Buzzfeed and Israel?

I’m the first person to tell you how important high quality and serious journalism is. I believe journalism is something that is essential to a healthy and functioning society, which is one of the reasons why BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Vice and similar media organizations are so fascinating to me. I’m extremely interested in how journalism is changing and adapting to the digital age, and these online publications are a testament to how journalism is changing, not dying.

Something I’ve been interested in lately is the rise of email newsletters as viable and integral ways of getting the news. Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 4.46.40 AMFor example, The Skimm is a daily email newsletter marketed to busy, career-oriented women that launched in 2012 and has now become extremely successful.

Similarly, BuzzFeed recently launched a daily newsletter focusing on the most important news of the day. I get both of them, and BuzzFeed News is very similar to the Skimm, with less of a feminine lens. I’ve been very impressed by BuzzFeed’s newsletter and actually find it easier to digest and read quickly than I do the Skimm’s. BuzzFeed has been steadily improving their content on the news side which is something I’ve noticed more and more in recent months.

I decided to focus on BuzzFeed for this post. How, exactly is Israel approached on this web-based “news” service mainly known for listicles like “If Tinder Messages Were Motivational Posters” (#1 on the website right now)? I looScreen Shot 2015-03-31 at 5.09.10 AMked at two articles specifically. One is headlines “Israel Officials Shift Focus To Finer Points of ‘Inevitable’ Iran Deal” and one is headlined “Pro-Israel Democrat: I Expect The Administration To Stand With Israel At The U.N.” I was extremely impressed by both– they are both well-sourced, unbiased news articles that offer a seemingly complete take on the issues presented. BuzzFeed is known for fluffy content without real news value but I am very impressed by their continually improving news coverage.

An interesting trend I noticed in these stories is the sourcing of quotes from other sources, not just the journalist themselves. I think this is pretty interesting and I wonder why this might be– in some ways, I actually think this is a smart tactic. Telling the most complete story possible may not always just include quotes and facts you’ve collected yourself.

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BuzzFeed Israel tag

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Facebook & Tweet embeds

However, since BuzzFeed is known for unconventional storytelling, I set forth through their Israel tag to see what else I could find. A story called “Netanyahu’s Dire Warnings Of Arab Turnout Drive Rush To The Polls” discusses voter turnout and reaction to Israel’s latest presidential election two weeks ago. The story incorporates a Facebook post and a Tweet to tell the story, two additions very telling of the typical “BuzzFeed” story. However, I thought they actually added a lot of context to a very important story. Storytelling is no longer just through words: it is through tweets and photographs and videos and graphics, and BuzzFeed does this well.

Social media, Israel, Palestine & the spread of information

The rise of social media transformed how journalists report on the news of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. However, perhaps the most impactful change is that it has opened up new opportunities for citizens to report on the news in real time.

In August 2014, Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 3.45.56 PMwas in the midst of the conflict in Gaza. She began tweeting– photos, tidbits of news and her own take on the events.

“I noticed that most of the Western media supports Israel, so also some people abroad believe that we Palestinians are the murderers and that it is us who started the attacks on Israel. This is not right. I felt I had to do something to help Gaza. I used Twitter as a weapon to share what exactly happen in Gaza by posting links of recorded clips of bombs, photos of the smoke to make people who follow me feel as if they are living in Gaza. to let them know we are the victims,” she said.

Within weeks, Baker’s Twitter follows went from 800 to 39,000, and she now has 182,000.

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As for journalists reporting in the area themselves, social media has opened up new opportunities similar to how it has for other journalists around the world. They turn to Twitter to livetweet events and photos as they come. But overall, the most impactful reporting via social media seems to have come from citizens themselves.

“On the one hand, those predisposed to believe one party to the conflict have had their convictions reinforced,” said Magda Abu-Fadil, the director of Media Unlimited,Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 3.57.59 PM an organization focusing on “establishing and maintaining high standards for journalists dealing with the media in the Middle East and North Africa region.” She was quoted in a blog post for World News Public Focus. “On the other hand, with greater exposure to what has befallen the mostly unarmed civilian population in Gaza, social media and citizen journalists have disseminated powerful content mostly in the form of images and videos that have made recipients sit up and take note,” she said.

Pressures on female journalists

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Bill O’Reilly

In late February, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly threatened New York Times reporter Emily Steel during an interview for a story on how O’Reilly allegedly misrepresented stories about his experiences reporting on war in the 1980s. O’Reilly claimed that he was in the middle of a war zone while covering a war in 1982 fought between Argentina and Britain.

