The audience has a lot to say about coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. We're listening
We are almost a month into the horrific and deadly escalation in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and the public editor inbox is overflowing with audience criticisms. More than 100 notes a week are coming in.
Among the themes:
Out of 130 selected notes that came into the public editor's inbox between Oct. 8 and Oct. 25, just over 60% directly accused NPR of an anti-Israeli bias. Roughly 24% accused NPR of being biased against Palestinians. And 15% offered a critique without leveling a charge of bias.
(I chose the notes for their specificity. The writers were clearly NPR listeners or readers. They cited specific stories, interviews or shows. I did not include in the analysis letters that generically attacked all news media, were making moral arguments about the war but not the journalism, or assigned blame to NPR for mistakes not made.)
I've read every note that has come in, as well as criticism on social media. I've listened to or read more than 115 NPR stories. In my view, the newsroom has done a commendable job. NPR's journalists have told exclusive stories from Israel and from Gaza. In an environment that is heated and complex, they have avoided significant errors.
Here are just a few of the powerful stories NPR has reported:
This recent story details atrocities of the Hamas attackers, revealed in videos and audio recovered and released by the Israeli military, including one recording of a man calling his mom back in Gaza to brag about how many Jews he killed.
This photo story documented the aftermath of the Hamas attack on an Israeli town.
In Gaza, a story about a baby born to a critically injured mother gave insight into the civilian toll of the airstrikes.
This account of the desperate and deteriorating conditions in Gaza, as the Israeli ground assault began, gave listeners a window into the widespread nature of the suffering.
And this firsthand report from an NPR journalist trying to stay alive over the weekend showed us that no one in Gaza is spared.
One trouble spot in the coverage was the removal of the Oct. 16 episode of On Point, a daily conversation show produced by WBUR in Boston. The show is no longer distributed by NPR, but it runs on many local member stations, who reported receiving audience complaints after a professor made false statements during a live show suggesting that Hamas did not kill women and children on Oct. 7. While the show's host refuted this assertion, the leadership of WBUR opted to take the episode out of circulation, rather than allow the misstatements to stand.
Because the show was removed soon after it was aired live, it didn't attract many critics to our inbox.
Journalists covering the conflict between Israel and Hamas are keenly aware of the polarizing nature of their work. They know that small mistakes and omissions will be perceived by some as evidence of bias.
"We work hard to try to get the perspectives from all sides of this conflict and chase down and confirm as many details as we can. We are honest about what we can't confirm, cautious about what we report in those situations, and are transparent about where we're getting our information," NPR's chief international editor Didi Schanche told me. "We've done extensive coverage of the Hamas attack on Israelis and continue to seek the views of victims and their relatives and report on the continuing impact of that deadly assault and hostage-taking. We also work hard to get as many voices from inside Gaza as we can."
Still, some listeners on both sides of the divide suspect that the media in general, NPR in particular, has an agenda. When journalists try to zoom in on individual suffering, they are accused of being too empathetic to one side or the other. So deep and predictable is this reaction that, for 11 years, NPR asked one veteran journalist, John Felton, to analyze NPR's Israeli-Palestinian reporting. Felton studied NPR stories on the conflict and issued quarterly reports that assessed the quality and fairness of public radio coverage.
Felton's last report — 23 pages in length — came in 2014, when the region was relatively calm and the audience was relatively quiet. His general conclusion: "I have seen no systematic bias over the years in NPR's coverage in favor of one side versus the other. U.S.-based pressure groups and other critics frequently allege that NPR is 'anti' or 'pro' Israel or 'anti' or 'pro' the Palestinians," he wrote.
I spoke to Felton to gain some insights about today's situation and his experience watching the story a decade ago.
Now retired, he reiterated something else he wrote in his last report. "It's necessary to listen to the critics, even when they are spewing venom," he said. "On some level, on some details, they might have a valid point."
As we compared notes, we agreed that little has changed about the basic audience outcry. Like my inbox of late, when Felton was doing his quarterly analysis, most of the complaints accused NPR of a bias against Israel specifically or against Jewish people more broadly.
