The New York Times this week published an egregious, irresponsible and unsubstantiated report that demands a response.
In an article titled “Gaza Civilians, Under Israeli Barrage, Are Being Killed at Historic Pace,” the Times reported that more civilians have died in Palestine since Oct. 7 than have died in Ukraine after two years of brutal war against Russia.
This is an astonishing claim that requires hard evidence and corroboration.
Yet the Times provides neither. The Gray Lady, which recently re-hired a known Hitler sympathizer to cover events in Israel, simply took the word of Hamas-run organizations and dressed it up with nifty infographics.
“While wartime death tolls will never be exact, experts say that even a conservative reading of the casualty figures reported from Gaza show that the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century,” the Times reports.
It adds, “People are being killed in Gaza more quickly, they say, than in even the deadliest moments of U.S.-led attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which were themselves widely criticized by human rights groups.”
What hard evidence is there to back such a terrible allegation? None, it turns out.
The Times report relied entirely on the word of “Gazan officials” — in other words, Hamas. Hamas exercises total control of Gaza, including the organization tasked with gathering data on civilian casualties. We are owed something more substantial than the say-so of a terrorist group known for releasing wild propaganda, but that “something” never comes.
Amazingly, it gets worse from there, worse even than the Times parroting Hamas-run groups. The Times actually attempted to trick readers into believing the civilian death toll has been independently verified.
“Women and children account for nearly 70 percent of all deaths reported in Gaza even though most combatants are men,” the Times reported, citing a Nov. 22 United Nations press release. The press release itself cites Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women Sima Sami Bahous, who claims that 67 percent of the more than 14,000 people killed in Gaza since Oct. 7 are estimated to be women and children.
Elsewhere, the Times reports that “More than twice as many women and children have already been reported killed in Gaza than in Ukraine after almost two years of Russian attacks, according to United Nations estimates.”
Note that last phrase.
The Times then attempts to drive home the point by quoting the regional emergency director for the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean office, who characterizes the alleged Gaza death toll as an “extraordinary statistic.”
But the problem with the Times’s sourcing of “UN estimates” is that all the numbers come from Hamas.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs keeps a running tally on the number of Israelis and Palestinians killed since Oct. 7. But the most relevant detail about this tally, which is right there on the UN group’s webpage, is an unassuming footnote, which reads: “Disclaimer: The UN has so far not been able to produce independent, comprehensive, and verified casualty figures; the current numbers have been provided by the Government Media Office in Gaza and the Israeli authorities and await further verification. Other yet-to-be verified figures are also sourced.”
The “officials” in Gaza are all Hamas, all the way down. So in other words, no one has corroborated or verified any of the Hamas numbers coming out of Gaza.
Yet the Times actually went out of its way to launder these Hamas numbers in order to make it appear that U.N. and related experts have independently verified Hamas propaganda about civilian causalities.
It’s dishonest. It’s immoral. It’s bad journalism.
“[E]xperts say that even a conservative reading of the casualty figures reported from Gaza show that the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century,” the Times reported, adding that “conflict-casualty experts have been taken aback at just how many people have been reported killed in Gaza — most of them women and children — and how rapidly.”
The Times concedes that “recording the dead in Gaza has become increasingly difficult in the chaos of the fighting, as hospitals come under direct fire, much of the health system ceases to function and other government officials have begun updating the number of killed instead of the ministry.”
Yet it adds, “even before those changes, the number of women and children reported dead already outpaced other conflicts.”
The number reported…by whom, exactly?
All claims must be corroborated. This is basic journalism. And if ever a claim required corroboration, surely this is it. The very idea that more Palestinians have died in mere weeks than have died in nearly two years of war in Ukraine would demand a thorough vetting, even if it didn’t come straight from Hamas.
Leaving the matter to the say-so of a compromised source is not remotely acceptable. Leaving it to the say-so of a compromised source with an exceptionally long track record of lies and propaganda, and then attempting to underpin that say-so with circular citations, is clearly not an honest mistake.
A more serious and honest treatment would have asked several basic questions before publishing, including, “Has anyone corroborated these Hamas-provided figures?” And having found that the answer is “no,” a more serious newsroom would have held back on the story, or at the very least avoided the “historic” claims.
Other simple questions that any journalism student would know to ask include:
- Of the reported casualties, how many are civilians and how many are combatants? The Hamas-run organizations that provide the death toll do not even pretend to differentiate between civilians and combatants. (The Times even concedes this.)
- Considering Hamas’s history of manipulating information, can we trust its figures without independent verification? Why?
- Has any third party even attempted to corroborate the existence of 14,000 dead civilians? Do they have identities? Have bodies been collected and tallied?
- What do Gaza search-and-rescue procedures look like?
- How many of the reported deaths are attributed to failed rocket launches and other “friendly” fire incidents, such as the one for which the Times and others falsely blamed Israel at the beginning of this conflict?
That the Times apparently didn’t ask these questions is inexcusable. That it believed the story was good enough to publish even without conclusive, verifiable answers to these questions is indefensible.
The astonishing thing here is that the war in Gaza is terrible on its own merits. The destruction and chaos are grievous, the loss of innocent life and the suffering of children a tragedy. There’s no need to dramatize or fabricate the reality of the war, and there’s certainly no need to publish flimsy and unsubstantiated claims. There’s plenty of authentic sorrow to go around. And that’s part of what makes the Times report so loathsome. It didn’t need to do this; it wanted to. At its core, this type of reporting is shameful opportunism, one that leverages human suffering for maximum dramatic impact.
The death of Palestinian civilians is tragic, yes. But more dead civilians than even in the war in Ukraine?
Now that’s a New York Times headline, baby.
Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.
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Author: Becket Adams, Opinion Contributor