During a phone conversation, he told reporter Emily Sharkey for The New York Times that there would be repercussions if he felt any of the reporter’s coverage was inappropriate. “I’m coming after you with everything I have,” O’Reilly said. “You can take it as a threat.”Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 2.21.04 AM

Luckily, because the U.S. defines basic press freedoms as essential freedoms under the Bill of Rights, The New York Times reporters were able to report freely on this conversation without facing repercussion. However, threats and other pressures towards women in media are prevalent in the United States. The International Women’s Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 2.33.20 AMMedia Association released a report titled “Violence and Harassment Against Women in the News Media“, and although this report extended internationally, there are several examples of this in the United States. Some of the statistics included in this report are that two-thirds of respondents said they have received abuse, intimidation or threats in relation to their work. A quarter of respondents said they have been subject to physical violence because of their work.

Another example of hostile conditions towards women in United States journalism pertains to Erin Andrews. After a stalker shot several nude videos of her, posted them online and attempted to sell them to celebrity media organizations, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

The pressures towards female journalists in the United States seem to be so prevalent, there is an entire BuzzFeed post about it.

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Press freedom in the USA

The United States of America stands for freedom and justice for all, right?

Maybe– when researching press and free speech rights in the United States, I began to doubt whether or not this often-head statement actually applies to journalists.

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Freedom House’s quick evaluation of the USA

Freedom House gave the United States a high rating for basic freedoms, as the country has “free internet and press.” These rights stem directly to the United States Bill of Rights ratified in 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

However, the freedom of press and speech related to journalism have actually been attacked countless times in US History.

Some of these issues have related to anonymous sources used in stories. One example, reported on in a story on Reporters Without Borders’ website, details a situation involving New York Times reporter James Risen.

James Risen

James Risen

Risen is an investigative reporter who wrote about national security, often utilizing anonymous sources to expose stories. He was called to court for the first time in 2008 because of his work with Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA operative who was charged with violating the Espionage Act for giving Risen information for a book Risen authored titled “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

The Espionage Act itself was very controversial when signed into law in 1917, as it criminalizes “obtaining information respecting the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information to be obtained is to be used to the injury of the United States” thus conflicting with freedom of speech as outlined in the Bill of Rights. According to the World Press Freedom Index, eight people under President Barack Obama and three under President George W. Bush were charged under the Espionage Act.

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Virginia court ruled that Risen had to testify in trial about his sources, but he filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which rejected his appeal in June. However, in December the Department of Justice announced that he would not be forced to name his sources while testifying. Risen fought back and in January, he was let go from being a witness to the trial.

According to the same Reporters Without Borders article, “The United States is ranked 46th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, 13 places lower than in 2013.”

Another recent news topic showing restrictions of journalistic freedom in the United States is the events that have occurred in Ferguson, Missouri over the past several months. According to the Freedom of the Press Foundationsince Michael Brown’s death in mid-August 2014, over 25 journalists had been arrested or detained by police in Ferguson, primarily due to excessive policing.

Photo from Amnesty International showing policing in Ferguson, Missouri

Photo from Amnesty International showing policing in Ferguson, Missouri

For the first time ever in the United States, Amnesty International intervened in the situation and brought in human rights observers. Reporters detained or arrested include Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and Kerry Picket of Breitbart News based in Iowa. Here is a video showing Lowery’s arrest. Below is a tweet showing a photo of Reilly being taken away by Ferguson police.

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While the United States is clearly not nearly as dangerous for reporters as the countries we are studying and has relatively democratic and fair policies regarding freedom of speech and press, the situation in this country is clearly not perfect– US law and policing has had major implications for journalists.

Wikileaks

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West Bank of Gaza

In January 2009, Wikileaks got ahold of and released a document displaying 186 pages of secret Israeli Ministry of Defense information. This report showed documentation of the full extent of illegal Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. While it was first obtained by a highly reputable Israeli newspaper called Haaretz, because it was first reported on and made available in Hebrew, its scope of impact was limited.

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A screenshot from the documents obtained

The United States government then had the Central Intelligence Agency translate this WikiLeak into English through their Open Source division. It was not released by the CIA but by an editor of the Federation of American Scientist’s Secrecy News, Stephen Aftergood.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that “An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements – about 75 percent – construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued,”, and “The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.”

Essentially, this leak revealed that Israel was building illegal infrastructure- roads, buildings, schools and more- on Palestinian West Bank land that was the property of Palestinian residents. They did this with the knowledge that they were breaking international law.

