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Did the Entire Media Industry Misquote a Hamas Spokesperson?
I asked a dozen reporters and news outlets for the source of a statement they attributed to Hamas. None of them answered. This is a case study of the failure of journalistic standards.
On October 17, shortly after an explosion at a hospital in Gaza, headlines around the world declared that the Gaza Health Ministry said the blast had killed at least 500 people. This was reported by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, NPR, PBS, the Associated Press, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera.
It was an alarming statistic, and its blanket coverage in the news gave a concrete anchor to the rage expressed by many around the world against Israel.
Except—after an extensive investigation, and a total lack of transparency by many of our most prestigious media outlets—I have found zero evidence that the Health Ministry spokesperson ever said that more than 500 people had died.
Going back to the beginning of the Gaza hospital controversy, much attention, rightfully, has focused on the New York Times and other outlets’ botched coverage. They initially reported, per Hamas, that the explosion was the result of an Israeli airstrike, only to recast headlines as news materialized that the blast may have been from a failed Palestinian rocket. I reported on this and the Times’s use of a bombed-out building from southern Gaza—i.e. not the hospital—under its banner headline about the hospital, which remained largely intact.
Beyond the evidentiary particulars in the debate over the origin of the blast is the question of whether news outlets should uncritically report claims from Hamas, including, or perhaps especially, when it provides statistics. For his part, President Biden recently said that he had “no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.” Among others, Yascha Mounk, in the Atlantic, wrote a critique about prestigious media outlets credulously reporting Hamas’s claims.
Yet assessing whether or not Hamas’s claims are credible is a step beyond the most basic consideration: Did the media accurately report what a Hamas spokesperson said?
When I first read the claim that “at least 500” people had died it struck me as being strangely precise. Setting aside whether Hamas should be trusted, the timing of the statement, which happened within a couple hours after the incident, made its veracity unlikely. How did health authorities, in the midst of the chaos of a war zone, in a hospital at night that suffered an explosion, tally the number of dead so quickly?
Something, literally, wasn’t adding up. Since this statistical claim had rocketed around the world, I wanted to hear or see the actual statement itself, rather than references to it. Not that I assumed if I heard the actual statement that that would mean it was correct. But at least it would satisfy my curiosity.
Except there was a problem. In all of the news reports I saw—from the Times on down—none of them linked to the original source of the more than 500 dead claim. It was simply attributed, variously, to either the Gaza Health Ministry, a “Ministry spokesperson,” “Palestinian authorities,” or Hamas.
I reached out to two different Times reporters, twice each, who had published articles with the claim, asking for the original source of the statement—was it from a video? a press release? an interview? I did not get a reply from either of them. I then emailed four different contacts at the Associated Press, which had made the same claim. And so on. In all, I contacted a dozen reporters or communications departments at news outlets, including the Times, the AP, the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera.
The Times, after I had escalated my queries to a standards editor there, was the only outlet to reply to me. The response came in the form of a brief note from a communications staffer that linked to the paper’s mea culpa over its reporting on the blast, and said no additional information would be provided.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment to highlight that not one reporter from any of these outlets replied to my queries. This was their reporting, on perhaps the most contentious news story in the world at the moment. And none of them would respond with the source behind what they had written. It seemed easy enough to simply send a link to the original statement, whether it was a press release, a video, or something else. Why did no one want to do so?
Beyond reporters, it also should be noted that I reached out to the Director of Media Relations and to the Media Relations Manager at the Associated Press. Communicating with the media is literally their job. Yet neither of them replied to my queries asking for the source of this claim in their organization’s reporting.
Perhaps the journalists I contacted felt embarrassed for reporting the original claim, since by this time the official numbers claimed by Hamas had been revised downward from what was reported at first, and the US and other sources were suggesting the number of those who died was far lower still. Even so, this was the initial claim by Hamas, and they reported it. Or, I began to wonder, was it possible none of these journalists had actually seen or heard the original statement? Maybe one outlet reported it, and then everyone copied them, so the journalists didn’t know the original source.
I called my friend Kelley Krohnert, investigator, fact-checker extraordinaire, to run this all by her. We began a deep dive into Google and hyper-specific searches on Twitter, by date and keywords.
Finally, we found what appeared to be the source. At 1:50pm ET on October 17, Al Jazeera’s Arabic Twitter account posted a video clip (presumably of an interview that aired on its TV network) of an interview with Ashraf Al-Qidra, the Ministry of Health spokesperson.
I clicked the “Translate post” tab, which uses Google Translate, to see what text was in the tweet. This is what it showed:
This is the moment where your eyebrows should arch. Notice that the text refers to more than 500 victims. A victim can mean a death, but it, of course, can also mean someone injured in any capacity. Had the spokesperson not said that more than 500 were killed, but merely said more than 500 were victims?
Obviously, either of these outcomes are horrific. And, as noted earlier, any number cited so early after the incident was suspect. But if a news outlet is going to report a statement by Hamas, the specifics matter a lot when a claim made about deaths, initially attributed to Israel’s actions, was shared with and influenced the reactions of tens or perhaps hundreds-of-millions of people around the world.
