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The ups and downs of writing about Palestine and Israel… from North America

Following the latest Israeli-Palestinian crisis, journalism ethics professor David Swick offers advice to journalists ready to take on the challenge of covering a topic that regularly engenders passionate disagreement and charges of biased reporting

By David Swick

The greatest surprise, for many journalists visiting Israel for the first time, is the feistiness of its news media. Commentators and columnists offer praise and criticism of government that is vigorous, severe and loud.

Lavish praise is not totally surprising. But the quality of the criticism – impassioned, well-researched and harsh – is a revelation. Israeli journalists and citizens enjoy a wide-ranging conversation on serious issues affecting the state and its people, including the always lingering question of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

This, of course, is how it should be in a democracy, in any country where the media is not under the thumb of government. Still, the range of meaningful reportage and opinion comes as a shock. Journalists inside Israel are having a much more full and rich conversation about Israel than journalists in Canada, the U.S., and perhaps other countries.

It's not that Canadian and U.S. journalists lack the ability to understand the complexities of this political hotspot. The problem is that, with some rare exceptions, they operate inside a continental news culture that has evolved to regard in-depth reporting on Israel to be a no-win situation.

The widespread Christian belief that Israel is owed support because it is "the Holy Land". The U.S. (and, now, Canadian) government offering Israel unstinting support. The enormous power of the Israeli lobby. These have had an accumulative effect.

If you are considering moving outside your comfort zone and writing about the Middle East: good. Your readers, viewers and listeners need quality information – otherwise they will be left confused, and confusion can lead to despair. You do, however, need to understand what you are getting into. Here are a few guidelines.

1) Work hard to discover your own biases and fears, and to move beyond them. This should be standard practice for doing ethical journalism, but bears worth repeating.

Reporters who believe that women or blacks or conservatives are blatantly or even vaguely inferior are going to do a damn poor job of reporting on women, blacks and conservatives.

Similarly, if you think of Jews or Muslims, Palestinians or Israelis as "other", as in some ways not quite "normal", this bias will make your work incomplete, insensitive and unfair.

2) Educate yourself. Know that issues are complex and there are no easy answers. Start with a what-if-I-were-in-their-shoes consideration of what it is like for Israelis to live in one of the world's toughest and least stable neighbourhoods. Then do the same from the perspective of Palestinians struggling with the hardships of living in occupied territory for 45 years.

Search for context. Read former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's autobiography White Nights and Edward Said's The Question of Palestine. Then move on to Robert Fisk and Benny Morris. Be sure, too, to follow the robust offerings of the Israeli daily media and Al Jazeera. Stop thinking you know what's what and start learning.

3) Expect to be attacked. No matter what you report or how thoughtful and well-researched your work, be ready to be denounced and vilified. You are an anti-Semite. You are responsible for killing Palestinian children. Don't be surprised if calls are made for you to be fired, or shunted into silence.

Ten years ago I was writing a page two column for the Halifax Daily News, owned by the then-Canadian media conglomerate Canwest Global. Usually I wrote on local issues; some days the focus was national. Less often the column addressed the international arena, including what still read to me as thoughtful appraisals of Israeli and Palestinian positions of that time.

One day the editor called me in to announce that the head office, 4,000 kilometres away, was forbidding me to write on the Middle East. The problem: I was not considered to be "adamantly pro-Israel." That the employer thought this part of my job description came as a surprise.

This was a blatant clampdown; usually there is more subtlety. The most insidious attack on journalistic freedom in Western countries comes from journalists censoring themselves, in support of what they think the owner wants. It's unlikely that Rupert Murdoch told all of his 247 newspaper editors to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, yet they did.

4) Be brave. As the world grows more complex, the need for solid, deep, contextual journalism increases. You can create this kind of journalism only if you take courage. That Canadian and American media rarely offer the range of discussion Israelis enjoy every day speaks poorly of the home of the brave and the land of the maple leaf.

Yet know that history and your audience are on the side of a fuller, more open discussion. The current fracturing of traditional media, while causing pain to some excellent journalists, also holds out promise for an improved news media that is more democratic, truthful and bold.

David Swick is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Canada.

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