Here is text from a English-translated article from Haaretz:

The official database, the most comprehensive one of its kind ever compiled in Israel about the territories, was recently obtained by Haaretz. Here, for the first time, information the state has been hiding for years is revealed. An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements – about 75 percent – construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.

Citizen Journalism

Citizen journalism is very developed and important in Israel, especially on the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel, which escalated in the past several years. A May 2012 Reuters article described how powerful citizen journalism was in the West Bank at the time:

“Amateur video of Israeli soldiers appearing to watch idly as settlers opened fire on Palestinians throwing stones has emphasized the growing power of “citizen journalism” in the occupied West Bank.

Shaky footage, captured on Saturday from two angles by residents of Aseera al-Qibliya village, shows bearded residents from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar aiming a hand gun and assault rifle at the crowd, followed by sounds of gunfire.

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The man who filmed the video, Ibrahim Makhlouf, a Palestinian

A bloodied youth shot in the face was shown being carried away on the shoulders of fellow villagers. The video was soon posted on the Internet.”

This video launched an investigation by the Israeli Defence Force, who confirmed that fire was used. The citizen who filmed the confrontation was using a video camera provided by B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, an Israeli organization that, as part of its’ mission, distributes video cameras throughout the West Bank for this purpose.

Palestinian schoolchildren in 2012

Palestinian schoolchildren in 2012

Coverage of the conflict has been heavily influenced by social media in recent years. A citizen journalist from Gaza, Rana Baker, described why she felt that covering the events via social media was more powerful than covering them as a professional journalist for a mainstream media organization.

“Covering the attacks on Gaza without tapping my own views felt more like being a mainstream journalist striving to keep the image “balanced,” “unbiased” and “appealing” to everyone. It felt more like betraying the blood being mercilessly spilledby all kinds of warfare anyone can imagine, the screams that remained unheard under the rubble until they were silenced by the force of nature.

So by Thursday, 15 November, the second day of the Israeli attack, I surrendered to the fact that I could be credible without being “mainstream.” All attempts to split myself between my real self, an ordinary Gazan who belongs to and shares the feelings of this country, and a “balanced” journalist failed miserably. So I began voicing my “extreme views” (as Haaretz insisted on calling them) alongside real-time news, publicly and unabatedly.”

Because the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is such a polarized issue for many, social media and the internet has become an invaluable outlet for ordinary citizens to provide their own versions of events.

My Restrepo response

restrepo-mainI was sick the day we watched Restrepo in class, so I streamed it from iTunes. I found the movie to be incredibly interesting: it really gave me a completely new perspective on both war and war reporting where reporters are embedded and made me think a lot about the ethics of this reporting, as well as what it is really like to report on a war. I thought the movie was primarily an unbiased and impartial account of the war in Afghanistan, in part because there is no narration–  it is basically made up of footage of soldiers and war, leaving analysis up for interpretation. I don’t think it is absolutely unbiased but I think that would almost be impossible for a movie of this nature. The film was made by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, who spent a year embedded in Afghanistan, reporting and taking photographs for Vanity Fair.

Out of the New York Times photographs and interview, the film and the Vanity Fair article, I found the piece in Vanity Fair to be the most effective at portraying the reality of war. I think this partially was because I had already seen Restrepo, so I had some background knowledge, and the Vanity Fair article took this perspective and gave it far more information and analysis. The movie left much up to interpretation, and the Vanity Fair article filled in those gaps. The photographs and interview were fascinating, but functioned more as background information on the film– still interesting because I had watched it, but less of a news source providing information on the topic itself.

One of the most interesting parts of the movie was seeing how soldiers live and go about their day to day lives, something I had definitely not thought much about in the past. It is easy to see war as something deeply political and controversial, but the documentary really showed the sides of war most people don’t see. It shows their strengths and their weaknesses, and their reactions to all of the horrifying events they see. It really showed the human side of this topic, something I think is important for everyone to see. As Hetherington said,

The pictures show a different image of life in a very small outpost. They are very approachable. I spent enough time that, by the end, the guys were walking around like they were fighting in shorts and flip flops. I was photographing them in a state of undress. You can see the images of the guys, really bonding closely together. There is a lot of play fights and hugging. A lot of the guys would have their bodies tattooed. Part of the book shows you these tattoos. In fact, the title of the book comes from a tattoo. They used to tattoo across their chest the word “Infidel.”

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Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 4.29.25 PM         (Some of Hetherington’s photographs)

Overall, I do think all of this coverage has changed my attitude towards embedding journalists in war zones. Before, I was conflicted on whether or not this was an effective way to cover these events but now I think it is very effective and important.