Iterations, Bias, Context

08/07/2015

I’m a news junkie. It’s a legit issue, I should go to meetings (“Hello, my name is Nick…”), but I don’t have time because I have news to read. One of the ways I cope with the deluge of news/indulge my compulsion is to make liberal use of the function in the NYT‘s app that allows you to save stories for later. Then when I’m on the train, or killing time before a movie or whatever, I bang through some articles and pretend I’m making progress. Which is how a few days ago I found myself reading an article in the app titled “Palestinian Teenager is Fatally Shot While Protesting Deadly Arson Attack”. This was Diaa Hadid’s well-reported account of the death of Laith al-Khaldi (17), shot by the IDF during a protest over the death of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh, burned to death during the aforementioned arson. Toward the end of the piece there were a few links I wanted to take a look at, but for some reason or other I didn’t want to do so on my phone. So when I got home, I cracked my laptop, punched the title into my search engine, and hit the link.

And discovered the story had disappeared.

What appears in its place is more or less an entirely different article, sans those links: “Censure and Clashes After West Bank Attack“. This takes a wider look at the protests that followed the arson; the account of Laith al-Khaldi’s death has been reduced to a few sentences toward the end. Even when I email the earlier version to myself from the app, or tinker with search terms, all roads seem to lead there.

Reports get updated to keep up with the churning of the news cycle, headlines get rewritten. It happens, though in my experience sifting through Google it’s rare for a version of the story so different from an earlier one to so completely efface any trace of it. What’s striking is what got lost. Here are the grafs with those links from the earlier iteration:

On Friday, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian teenager in Gaza who appeared to have been trying to scale a fence into Israel. Last Monday, a Palestinian youth died after he was shot while trying to evade arrest by running across rooftops in the crowded refugee camp where he lived.

Earlier in July, Israeli forces killed a 53-year-old Palestinian man, Falah Abu Marya, who was shot in the chest as he threw objects at soldiers who were trying to arrest his son. The day before, Israeli military forces shot and killed a 20-year-old Palestinian during a raid in Burqin, a farming town in the northern West Bank. A military spokeswoman said Israeli forces had opened fire after Palestinians ignored an order to stop throwing rocks at them.

The reflexive critique from the Left would be that purging this material is just one more example of bias on the part of the Times. I’m not convinced. I’m fairly sure Hadid is Palestinian, it’s not as if they didn’t publish the original story, and the links it contained are all to other similarly horrifying NYT stories (“shot in the chest as he threw objects at soldiers from his first-floor balcony”). For that matter, while the new iteration of the story includes quotes from Reuven Rivlin and David Horovitz, it also quotes a Palestinian resident of Duma (where the arson attack took place) and Ghassan Khatib, achieving a strictly mathematical sense of balance. If (if) there was bias at work here it played out somewhere in the editorial hierarchy, as the story was whittled down and reshaped. Seems more likely that this was a matter of tightening up a story the focus of which had slowly shifted. It’s a shame, and I wonder where the NYT draws the line when updating its reporting (if they even have guidelines or a policy on the matter) and determines ‘this is now a new story.’

What’s lost is invaluable context, of the sort daily news reporting in general and the NYT in particular is often accused of failing to provide. Those two grafs really echo the steady drumbeat of violence, of killings, which the Palestinians suffer on a regular basis (and which precede the murder of Ali Dawabsheh). Laith al-Khaldi’s death looks less like an isolated incident at a particularly tense moment, and more like par for the disastrous course.

 

The original NYT story, via way too many overlapping screenshots from my phone:

NYT al Khaldi 1 NYT al Khaldi 2 NYT al Khaldi 3 NYT al Khaldi 4 NYT al Khaldi 5 NYT al Khaldi 6 NYT al Khaldi 7