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Journalistic ethics and flotilla sabotage claims

Jul 4, 2011 | Tzvi Fleischer

Following up on Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz’s post yesterday – now that Turkish authorities have found baseless widely-reported claims by leaders of the Gaza flotilla that an Irish boat was sabotaged by Israel in a Turkish port, it is worth noting that the Australian media has, to date, largely failed to report this (one exception was The Australian today.).

In terms of journalistic ethics, this is particularly problematic with respect to the Sydney Morning Herald. That paper reported the allegations about sabotage of the Irish ship as if they were almost certainly true in a story on Saturday. The headline asserted “Gaza ships hit by Israeli attack”, the report itself by Mark Weiss, after quoting flotilla leaders, subsequently used language suggesting that an Israeli attack had definitely occurred, and the story lead with charges from flotilla organisers that Israel had engaged in “terrorism” against them.

While there was a denial from an Israeli spokesperson in the piece, the headline and tenor of the article could only leave the average reader concluding that the existence of an “Israeli attack” was a fact. Therefore, now that the relevant authorities – authorities not particularly disposed to be pro-Israeli – have issued a finding that there was no such attack, it seems crystal clear that the Herald has an ethical obligations to both its readers and to the journalistic ethos of truth to report this new evidence.

Perhaps they still will, but it is sad and surprising how often this happens in the media with respect to Israel – an accusation is raised, and widely reported. It later proves false, but the media has moved on and the fact that it is not true is never reported. The casual reader is left assuming that the initial report is undisputed truth, and it often comes up treated as such in subsequent debates.

As Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Journalists and editors have a responsibility, observed in the breach far too often, to at least give truth a chance to catch up.

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