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July 6, 2022 10:34 am

After the Bullet: Re-Examining the Media’s Reporting on the Death of Shireen Abu Akleh

avatar by Chaim Lax


People light candles during a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, May 16, 2022. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

Since the death of veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11 — during an Israeli military operation in the terrorist hotbed of Jenin — numerous media outlets have jumped to the conclusion that she was killed by an Israeli soldier.

Some news organizations have gone so far as to claim that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deliberately targeted Abu Akleh.

Now that a ballistic analysis has been conducted on the bullet that killed her, and the United States and Israel have both released their findings, it is a good time to take a deeper look at how the media reported on her death.

There are important insights to be gleaned from the media’s handling of this tragic case.

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Ever since May 11, the IDF has been conducting a full investigation into the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. Based on its initial investigation, the IDF held that the bullet that killed her could have been fired by a Palestinian gunman or an Israeli soldier during the firefight that had ensued between Israeli forces and terrorists belonging to the US-designated Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.

However, the IDF investigation was consistently impeded by the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s refusal to turn over the bullet for ballistic analysis. Without the bullet, Israel would be unable to conclusively determine which weapon fired the shot that ultimately killed Shireen Abu Akleh.

For almost two months, the PA refused to release the bullet, until finally handing it over to American authorities on July 1. With the bullet in hand, Israel was finally able to conduct the necessary forensic investigation under US supervision.

The results of the forensic analysis were released by both Israel and the United States on July 4. According to statements released by both countries, the bullet was badly damaged, thus not allowing for a conclusive determination as to who fired the shot.

The statement by the US State Department went further, saying that based on an analysis of both the Palestinian and Israeli investigations, it is likely that Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in error by an Israeli soldier during the gunfight and that she was not deliberately targeted.

Meanwhile, mere days after Shireen Abu Akleh was killed, numerous media outlets published their own expert “investigations” into her death, with each laying the blame squarely at the feet of Israel and the IDF.

However, reviews of these analyses by HonestReporting and other media watchdog groups have shown that each of these reports was marred by their reliance on unreliable witnesses, questionable experts, and tunnel vision that ignored any evidence that didn’t point to Israel’s culpability.

For instance, in the analysis published by The Washington Post in early June, the report relies on the eyewitness testimony of Ali al-Samoudi, who in fact had given conflicting accounts about where the shots came from. Another witness cited by WaPo was Shatha Hanaysha, a Palestinian citizen journalist who has praised Palestinian terrorists on social media.

In its report, CNN relied on the expertise of Chris Cobb, an “explosive weapons expert” with a history of teaming up with anti-Israel NGOs in an effort to demonize the Jewish state.

In all cases of media investigations into the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, the media presented their analyses as being composed of a wide variety of puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly in painting a picture of Israeli culpability.

But without the vital evidence of the bullet’s ballistic analysis, these investigations were incomplete at best and based on both speculation and conjecture.

CNN’s investigation explicitly expressed the allegation that “Abu Akleh was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.”

Along similar lines, The Washington Post, while not explicitly accusing Israel of deliberately targeting Abu Akleh, did call into question the IDF’s assertion that if she was killed by an IDF soldier, it was in error and not intentional.

Now that the US State Department has published its conclusions and has found that Shireen Abu Akleh was not targeted by the IDF, CNN must have surely updated the findings of its own investigation, right?

Evidently not: in its reporting on the July 4 announcement, CNN continues to claim that Abu Akleh was killed in a “targeted attack by Israeli forces.”

So, now that the bullet has been analyzed and Israel and the United States have published their conclusions, some of which fly in the face of the media’s investigative reports, what lessons can be drawn from the way in which the media handled Shireen Abu Akleh’s death?

Perhaps most importantly, the media should exercise prudence and discretion when reporting on events that are mired in foggy details. While an incident is still under official investigation and not all the details are yet available, it shows a lack of journalistic integrity to publish “probes” that claim to be conclusive.

Second, the media needs to be able to admit lapses in judgment. Now that the US has found that Shireen Abu Akleh was not killed in a deliberate targeting by Israel, it’s unbecoming of such a news outlet as CNN to continue to peddle its false theory that Israel targeted the Al Jazeera journalist.

Failure to do so decreases confidence in the media’s ability to correctly report on fast-moving stories that feature a wide variety of conflicting viewpoints.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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