain pieces of Bushnell’s past over potentially equally significant ones. For instance, it highlights the conservative Christian community he was raised in, but not that friends said he rejected this upbringing.

The headline references the story’s first sentence, which mentions a recent call in which he and a friend discussed “their shared identities as anarchists.” The article never again mentions this “anarchist past,” but does mention Bushnell’s passion for activism, his time spent helping people experiencing homelessness, and his distaste for state-sanctioned violence.

I do not know the headline writer’s intentions here, but it is strange to me that, of all of the facts of a person’s life to choose from, they would choose two that will inevitably be alienating to the audience. Was the goal here to imply Bushnell was “other,” that he was strange and different from the reader? Or is that merely the result?

I did not know Aaron Bushnell personally and summarizing any one person’s life into a headline is a difficult task. That’s why, especially when it comes to private citizens whose pasts are not well-known, journalists should be careful not to make clear judgements about them by selectively highlighting some slices of life over others.

The New York Times chose a clearer headline, below, for their dive into Bushnell’s past. It mentions Bushnell’s identity as a service member because it is very relevant considering his political protest. Most significantly, it highlights why he chose to end his life — to protest Israel — arguably the most important part of this story.

U.S. Airman’s Winding Path Ended in Self-Immolation to Protest Israel

 

March 28, 2024

Nearly two months ago, I wrote in this newsletter that the people of Gaza were starving, yet many news headlines refused to acknowledge why or how. Unfortunately, this crisis has only gotten worse, with many facing “catastrophic hunger” and famine just around the corner.

In the time since that early February newsletter, a U.N. expert has accused Israel of purposely destroying Gaza’s food systems as a war tactic. So did EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. The New York Times has reported extensively on how aid to Gaza is being blocked and significantly slowed by Israel’s inspections of delivery trucks. A recent headline from The Guardian states, “‘Man-made famine’ charge against Israel is backed by mounting body of evidence.”

During a January interview with The New Yorker after a visit to the Rafah border crossing in Egypt, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen said, “…it was clear that there was not sufficient will by Israeli authorities to address the scope and severity of the crisis … it shouldn’t have taken so long to open the Kerem Shalom crossing. And we know that it wasn’t open because of a political decision by the Netanyahu government, that they did not want to see humanitarian goods transiting through Israeli territory to get to Palestinians in Gaza.”

And yet, when I search for headlines about hunger in Gaza, I repeatedly see those like the one below, from Forbes, that simply say Gazans “are starving” instead of something more direct, like “being starved.”

This is a critical difference of which our audiences must be fully aware. We — as in, all people — can only solve problems that we can identify. If starvation is seen as an unintended consequence of a conflict already framed as impossibly complicated, then how are citizens of the world to effectively oppose it? If, instead, it is named as an intentional act, it becomes a different issue altogether and we are given the vocabulary needed to oppose it.

Of course, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied all claims that this is Israel’s intent. To do otherwise would be to admit to war crimes.

Is it a journalist’s job, then, to equally amplify each “he said, she said” between two very different sides of a conflict, just because they oppose each other? Or is it a journalist’s job to evaluate all of these statements and facts together — including eyewitness accounts, expert assessments, and the potential motives driving them all — and draw an informed conclusion for their audience, for whom they are transmitting otherwise unknowable world events?

If outlets are waiting for Israel to admit they are purposely starving Gaza before stating it plainly, like Al Jazeera does in the headline below, they will be waiting a long time.

‘They scream in hunger’ - How Israel is starving Gaza

 

April 4, 2024

This week, I want to call attention to the general public response to the recent Israeli airstrikes that killed seven World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza. WCK founder José Andrés has accused Israel of targeting the three cars carrying the aid workers. The killings have been called “a new low” by USA Today, caused a “global backlash” according to NBC News, and a Politico headline explains this killing “is different” — different than what is unclear, but presumably other killings during this war.

Of course, the deliberate killing of civilian aid workers is a war crime and the loss of any innocent life is tragic.Death of Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen crew marks a new low in Gaza war, aid workers say

Why the strike killing World Central Kitchen workers is different

So is the deliberate killing of journalists, of which at least 95 have been killed during this war. So is the deliberate destruction of healthcare systems — yet, by the end of January, the World Health Organization reported there had been 342 health care-related attacks in Gaza.

And, lest we forget, the killing of over 30,000 Palestinians since October is another immense tragedy.

So why is the killing of seven aid workers considered a “different,” “new low”? Is it because six of them were British, Polish, Australian, or Canadian-American?

Global backlash over killing of 7 World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza

I, for one, would be happy to see anything become a turning point for Israel’s allies like the U.S. to use their leverage to end the killing. But the news industry must confront the fact that we are complicit in which narratives capture public attention and which don’t.

There has been a lot of incredible reporting on the many lives lost in Gaza. But we cannot allow audiences to become numb to sky-high death tolls and dehumanized statistics. And we should not set the example that some deaths are “worth” more words than others because they come from different places or have different jobs than the innocent Palestinians who have also been killed and injured.