The word “victim” was curious, but it was also text in a tweet, not the actual interview. And it was a translation from Google. How reliable was that? I was skeptical about the tweet text’s veracity.
I didn’t want to fall prey to the same secondhand sourcing error I suspected everyone else had done. So I hired two different Arabic translators to listen to the interview, then translate it and transcribe it into English.
One of the translators seconded the use of the word “victim,” and he made it clear to me that in this context it was different from “killed.” The other translator, in referencing Al-Qidra’s comments, translated the word as “casualties.” I pressed the translator: sometimes words in one language do not have a direct translation into a different language. Was it possible that the word Al-Qidra used could be translated as “deaths”? No, she said.
Bolstering confidence in the translations is that right before the sentence in question, Al-Qidra had referred to dead bodies and casualties or victims being brought to the hospital by paramedics. He differentiated between the two. The correct translation had to be that he said more than 500 were “victims” or “casualties”—not killed.
Is it possible there is a different interview that Al-Qidra gave shortly after the incident—where he said at least 500 were killed? Given that no news outlet linked to their source of this claim, and that they all refused to supply it to me, I think it’s fair to assume, unless proven otherwise, that every single news outlet got this wrong. The onus is on the media to give evidence behind what it reports, not on the audience to simply trust them.
My working hypothesis was that someone, perhaps a reporter at the AP or whoever reported this first, had quickly glanced at the Al Jazeera Arabic’s tweet translation and, for whatever reason, wrote it as “killed” rather than “victims.” And then every other news outlet simply copied the wrong wording.
But it’s possible what happened is far worse. A short while after seeing the Al Jazeera Arabic tweet I found a tweet from the Al Jazeera English account that had been posted 11 minutes before the Al Jazeera Arabic tweet.
The Al Jazeera English Twitter account wrote “At least 500 Palestinians killed in an Israeli air strike… says health ministry.” It linked to an Al Jazeera post that said, “The Gaza health ministry said at least 500 people died in the hospital blast.” But, like all the other reports, there was no link to the original statement. (Note: one of the authors of this Al Jazeera post was among the reporters I had contacted.)
It seems most likely that some of the American journalists had been tracking the Al Jazeera English Twitter account—not the Arabic one I had seen and translated—and immediately copied its erroneous reporting. And the rest of them began copying each other from there.
This reporting debacle is very bad for several reasons.
First, none of the outlets credited Al Jazeera as the source of the interview. (Given that no one provided evidence of a different interview, we must assume this is the only interview with Al-Qidra regarding the statement.) This is unfair to Al Jazeera. As a simple matter of professional ethics, Al Jazeera should have been given credit. Moreover, the lack of credit prevented readers and viewers from knowing that this bit of information was from Al Jazeera, a news source some Times readers or NBC or CNN or FOX viewers may not trust.
Second, the fact that not one reporter replied to me exemplifies a systemic problem with a lack of transparency in the journalistic process. Journalists or news outlets don’t owe every person a response who contacts them. But if you write an article and don’t provide a link to the original source material, then there is an obligation to provide it if asked.
After receiving no response, in follow up emails to the AP media officials, I asked: “Is it the AP's official position that, when asked, it refuses to supply sourcing for claims made in its reporting?” Since that query went unanswered as well, it is clear that, alas, the answer is yes.
Which dovetails with point three, which is that, in my view, important quotes or citations should always be linked or sourced. Since reporting always involves some degree of filtering and bias, readers should have the option of easily finding the original material that a journalist reports on so readers can review the source themselves if they so choose.
And, finally, newsrooms composed of dozens or hundreds of staff members, including teams of editors and foreign correspondents, and so on, backed by billion-dollar corporate owners still published a claim that was never fact-checked at its source. In contrast to these thousands of professionals, employed by these major institutions, I am a single, independent journalist. How is it that, unlike those many people, I thought to go to the source—the actual interview in Arabic—and translate it?
Citizens are expected to think that all of these news outlets operate independently from each other. And, in a sense, of course, they do. But in reality, they all seem to follow the same process, and arrive at similar narratives which, at times, are false.
Michelle Goldberg, in an opinion piece for the Times that laments the “epistemological catastrophe” of the news environment today complained that “Elon Musk acquired Twitter and turned it into the cesspool of misinformation, trolling and hysteria.” This is a drum the Times and other legacy outlets continue to bang. She then went on to say:
I went to bed on Tuesday night assuming, as many people did, that an Israeli airstrike had killed at least 500 people in Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza. That’s what the Gaza Health Ministry claimed.
Why did Goldberg and so many people assume that at least 500 people were killed in the blast, even though there is no evidence the Health Ministry ever said this? Because it was written in the New York Times and every other major media outlet. Not because it was on social media.
The difference between “killed” versus “victims” may seem negligible on some level, given that either way this was a terrible tragedy. But the point is there were consequences around the world based on reporting of more inflammatory language that no outlet provided the source for. If the legacy media expects the citizenry to trust its reporting it should start by giving evidence behind it. It’s one thing to question the veracity of statements made by officials. But it’s quite something else if the statements themselves were never made.
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