The recent media reporting by the New York Times and other news organizations regarding last week’s Al-Ahi Arab hospital bombing in Gaza highlights the perils of reporting in a war zone and the pressure on news organizations to get it right in an online world where misinformation travels worldwide at lightning speed.
The Free Press, a non-profit that keeps a close eye on media, wrote on X (formerly Twitter):
“Tuesday night, October 17, an explosion at the Al-Ahi Arab Hospital rocked Gaza City. Almost immediately, news organizations— Reuters, the AP, New York Times, & the Washington Post— blamed Israel, citing claims by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry. But Israel denied any role in the explosion, and in the coming hours, it became clear that the explosion was caused by a misfired Hamas rocket. News organizations issued half-hearted retractions, but the narrative had echoed the globe, leading to violent anti-US and anti-Israel protests.”
Many of us who received rapid-fire news alerts about the reported Israeli airstrike were shocked and confused. An attack of this nature served no purpose strategically for Israel and would be a disaster from a public relations perspective, with the world clearly on its side after the brutal, well-planned massacre of Jews. The news reporting led to angry protests across the Middle East and the cancellation of planned meetings between US and Arab diplomats.
The media’s reckless need to report the news first or simultaneously with other news organizations highlighted the dangers when there is no proper vetting or more nuanced crafting of headlines and reporting, which came later in the day. Unfortunately, you can’t unsqueeze the toothpaste once misinformation makes it online. This is a particularly acute problem in a war zone where news organizations have a limited presence, and bomb site forensic analysis and a review of satellite imagery and video footage are all needed to understand what happened.
People tend to believe news that supports their worldview, especially when enabled by a prestigious media outlet like the New York Times. The first Times news alert headline about the hospital bombing hit Tuesday evening, October 17: Breaking News: Israel Strike on Hospital Kills Hundreds, Palestinian Official Says. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF), already reeling from last week’s terrorist attack that left 2,000 dead and over 200 people taken hostage, now had to quickly engage in a media battle to refute misinformation blaming Israel for the hospital bombing. The IDF denied responsibility and circulated evidence showing it was misfired terrorist missiles fired within Gaza that struck the hospital. The US later corroborated the Israeli interpretation of events. The Times eventually changed their homepage headline to read, At Least 500 Dead in Blast Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say, (deleting the reference to “Israeli Strike,”) but the misinformation damage was done.
According to Time Magazine, before the hospital bombing, misinformation on social media about the Israel-Hamas war had garnered over 22 million views on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram within three days of the Hamas attack, according to information shared with the Time by Newsguard, an organization which tracks misinformation. Imagine what that number of misinformation views was after the hospital bombing headlines.
The Times has never been good about admitting fault in their international reporting – remember the Times’s flawed reporting supporting the White House claim that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction.
On Wednesday, October 18, the Times media reporter Katie Robertson wrote a story titled “After Hospital Blast, Headlines Shift with Changing Claims.” The article covered how hard it is to report in a war zone, included tepid criticism of the Times’s performance, and mentioned the Times was not the only one to screw up. The article described the BBC’s initial breaking news headline, Hundreds Feared Dead or Injured in Israeli Airstrike on Hospital in Gaza, Palestinian Officials Say. Later modified to, Israel Denies Airstrike on Hospital in Gaza, Saying Failed Militant Rocket to Blame.”
Nowhere in the Times article did a senior Times Editor comment on the Times-generated misinformation that sent thousands into the street protesting what they believed was an Israeli airstrike on a Palestinian hospital. The Times should have apologized for getting the story so wrong initially, admitted it should not have relied on a Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health spokesman, and that it should have corrected the headline much faster.
It was not until today, Monday, October 23, that the paper under the byline The New York Times finally had its mea culpa, admitting “it relied too heavily on claims from Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not be verified.” and later added, “Newsrooms leaders continue to examine procedures around the biggest breaking new events – including for the use of the largest headlines in the digital report – to determine what additional safeguards may be warranted.” Some common sense works for me.
What makes the Times’s misinformation so egregious is that, as one of our premier Western news organizations, it sets the editorial agenda for the media in general. We also rely on the Times to offset less independent international news organizations like Al Jazeera, no friend of Israel, funded by the Qatari government, which as of the writing of this article, still claimed it was an Israeli airstrike rather than a misfired Hamas rocket.
The misinformation about the bombing also fed into growing anti-semitism worldwide and hostility toward Israel among US progressives. The Hill has reported that members of the so-called “Squad” comprised of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Cori Bush (D-MO), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) in the House of Representatives voted against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, even though its uses are solely defensive.
Some progressives, slow to condemn the atrocities committed by Hamas, jumped into action when news of the hospital bombing broke. Congresswoman Tlaib was particularly strident in her comments about Israel. Protests in cities and college campuses appeared more anti-Israel than pro-Palestinian. However, as the initial reports that Israel was not the villain of this story, progressives backpedaled rapidly.
The media needs to do a better job. In the days and months to come, the fog of war will only make it more complicated for the media, and the fact that you can post a correction later in the day does not cut it. The people in charge of the news must report the story accurately and avoid becoming the story.
Hugh Panero, a tech & media entrepreneur, was the founder & former CEO of XM Satellite Radio. He has worked with leading tech venture capital firms and was an adjunct media professor at George Washington University. He writes about Tech and Media for the Spy.