 

April 25, 2024

Last week, Columbia University students began a protest encampment to demand that the institution divest from Israel in wake of the killings in Gaza. Since then, protests at several campuses across the U.S. have sprung up to both echo Columbia students’ demands and/or to stand in solidarity. Protesters have faced punishments (or threats thereof) from their institutions and physical violence from law enforcement.

Scholars have been studying media coverage of protests for decades. I used this scholarship to conduct my own research on Philadelphia outlets’ coverage of local protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. One core framework of this scholarship is the protest paradigm, a pattern identified by James Hertog and Douglas McLeod.

To (extremely annoyingly) quote my own report, “They found that coverage often delegitimizes protest movements via reporting that focuses on the most violent or dramatic aspects of a protest, features an over-reliance on official sources and definitions, fails to explain the context of the movement at hand, and exaggerates the negative consequences of those protests.”

In their work analyzing recent coverage under the protest paradigm, Danielle K. Brown and Summer Harlow categorized news reports into four categories:

  • “Riot: Emphasizing disruptive behavior and the use or threat of violence.
  • Confrontation: Describing protests as combative, focusing on arrests or “clashes” with police.
  • Spectacle: Focusing on the apparel, signs, or dramatic and emotional behavior of protesters.
  • Debate: Substantially mentioning protester’s demands, agendas, goals, and grievances.”

Within this framework the Riot, Confrontation, and Spectacle frames are considered delegitimizing of the protest movement at hand because they shift focus from the cause of the protest and its supporters’ proposed solutions (the Debate frame).

I couldn’t help but view headlines and stories about these protests through this framework. I haven’t done any formal assessment of this coverage under the protest paradigm, but I did pull headlines that I think exemplify each frame.

Riot: The headline above from CNN as published by WPSD uses words like “rocked” and “unrest” to emphasize the disruptive, threatening nature of the protests.

Confrontation: The Guardian headline above focuses on arrests and thus the conflict between students and police.

Spectacle: The Semafor headline above discusses the masks students are wearing while they protest.

Debate: And finally, above, the Associated Press manages to work what the students are actually protesting for into the headline!

Any protest is bound to draw out this range of coverage. As this story continues to unfold, consider the proportion of these frames that you encounter and ask yourself whether that ratio amplifies or obscures the story’s most important angles.

 

May 9, 2024

Despite ongoing negotiations for a ceasefire, Israel began aerial and tank strikes on the city of Rafah in Gaza this week, where over a million people have taken refuge. Civilians are being told to move toward Khan Younis, which was recently left in ruins by Israeli forces, to avoid danger.

A UNICEF spokesperson told The Intercept, “The area that they’re being directed to evacuate to is not safe. It’s not safe because there aren’t the services there to meet their basic needs, water, toilets, shelter. But it’s also not safe because we know that that area has been subject to strikes despite being a so-called safe zone.”

The Wall Street Journal, below, has described these events as “Israel Presses On in Rafah,” framing this as primarily a challenge for Israel to overcome.

Israel Presses On in Rafah Amid Diplomatic Tensions and Deepening Humanitarian Crisis

NPR (below) and other outlets have continued to call this “Israel’s Rafah offensive.” This isn’t inaccurate, of course, but it’s tame language, in my opinion, for describing an attack on a densely populated city full of civilians with few options to flee. Using the jargon of war strategists creates a distancing effect for the reader, lest they confront the reality of what an “offensive” means.

A timeline of events leading up to Israel's Rafah offensive

I much prefer the plain language used by outlets below, which describe strikes (also NPR), an “attack” (Financial Times) and a “ground assault” (NBC News).

A Gaza cease-fire deal hangs in the balance, as Israel begins striking eastern Rafah

Israel’s Rafah attack cuts aid for Gaza to a trickle

'Where do we go?': Palestinians flee Rafah after Israel orders evacuation before expected ground assault

It is always mission-critical for journalists to use direct language. I’d argue this is especially important when our job is to describe war to audiences who cannot witness these events firsthand.

 

May 16, 2024

As Israel Steps Up Attacks, 300,000 Gazans Are On the Move

I didn’t catch this New York Times headline above before it was changed to its current form below, but several netizens who criticized this framing thankfully did.

The differences between “Are on the Move” and “Are Forced to Evacuate” are stark in their levels of accuracy and their tone. The first suggests voluntary movement, like traveling. By starting the sentence with, “As Israel Steps Up Attacks,” the headline is vague about the relationship between these attacks and the movement. Grammatically speaking, the events coincide but are not causational.

And, tonally, “on the move” just feels wrong here. It’s a phrase that, to me, is more at home as a lighthearted reference to a busy person. (For what it’s worth, while considering that feeling, I Googled “on the move Taylor Swift” and a recent Daily Mail headline with that phrase came right up.)

As Israel Steps Up Attacks, 300,000 Gazans Are Forced to Evacuate

On the other hand, being “Forced to Evacuate” tells a much different story. Most obviously, it accurately describes the involuntary nature of the Gazans fleeing danger. It also more directly connects it to the “attacks” at the beginning of the sentence as the cause. This is the serious tone with which this drastic action affecting hundreds of thousands of lives deserves to be treated.