Nov 19 2012

Reporting Gaza from Tel Aviv

This has been a strange week for providing international news coverage. Once the Israeli attack on Gaza started we immediately contacted our correspondents there to check they are safe, sound, and available. Safe they are not, but Gaza is where they are based and they were keen to make their news known. Our Israel correspondents, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ashkelon, are all good to go too, but based on our experience we assume they will be in less demand as most broadcasters have regular correspondents in Jerusalem.

To our surprise, many of our clients did not need coverage from Gaza. They either say they were happy covering the story from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, or they booked our correspondents there. This, we see watching the news on multiple channels, is the attitude of most other news organisations.

Israel-Palestine news stories are the most contentious ones in the world. No other conflict produces so many tweets, protests, letters to the editor, outraged social media posts and complaints from high ranking politicians. Traditionally, most of the above were produced by Israel and its supporters claiming anti-Israeli bias, even anti-Semitism. Those have not stopped, but over the last few years Palestinians, Israeli opposition activists and international pro-Palestinian pressure groups are catching up. Their presence in the social media is prominent, but their political influence over decision makers and politicians is still inferior to that of Israel. The White House declaration immediately after the first Israeli bombing, backing “Israel’s right to defend itself” is probably the strongest testimony. The web has been raging and storming since last Tuesday, many tweets are coming out of Gaza and many people read them, but it seems not enough Gaza based journalists are given the opportunity to give them credence or dispel them. When established media complain that social media is taking over, it might want to bear that in mind.

There are many reasons for broadcasters to keep their correspondents on the Israeli side of the high wall that surrounds Gaza. Keeping the correspondents safe is one of them, alongside the fact that political decisions that can stop the heavy bombardment will be taken in Israel. Security concerns got extra weight after Israel has targeted and bombed two media buildings in Gaza City. An Israeli spokesperson boasted after the first attack that “no western journalists were hurt”. Technical concerns also come into account. Phone lines are better in Israel as is the internet connection and the feed-point you use, if you opt for studio reporting, is unlikely to be brought down by a bomb.

Another reason for the Israel focused coverage is the missiles that hit Israel from Gaza cause a few causalities but much distress to Israelis. Israel, no doubt, is a big part of the story. But the immense gap in the number of dead in Gaza (over a hundred according to conservative estimates) and in Israel (three at the moment) and in the fire power on both sides (F-16 bombings vs. rockets), all make Gaza the real war zone in the equation.

Balance is a hard goal to achieve and many ingredients influence it. One of them is the ability of the target audience of a broadcaster to identify with the “protagonists” of the story. Even if most Western media consumers can imagine what it feels like to have a siren go off while you are at the gym, drinking latte in a café, or trying to decide whether to use balsamic vinegar or sesame oil for the salad dressing of a Saturday meal. The fear and upset of people they identify as “people like us” speaks to them, and understandably so. This makes the Israeli story easier for them to absorb. The pictures of whole neighborhoods flattened down by bombings and people rushing their injured or dead babies to hospitals in improvised taxis is a scenario many people in London, California and Paris might be able to imagine themselves in. They may be horrified, but identification and horror are not quite the same thing.

This Friday, after a siren went off in Jerusalem, I called my mother, who lives there. I knew she was physically safe and that the rocket landed outside of town, but I also knew she was home alone. She had lost her arm in the first day of the 1967 war, when the Jordanians were shelling Jerusalem. I feared the alarm might have startled her. I found her watching the comedy show LIVE at the Apollo on BBC Prime. “Oh don’t be silly”, she said. She told me she went to the “protected zone” which is in the stairwell and waited there for a few minutes. But she mainly complained that UK stand up comedians are not what they used to be. She was mainly disturbed by the unbecoming hairdo of one of them.

When I posted this little story on Facebook I received immediately a lot of sympathy and concern for my mother from friends all over the world, and mainly in the UK, where I live. My mother, naturally, reminded them of theirs: stiff upper lipped, business like, dismissive of over-fussing and youthful hair-dos. I wonder how many could “get” a Gazan mother.

All this makes it all the more important to have correspondents on the ground in Gaza and to give airtime to those freelancers who are already there. The constant stream of aerial shots of exploding houses in Gaza with commentary in the background does not deliver the same human picture that a correspondent on the ground can deliver.

When teaching and studying “media” we all know that the balance of a story depends not only on good intentions, but on things that often may seem technical: camera angle, geographic distance of the reporter from the subject of coverage, cultural identity of the players involved. The current attack on Gaza takes those lessons from the lecture room to the bleeding alleys of reality. We might as well try and implement those lessons.

Our reporters are available: In Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, in Ashkelon; And yes, in Gaza.

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