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The Intercept Exposes the New York Times’ Bias in Favor of the Israeli Narrative

Misbar's Editorial Team Misbar's Editorial Team
21st April 2024
The Intercept Exposes the New York Times’ Bias in Favor of the Israeli Narrative
The newspaper urges avoiding terms like ethnic cleansing (Getty)

On Monday, April 15, The Intercept obtained a leaked editorial policy memo from The New York Times. The memo urged its journalists to avoid using terms such as 'genocide,' 'ethnic cleansing,' 'occupied Palestinian territories,' or the word 'Palestine' when covering the Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip following Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7, 2023.

According to The Intercept, the leaked memo was authored by The New York Times standards editor, Susan Wessling, along with international standards editor, Philip Bahn, and other colleagues. They stated that it aims to "provide guidelines for the use of certain terms and assist with other challenges encountered in covering the crisis in Gaza since its inception."


New York Times Editors Object To Editorial Policies for War Coverage

The Intercept stated, "While the document is presented as an outline for maintaining objective journalistic principles in reporting on the Gaza war, several Times staffers told The Intercept that some of its contents show evidence of the paper’s deference to Israeli narratives."

One anonymous employee said, "I think it's the kind of thing that looks professional and logical if you have no knowledge of the historical context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But if you do know, it will be clear how apologetic it is to Israel."

Following the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7, sharp conflicts arose in the newspaper's war coverage editorial room. Some felt that The New York Times favored the Israeli narrative, surpassing journalistic standards in its coverage of the Gaza war.

These debates on editorial standards for war coverage occurred in a WhatsApp group managed by the Jerusalem Bureau, known as the 'Jerusalem Bureau-led WhatsApp group.' The group consists of 90 journalists and editors at the newspaper, who, as per The Intercept report, engaged in continuous arguments until international editor Philip Bahn intervened.

New York Times Editors Object To Editorial Policies for War Coverage

Bahn explicitly instructed the editors not to use the group chat to raise concerns about media coverage of the war.

One worker acknowledged the need for specific editorial standards during wartime but also highlighted discriminatory practices in covering Israeli violence.

Terms and Expressions That Should Not Be Used When Covering Israeli Aggression

The Intercept reported that these general guidelines were first shared with New York Times journalists and editors last November and were updated regularly over the following months.

The Times memo specified guidelines on a set of phrases and terms because, according to the newspaper, "The nature of the conflict has led to inflammatory language and incendiary accusations on all sides. We should be very cautious about using such language, even in quotations. Our goal is to provide clear, accurate information, and heated language can often obscure rather than clarify the fact," the memo says.

It also advises the editors, "Words like ‘slaughter,’ ‘massacre’ and ‘carnage’ often convey more emotion than information. Think hard before using them in our own voice"

As for its part, The Intercept says that although the memo appears to be an attempt to restrict the use of inflammatory language to describe killings "on all sides," this language has been repeatedly used in The New York Times' reporting on the Gaza war to describe attacks launched by Palestinians against Israelis. It was most likely not used in cases of Israel's widespread killing of Palestinians.

The organization goes on to cite a previous report published in January at the beginning of this year, before the new editorial guidelines appeared, in which it showed that major newspapers used terms such as "massacre," "slaughter," and "horrific" almost exclusively to describe Israelis who were killed by Palestinians, not to describe Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks. The report found that, as of November 24, the New York Times described the killing of Israelis as a "massacre" on 53 occasions, while it described the killing of Palestinians as a massacre only once.

The Memo Urges the Use of the Term “Terrorists” To Describe October 7 Operation

The leaked memo said: “It is accurate to use ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ in describing the attacks of Oct. 7, which included the deliberate targeting of civilians in killings and kidnappings,” according to the leaked Times memo. “We should not shy away from that description of the events or the attackers, particularly when we provide context and explanation.”

The guidance also urge journalists to “avoid using the word ‘fighters’ when referring to the Oct. 7 attack; the term suggests a conventional war rather than a deliberate attack on civilians. And be cautious in using ‘militants,’ which is interpreted in different ways and may be confusing to readers.”

“We do not need to assign a single label or to refer to the Oct. 7 assault as a ‘terrorist attack’ in every reference; the word is best used when specifically describing attacks on civilians,” the memo told New York Times journalists. “We should exercise restraint and can vary the language with other accurate terms and descriptions: an attack, an assault, an incursion, the deadliest attack on Israel in decades, etc. Similarly, in addition to ‘terrorists,’ we can vary the terms used to describe the Hamas members who carried out the assault: attackers, assailants, gunmen.

The Intercept says the newspaper does not characterize Israel's repeated attacks on Palestinian civilians as "terrorism," even when civilians have been targeted. This is also true of Israel’s assaults on protected civilian sites, including hospitals.

In a section titled “Genocide and Other Incendiary Language,” it is stated that “Genocide” has a specific definition in international law and should only be used in the context of those legal parameters.

Regarding the term “ethnic cleansing,” the document calls it “another historically charged term,” instructing reporters: “If someone is making such an accusation, we should press for specifics or supply proper context.”

The New York Times Instructs Reporters Not To Use the Word Palestine “Except in Very Rare Cases”

According to the report, the guidelines followed by The Times contradict standards set by the United Nations and international humanitarian law in cases concerning "occupied territory" and "the status of refugee in Gaza."

Regarding the term "Palestine," which is commonly used for both the territory and the state recognized by the United Nations, the memo contains blunt instructions that it "not be used in datelines, routine text or headlines, except in very rare cases such as when the United Nations General Assembly elevated Palestine as a nonmember observer state, or references to historic Palestine." The New York Times guidelines align with those of the Associated Press.

The memo also instructs journalists not to use the term "refugee camps" in Gaza, stating, "While termed refugee camps, the refugee centers in Gaza are developed and densely populated neighborhoods dating to the 1948 war. Refer to them as neighborhoods, or areas, and if further context is necessary, explain how they have historically been called refugee camps."

It is worth noting that the United Nations recognizes eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, and until last year, before the war began, these areas contained more than 600,000 registered refugees, many of whom are descendants of those who fled to Gaza after being forcibly expelled from their homes in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

The Intercept adds that the Israeli government has long been hostile to the historical truth that recognizes the status of Palestinians as refugees because it implies that they were displaced from lands to which they have the right to return.

It concludes that the instructions contained in the memo regarding the use of the term "occupied territories" state: "When possible, avoid the term and be specific (e.g., Gaza, West Bank, etc.) as each has a slightly different status."

The United Nations, along with many countries in the world, consider Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian lands, seized by Israel.

A Times staffer said that the warning against using the term "occupied territories" obscures the reality of the conflict, feeding into the U.S. and Israeli insistence that the conflict began on October 7.

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