Coverage of Israel, Lebanon strives to maintain balance


The Sun's Middle East bureau chief, John Murphy, has covered wars and conflicts in some of the world's most violent places - Iraq, eastern Congo and Darfur. Now in his second tour of duty overseas for the newspaper - he was in Johannesburg for five years - Murphy is based in Jerusalem. In the past 10 days he has filed numerous stories from the scenes of the intense, deadly battles between Israel and Hezbollah militants based in Lebanon.

Murphy has spent much of the last week in northern Israel, which has been under fire from Hezbollah. He has reported from Hanita, Nahariya, Haifa and Tiberias, and from Jerusalem. (The Sun also has published a number of other stories from Israel and Lebanon written by Tribune Co. foreign correspondents.)

Murphy has written a number of articles from the "ground" - stories that describe how people cope with the violence and how it affects their lives. The reporter recounted this scenario: "Last week I sat in a backyard of a husband and wife in Hanita, a kibbutz just feet away from the Lebanese border while Hezbollah fighters fired off mortars and rockets and Israel answered with artillery rounds. While the ground shook beneath our feet, the couple didn't appear rattled. They served coffee, cake and ice cream and told me they had no regrets about moving to this volatile region 40 years ago."

Deciding what to cover and write about every day has been a challenge for Murphy and The Sun's foreign editor, Robert Ruby. Without a second Sun reporter in Lebanon, they must decide whether Murphy should write a news story encompassing all the day's events or focus tightly on a piece of the larger story inside Israel.

Most often Murphy and Ruby have chosen the latter. Murphy also wrote an analysis about how Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's response to Hezbollah's initial actions marked a major change in strategy. After more than a week of conflict, polls show that Israelis overwhelmingly support the government's decision to go war against Hezbollah.

His goal, Murphy said, is to give Sun readers articles they are unlikely to read anywhere else. His job is not easy. As he travels through the region he must keep a clear head because things can blur amid so much destruction.

"Last week I visited an apartment building in Nahariya to see where a rocket had struck, killing an Israeli woman while she was drinking her morning coffee," Murphy said. "Walking up the stairs to her apartment, I had a flashback to Gaza City where earlier this month I went up a stairwell to see where Israeli missiles had hit the Palestinian minister of the interior's office. I had to remind myself that I was now in Nahariya, what I was seeing and who was responsible for this tragedy. All destruction begins to look the same, I realized, no matter what side of the border you are on."

Murphy aims to see both sides of the situation. For many readers, however, coverage of the Middle East conflict elicits highly partisan and very emotional reactions.

The Sun's July 13 front-page story had this main headline: "Israel pushes into Lebanon." The sub-headline said: "Retaliation follows kidnapping of two soldiers; eight soldiers killed." Reader Bess Krivitsky criticized the headline as biased against Israel. "It is an outrage that The Sun emphasized that the Israelis crossed the border. Hezbollah was responsible for provoking it but that got minor mention."

In contrast, reader Albert Cummings said that The Sun's July 16 front-page story with the headline "Rockets kill eight in Haifa" was biased toward Israel. "How can you make that the lead element about the deaths in Haifa when Israeli airstrikes the same day killed 45 people in Lebanon? This decision reflects The Sun's continued slant toward Israel."

Other readers have complained of specific word usage that they claim reflects bias in favor of one side or the other.

This includes the use or absence of the words militant, insurgent or terrorist; describing those "killed" or those who "died"; and whether the number of children killed is included in a story. Editors strive for consistency in word usage and precision in headline writing but reader criticism - legitimate and unfounded - will certainly continue.

There are instances where the newspaper's coverage really resonates with readers. Thomas Evianiak was especially impressed by stories by The Sun's Murphy and Los Angeles Times reporter Kim Murphy in the July 11 edition. "I think The Sun is doing an excellent job explaining the events in the Middle East and the world. The stories by those two reporters really complemented each other well. Please keep it up."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad