Even so, such is the aura still surrounding Reuters that news editors from
Los Angeles to Auckland automatically assume that text, photos, and film
footage provided by Reuters will be fair and objective. Reuters and
Associated Press copy is simply inserted into many correspondents' reports
— even in papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post — without,
it often seems, so much as a second thought given to its accuracy. This
has led to some misleading reporting from Iraq, and still worse coverage
of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The newswires are much more
influential in setting the news (and hence diplomatic) agenda of that
struggle than most people realize.
One veteran American newspaper correspondent in Jerusalem, eager to
maintain anonymity so as not to jeopardize relations with his anti-Israel
colleagues, points out that "whereas foreign correspondents still write
features, they rarely cover the actual breaking news that dominates the
Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In terms of written copy on the conflict, I
would estimate that 50 percent of all reporting, and 90 percent of the
attitude, is formed by these news agencies. The important thing about
Reuters is that it sets the tone, and here spin is everything."
"If, for example, a Reuters headline and introduction say that Israelis
killed a Palestinian, instead of saying that a Palestinian gunman was
killed as he opened fire on Israeli civilians, this inevitably leaves a
different impression of who was attacking, and who defending."
In a study last year, the media watchdog HonestReporting found that in
"100 percent of headlines" when Reuters wrote about Israeli acts of
violence, Israel was emphasized as the first word; also, an active voice
was used, often without explaining that the "victim" may have been a
gunman. A typical headline was: "Israeli Troops Shoot Dead Palestinian in
W. Bank" (July 3, 2003). By contrast, when Palestinians attacked Israelis
(almost always civilians), Reuters usually avoided naming the perpetrator.
For example: "New West Bank Shooting Mars Truce" (July 1, 2003). In many
cases, the headline was also couched in a passive voice.
Often it is a question of emphasis: Important and relevant information is
actually contained in Reuters text, but buried deep down in the story.
Many newspaper readers, however, never get beyond the headlines, and for
space reasons many papers carry only the first few paragraphs of a report
— often inserted into their own correspondents' stories. When the TV
networks run only brief headlines, or Reuters news ribbon at the foot of
the screen, the full text is never shown.
Sometimes, Reuters presents unreliable information as though it were
undoubtedly true. Most people are unlikely to notice this. For example,
Reuters will note that "a doctor at the hospital said the injured
Palestinian was unarmed" — when in fact the doctor couldn't possibly have
known this, since he wasn't present at the gunfight. But because he is a
doctor, Reuters is suggesting to readers that his word is necessarily
authoritative. Yet, Reuters headlines and text are used unchanged by
newspaper editors because they assume it is professional, balanced copy,
which doesn't need any further editing.
Reporters of course can't be everywhere at once. The increased speed of
the Internet and the demand for instant, 24-hour TV news coverage means
that the world's news outlets rely heavily on Reuters and the AP, which in
turn rely on a network of local Palestinian "stringers." Virtually all
breaking news (and much of the non-breaking news) on CNN, the BBC, Fox,
and other networks comes from these stringers.
Such stringers are hired for speed, to save money (there is no need to pay
drivers and translators), and for their local knowledge. But in many
cases, in hiring them, their connections to Arafat's regime and Hamas
count for more than their journalistic abilities. All too often the
information they provide, and the supposed eyewitnesses they interview,
are undependable. Yet, because of Reuters’s prestige, American and
international news outlets simply take their copy as fact. Thus
non-massacres become massacres; death tolls are exaggerated; and gunmen
are written about as if they were civilians.
As Ehud Ya'ari, Israeli television's foremost expert on Palestinian
affairs, put it: "The vast majority of information of every type coming
out of the area is being filtered through Palestinian eyes. Cameras are
angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army's actions and never
focus on Palestinian gunmen. Written reports focus on the Palestinian
version of events. And even those Palestinians who don't support the
intifada dare not show or describe anything embarrassing to the
Palestinian Authority, for fear they may provoke the wrath of Arafat's
One Palestinian journalist told me that "the worst the Israelis can do is
take away our press cards. But if we irritate Arafat, or Hamas, you don't
know who might be waiting in your kitchen when you come home at night."
Some of Reuters's Palestinian stringers are honest and courageous. But,
according to several ex-Reuters staffers, they feel the intimidating
presence of Wafa Amr, Reuters's "Senior Palestinian Correspondent." Amr —
who is a cousin of former Palestinian minister Nabil Amr, and whose father
is said to be close to Arafat — had this title specially created for her
(there is no "Senior Israeli Correspondent," or the equivalent in any
other Arab country) so that her close ties to the Palestinian Authority
could be exploited.
As one former Reuters journalist put it: "She occupies this position in
spite of lacking a basic command of English grammar. The information
passed through her is controlled, orchestrated. Reuters would never allow
Israeli government propaganda to be fed into its reports in this way.
Indeed, stories exposing Israeli misdeeds are a favorite of Reuters. Amr
has never had an expose on Arafat, or his Al-Aqsa Brigades terror group."
But things may well be improving. Lately, with a new Jerusalem bureau
chief, Reuters has taken some steps to ensure greater balance. For
example, it no longer claims Hamas's goal is merely "to set up an
independent state in the West Bank and Gaza" (which it is not), but
instead writes that Hamas is "sworn to Israel's destruction" (which it
Reuters no longer carries the highly misleading "death tolls" at the end
of each story that lumped together Palestinian civilians, gunmen, and
suicide bombers. (Agence France-Presse continues to do this.) And,
apparently, there are plans to relocate Wafa Amr by next year. Is it too
much to hope that one day soon Reuters might actually call terrorism