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May 30, 2018 9:57 am

60 Minutes and the Illusion of Balance

avatar by Daniel Pomerantz

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A Palestinian rioter on the Israel-Gaza Strip border, May 14, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

There is a persistent myth in journalism that speaking to at least one person on “both sides”of an issue creates a balanced, accurate, and informative story.

But balanced journalism requires identifying the representative, mainstream voices and fitting them into an accurate understanding of the overall context. Focusing on extreme, polarizing voices creates merely an illusion of balance.

Enter Tom Steinfort from 60 Minutes Australia, who recently visited Jerusalem and managed to do a disservice to both Israelis and Palestinians.

Presumably in the interest of balance, the show’s producers picked two main interviewees: both Australian ex-pats living in Israel, and both extreme in their own ways.

Ostensibly representing Israel was Daniel Luria — a far right-leaning Jewish settler who backs up his opinions with a degree of religious fervour. He is the executive director of Ateret Cohanim, a settlement oriented organization, whose mission represents only a tiny niche within the broad range of opinions in mainstream Israeli society.

60 Minutes did not mention Ateret Cohanim by name, nor did it explain the extreme nature of its small following — thus leaving out critical context regarding Luria’s non-mainstream place in Israel. This is called lack of transparency, a critical journalistic breach.

The “other side” is represented by Gerard Horton: a far left-leaning Australian lawyer and activist who now lives in Israel. He set up the advocacy group, Military Court Watch, and is a regular contributor for notoriously anti-Israel publications and web sites such as The Electronic Intifada and Middle East Monitor.

To be clear, 60 Minutes’ mistake was not that they interviewed Luria and Horton, but that the segment presented them as being mainstream, representative voices — which they are most certainly not.

The result was a one-dimensional picture of intractable anger and conflict, as disturbing as it is inaccurate.

Uncontested

Horton’s primary argument is that settlements in occupied territories violate international law, and are a “war crime.”

This is not a universally accepted interpretation of international law, nor a correct understanding of the situation in and around Israel; but the viewer has no way of knowing this.

Appropriate balance to a legal claim should come from another lawyer — preferably someone mainstream and well regarded. For example, international law expert Eugene Kontorovich addresses the topic of settlements in this Washington Post analysis.

Yet Luria has neither the knowledge nor the inclination to discuss legal topics. The result is that Horton’s inaccurate legal claims are left entirely uncontested.

By contrast, Luria justifies the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Judea/Samaria (the West Bank) almost entirely on the basis of religion and ancient history. As he presents his explanation, the camera shows Luria intentionally angering Palestininians on the street with provocative verbal jabs.

While there are certainly some Israelis who see the world as Luria does, his views and behaviors do not represent the Israeli mainstream. Again, the viewer has no way of knowing this.

Appropriate balance to an extreme voice should be composed of mainstream Israeli voices — including people who desire peaceful co-existence while worrying about legitimate security concerns. Such Israelis express a variety of moderate and nuanced reasons why Jews might legitimately live in Jerusalem and Judea/Samaria, and, in some specific cases, why Jews shouldn’t.

Reporter’s voice

The “reporter’s voice” refers to journalists asserting information or interpretation in their own words, without attributing it to others. The public generally regards the journalist as a trusted narrator, hence statements in the reporter’s voice are assumed to be accurate and uncontested.

But Steinfort’s statements are at best, highly contested, and at worst, grossly inaccurate.

In the video, Steinfort, in his own narration, says the following:

  • “Israeli troops killed scores of Palestinian Muslims [who were] protesting the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.”
  • “Israel [encouraged] its citizens to colonize this territory, starting with East Jerusalem.”
  • “…the occupied territories of…East Jerusalem…”
  • “Even when they’re dead here, they’re still fighting.”
  • “[Jerusalem] means ‘city of peace’, but that’s something neither side seems to want.”
  • “In 1967, Israel, fearing an Arab invasion, pushed out.”
  • “In the occupied territories Israelis are a law unto themselves.”

(emphasis added)

The vision of Israelis and Palestinians as naive and hostile, and in particular of Israel as powerful and oppressive, certainly fits into common stereotypes. But it is not a complete reflection of reality, and it is certainly not journalism. Such stereotypes have no place being expressed in the reporter’s voice.

Parachute journalism

Understanding any newsworthy issue requires a degree of depth and study, and Israel is no exception. Yet it is common for journalists who know nothing about the region (beyond the most common stereotypes) to visit for a short time, produce a segment, and leave. This is called “parachute journalism.”

Based out of Australia, Tom Steinfort is exactly such a parachute journalist. Steinfort and his producers did not take the time to truly learn about Israel, but instead produced a segment based on what they already believed to be true.

The main interviewees (two extreme figures), the stereotypes expressed in the reporter’s voice, and the overall story of the segment, all reflect the naiveté of a parachute journalist.

News audiences

It is understandable for a person to be poorly informed about a topic  that does not impact his or her daily life. This is precisely the purpose of a show like 60 Minutes: to inform. Yet if journalists do not reach for a degree of depth and understanding, then they merely reinforce tired stereotypes.

“Balance” requires identifying the mainstream opinions and the true experts. The reporter’s voice must be reserved for conclusions that are clearly established and broadly uncontested. And the parachute journalist must develop sufficient depth and knowledge to perform both of these tasks correctly.

Instead, 60 Minutes Australia gave its viewers a distorted caricature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could not possibly enlighten anyone.

This article was originally published at HonestReporting. You can follow the author on Twitter at @DanielSpeaksUp.

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