By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A New York Times ‘Editor’s Note’ says it fell short on the Gazan hospital story

Photo (cc) 2011 by Tomas Roggero

The New York Times has published an “Editor’s Note” acknowledging that it shouldn’t have based its initial reports on an explosion at a Gazan hospital solely on the word of the terrorist group Hamas.

As I wrote last week, the Times’ initial coverage on its website and on the social network Threads took Hamas’ claims at face value in reporting that the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City had been struck by an Israeli rocket last Tuesday and that as many as 500 civilians had been killed. Nor was the Times alone in reporting those unverified claims. It later emerged that the evidence suggested the explosion was caused by a botched missile launch by Islamic Jihad, a Hamas ally; that the death toll may have been much lower than 500; and that the hospital was not extensively damaged, as the explosion took place in a parking lot next to the hospital. Here’s the heart of the Times’ Editor’s Note:

Given the sensitive nature of the news during a widening conflict, and the prominent promotion it received, Times editors should have taken more care with the initial presentation, and been more explicit about what information could be verified.

The incident set off anti-Israeli protests across the Middle East, in Europe and in the U.S. Of course, we can’t know what the effect would have been had the media shown more initial caution. But surely the early coverage helped establish the narrative that Israel had committed a war crime, helping to turn the tide of public sympathy against Israel just a little more than week after the country had suffered from a horrendous terrorist attack at the hands of Hamas, with some 1,400 people killed and more than 200 taken hostage.

The Times also has a follow-up story today on what we know about the hospital explosion. It begins:

Six days after Hamas accused Israel of bombing a hospital in Gaza City and killing hundreds of people, the armed Palestinian group has yet to produce or describe any evidence linking Israel to the strike, says it cannot find the munition that hit the site and has declined to provide detail to support its count of the casualties.

That’s the sort of journalistic skepticism that should have been present right from the start. I thought Ben Smith’s comment in Semafor’s Sunday night media newsletter was right on point. He wrote:

I’ve never been more relieved to be late on a story than on the explosion at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, where our small breaking news team took a long pause before publishing even a carefully-hedged attempt to describe what happened and what Hamas and the Israeli government had said about it.

[F]ew … analysts are claiming to be absolutely sure what happened in Gaza five days ago. Most seem to have reached the consensus that it wasn’t the result of a direct Israeli strike, and many think it could have been a stray rocket fired from Gaza, but few are sure.

What’s left is a demand for patience. While reporters and analysts compare photographic evidence, heads of state make decisions and protesters protest.

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  1. Jay Griffin

    The first casualty of war is the truth.

  2. Richard Utt

    They should have made their correction a front page story, just like their original story.
    This simply buries it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      The original story and the Editor’s Note were both prominently displayed on the homepage. That first, false version of the story never found its way into print.


    “Some have attempted to defend the legacy media with messages along the lines of, “It’s hard to get it right when the story moves so quickly,” but this kind of media disaster goes far beyond sloppy and ignorant. Reuters, the LA Times and the BBC have a combined four centuries of newsgathering experience. This isn’t their first time covering an active war zone. There are rules for these types of things. They knew those rules, but they ignored them, probably to publish claims that confirmed their own biases.

    But this type of bias, for this specific region and with these specific players, is especially dangerous — far more dangerous than the type of bias with which most American readers are familiar. These editors are going to get people killed. Actually, they probably already have.”

  4. Bob Gardner

    It’s telling that the U.S. has rejected any kind of International investigation of the hospital attack.

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