But it was not unusual to also hear from Palestinian supporters who felt that NPR and most other American media were overtly supporting Israel. "The pro-Israel voice is much louder in this country, which is pretty obvious, and I think that's indisputable," Felton told me. "And so that's the squeaky wheel that gets the attention."
The most common criticism back then, like today, was about word choice. Felton saw many of the same arguments over language that I see, including why NPR refused to call Hamas fighters "terrorists." After all, the U.S. State Department designates Hamas a terrorist organization.
Those questions remain persistent.
On Oct. 24, Seth Korelitz wrote: ... What definition of 'terrorist' does Hamas not fit? I would love to learn NPR's current position on this topic.
On Oct. 17, Brandon Gavin encouraged NPR to reflect more nuance about Hamas and be more critical of Israel. His edited comment: You guys seem dedicated to pro Israeli propaganda. How is it ethical to portray ... Hamas as a strictly terrorist organization? Why don't you cover Israeli war crimes?
News organizations have historically left it to governments and politicians to label terrorists and steered away from using the designation outside of direct or indirect quotes. Governments often label their enemies as terrorists. Perhaps most famously, that was what the U.S. and South Africa called Nelson Mandela.
"Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It's simply not the BBC's job to tell people who to support and who to condemn — who are the good guys and who are the bad guys," he said. "Our business is to present our audience with the facts, and let them make up their own minds. As it happens, of course, many of the people who've attacked us for not using the word terrorist have seen our pictures, heard our audio or read our stories, and made up their minds on the basis of our reporting, so it's not as though we're hiding the truth in any way — far from it."
Disputed labels like "terrorist" rarely bring clarity to the public's understanding of the news, NPR standards editor Tony Cavin told me.
"NPR's coverage describes the actions of Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, in ways that make the horror of their attacks on Israel clear to anyone listening or reading," he said. "We use words like 'militants' or 'gunmen' or 'fighters' because no one can dispute them. ... We also tell the audience the U.S. government has labeled Hamas a terrorist group."
Looking at the whole body of work
Rather than litigate individual stories and indict or defend the public radio newsroom over specific offenses, Felton's content analysis provided NPR with broader feedback.
Every quarter he would analyze the body of work as a whole, assessing how many stories reflected primarily an Israeli point of view and how many reflected primarily a Palestinian point of view.
NPR continues to produce those types of stories. Scott Simon's Weekend Edition Saturday interview with the family of a hostage would be categorized as primarily from an Israeli point of view. And Mary Louise Kelly's All Things Considered interview with a doctor in Gaza would be categorized as primarily from a Palestinian point of view.
These stories that offer a close perspective are only a small portion of the overall body of NPR's work, but they elicit a lot of audience reaction.
According to Felton's last report, NPR ran 4,052 stories about the conflict over his decade-plus of analysis, from 2003 to 2013.
Felton concluded that there was no systemic bias present at NPR on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, he detected two other shortcomings in the coverage over the years and he urged NPR to remedy them. First, he suggested that NPR had not devoted enough resources to documenting the oppressive conditions in Gaza and the West Bank and Israel's role in creating those conditions. NPR has made some efforts in that direction. As the situation heated up, before Oct. 7, NPR was publishing monthly stories about the conflict, including documenting the impact of other Israeli military action, as well as telling the story of one Palestinian family still grappling with the impact of the creation of Israel in 1948.
Second, as a close observer of the conflict, Felton believed that NPR often avoided quoting the extreme views in the conversation, possibly because their beliefs were so hateful. Hamas has been clear about its intention to annihilate Israel. And Israel's increasingly powerful theocratic and autocratic politicians employed both rhetoric and policies designed to encourage the erasure of Palestinians.
"Those extremes of rhetoric actually drive policy on a day-to-day basis," he said. "And if you're not quoting those extremes of rhetoric or trying to explain why people are saying these sorts of things, then you're not telling the full story."
Today, NPR seems more inclined to quote such rhetoric. On Oct. 9, an All Things Considered story quoted Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant saying, "We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly." Several letter writers took offense at the inclusion of the quote and the failure to challenge the statement.
