Alicia C. Shepard
A woman calls to complain that NPR's coverage of the Gaza conflict is biased toward Palestinians.
The caller explains the complicated Arab-Israeli history and why Israel was justified in bombing Gaza. "Do you really understand the history?" the caller asks.
The NPR representative does understand. "How old are you?" the caller asks. "Where did you go to college? How well do you understand?"
It becomes personal. But covering the news isn't personal. It's about gathering the facts and reporting what is happening fairly and in context without bias.
There is virtually no other story that NPR covers that stimulates more complaints, more concern, more frustration or more emotion than the Israeli-Arab conflict. Not only are some listeners quick to claim that NPR is sympathetic to one side or the other but many demand that a complete history of the conflict be included in each story.
Since the beginning of the Israeli incursion into Gaza late last month, more than 200 people have emailed or called, some suggesting that NPR is National Palestinian Radio. About half that say NPR is a mouthpiece for Israel. Several are the result of an orchestrated campaign. In some cases, the offending story was on public radio but came from one of many other news producers that NPR has no editorial responsibility over.
The decades-long Arab-Israeli confrontation is a very complex story. Many listeners come to it with fully formed opinions and voice a deep personal attachment to one side or the other. They want NPR to take their side.
But NPR reporters do not have an agenda or take sides other than to report the facts on the ground, said Loren Jenkins, NPR's foreign editor. He added that NPR also tries to report the broader context of any conflict as well as the interests of other nations, beginning with the U.S.
"You strive to be balanced, saying the Israelis say this and people in Gaza say this," said Jenkins. "But because each side in a conflict puts their own spin on it, good reporting demands a certain amount of skepticism which is best expressed in believing what you can personally see and learn rather than what you are told.
"We talk to officials as well as relief workers, doctors in hospitals and others who might be witnesses," continued Jenkins. "Most conflict reporting involves getting all the pieces —facts, data, eyewitness accounts — and putting it together to get a full picture of what has occurred."
It's particularly difficult in this war to cover both sides and be certain of getting the full story since up until this weekend, Israel didn't let foreign journalists into Gaza.
In reporting any armed clash in the world, Jenkins said NPR tries to report the death toll as accurately as possible. In the Gaza story, over 1,000 are dead and thousands wounded. Thirteen Israelis have been killed. Such disparities are an important part of the story NPR is telling, especially with reportedly hundreds of civilian deaths.
NPR, with five reporters and a photographer covering the war and a Palestinian stringer in Gaza, has devoted hours of airtime to the conflict on shows, newscasts and on npr.org. I examined the 49 stories on the war that ran on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and the weekend editions between Jan. 3 and Jan. 10.
Could they do better? Yes. But overall, the coverage is strong, varied and constant; some might even say there's too much considering problems at home. But it's a critical story now because of upcoming elections in Israel, a new U.S. president and U.S national security interests.
During the week I studied, Morning Edition and ATC each ran at least three stories on the conflict every day. NPR's audience can judge the recent coverage for itself. Since May 2002, NPR has aggregated all Middle East stories on one web page. NPR also provides free transcripts — something it does only on this story.
The biggest issue many critics have is that NPR is not explaining enough in each piece why Israel believed it had to attack Gaza and cripple Hamas' security force.
Elizabeth Hamblet emailed that Hamas has made destroying Israel its goal and that instead of spending money on schools and hospitals, Hamas is buying weapons and continues to fire rockets on Israel. "How do you ignore Hamas instigation?" wrote Hamblet. "Your biased coverage has been a severe disappointment."
But there are those who feel NPR hasn't shown how cruelly Israel has treated Palestinians living in cramped, slum-like conditions on a strip of land bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. "The Palestinians are trapped," wrote M. Gregg Smith from Keizer, Ore. "In insane frustration, the Palestinians fight against Israeli oppression with rocks" and rockets.
It's true that Hamas has fired over 7,000 rockets at nearby Israeli towns since 2005 when Israel withdrew from Gaza. That is an unimaginable reign of terror to live under. But it's also true that Israel has blockaded Gaza not allowing food and medical supplies in. But it's also true that Hamas doesn't want Israel to exist. And on the history goes.
Even if NPR tried to include more history in each piece, whose history? For every set of facts one side has, the other has its own version. Many listeners who complain want NPR to explain their side's history as the more moral account.
Context is critical but there are certain time constraints that simply won't allow the kind of detail some listeners want in every four-minute piece.
"Listeners demand every story has a full history," said Jenkins. "In a story like the Middle East where there are thousands of years of history, there is rarely enough space to lay out that sort of complex history in a single piece or two of reportage. We try over time to build the historic picture that is the back story to our daily reports. We do strive for balance because it's not for us to judge who is right or who is wrong."
While some pieces work better than others, there is another factor that has not often been included in the stories. Next month, Israeli voters will elect a new prime minister among three candidates. What role, if any, does that play in the decision to attack Gaza? Which of the candidates might benefit by the show of force?
One thing NPR could do better is explain more fully who its sources are, especially if they have an agenda. For instance, one story quoted a person from the International Crisis Group. Who are they? Another expert was from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. What is their interest in this story?
The audience cannot always tell from the title where a group's leaning lies. NPR shouldn't assume listeners know that someone from the Palestinian Third Way Party is a moderate or what it means for an Israeli to be a "Dove."
NPR also could do a better job of promoting the range of its stories for listeners who may only hear one story. Many incensed listeners contacted me after hearing one story unaware of other related coverage that same day. On Dec. 30, for example, ATC ran six stories on the war throughout the two-hour show, devoting 23 minutes. But the stories did not run consecutively.
As an example, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep did a good job of informing listeners of an upcoming interview with the Israeli ambassador while talking with a Palestinian lawmaker. "I'm sure if an Israeli spokesperson were here - and in fact, elsewhere in the program, we're speaking to the Israeli ambassador - if an Israeli were here they would say they're trying to crush Hamas," said Inskeep.
The conversation with the Israeli ambassador came 10 stories after this. A listener might not have caught both stories but at least Inskeep let listeners know they would later hear the other side.
Considering how the audience dips in and out of radio, it's likely that listeners do not know the full breadth of NPR's coverage. If NPR is going to devote substantial resources and time to this important story, it would go a long way if the network tried harder to inform listeners about what is being covered — either by referring back or forward to war-related stories, as Inskeep did, and also pointing people to npr.org.