This recent story about the communications blackout in Gaza ends with a quote from Hamas accusing Israel of an "intention to commit more massacres and genocides away from the eyes of the press and the world."
Schanche, the chief international editor, told me in an email that reporters are still very careful about language intended to inflame the debate. "Like with any conflict, we don't want to amplify extreme rhetoric," she said. "But we do quote leading figures who use that kind of language, when relevant to the coverage."
Using Felton's method, I did a quick analysis of 115 stories that were aired on NPR or published online between Oct. 7 and 30. (This sample includes only stories and podcasts that were tagged to NPR's Middle East topic page.)
Based on the number of stories, the language and the story frames, I can detect no bias, overt or unconscious. The slight tilt toward the Palestinian perspective can be explained by the ongoing and worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza. I expect that will continue.
Still, many of the letter writers who accuse NPR of a slant do so because they've just read or heard a story that involved a single perspective. Here's a sample of audience letters, edited for length and clarity:
Dorit Ben Ami wrote on Oct. 20: I wonder how come Michel Martin, Mary Louise Kelly and others on NPR news programs (also All Things Considered) interview so many people who support the Gaza people, from the US or from within Gaza. They interview very few Israeli victims whose loved ones have been killed, burnt, raped and kidnapped in their homes in Israel on October 7. ... Your newscasters express sympathy to the interviewee and their families in Gaza, and you never ask them what are their thoughts about ... Hamas. ... I don't understand how you create a "balance" between the aggressor and the victim.
On Oct. 10, Norman Axelman wrote: I have listened to WLRN for many years and have long thought that it is by far the very best radio news source available to me. ... Until around 5:30 last night, listening to a segment done by Mary Louise Kelly ... interviewing a Palestinian hospital doctor. A segment that was 100%, completely and wholly dedicated to describing the affliction to the residents of Gaza. A segment which somehow ... failed to include even one half of one percent of the affliction to victims on the Israeli side. ... Mary Louise dedicated 100% of the story to cover only afflictions to Gaza residents.
Fewer critiques come from those who support Palestinians. Merrit Stueven emailed on Oct. 10: I am writing with deep concern about this morning's episode of Up First, which fails to meet NPR's standards of fairness and completeness in coverage. The episode begins with the question "How much is this war targeting civilians?" Having condemned attacks on civilians by Hamas, a few minutes later, an Israeli minister is quoted saying that the world must accept that civilians will be killed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. How is this fair reporting? Why are civilians fair game when they live in Gaza? ... If this episode is trying to center harm to civilians, it is doing so in a one-sided manner that places higher value on Israeli lives than on Palestinian lives.
Response to the letter writers
One story is never the whole story. One podcast episode is never the whole story. One interview is never the whole story. Some days, one show will not contain the whole story. Completeness comes over time.
With so much pain and suffering on both sides, it's critical that reporters delve deep into those stories, surfacing the experience of the source on the ground. In some cases, it's a disservice to the audience to include balance for the sake of balance. One reporter cannot achieve absolute fairness in the span of a single story. Instead, it's much more important to ensure that a newsroom's entire body of work is balanced and complete.
When I described the letters I received to Felton, he said they sounded almost identical in tone and tenor to those he read years ago, both when the conflict was intense, and when it was calmer. These notes to the newsroom inevitably mirror the public discourse.
"There's a lot of: If this, then that. If I'm quoting a Palestinian who's living in Gaza and fearing for her family's safety, then I am against Israel," Felton said. "Or because I'm quoting an Israeli ... I must be anti-Palestinian."
Often when people make an accusation of bias, what they mean is that because they don't see their point of view in a story, they assume the reporter or the news organization is against it.
In Felton's words, "What the advocates really are complaining about is that NPR is not biased in their favor. In effect, they want NPR to produce one-sided reporting that supports their positions and discredits the other side."
No matter how much pressure NPR gets, that's not going to happen. But we will keep reading every note that comes. The audience critiques are valuable feedback. They remind the journalists to be thoughtful as they frame every story, as they select every source, as they utter every word. The collective nature of those individual decisions creates the fullest picture possible and documents how that picture changes every day.
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