The Case of Reuters

A news agency that will not call a terrorist a terrorist

By Tom Gross
July 26, 2004

http://www.nationalreview.com/issue/gross200407120846.asp


Reuters founder Julius Reuter
Julius Reuter

INTRODUCTORY NOTE

After Agence France Presse (AFP), Reuters is the world’s oldest international news agency – which is one reason why it retains rather an august reputation.

The article below deals primarily with Reuters’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and formed part of the National Review’s special media issue in July 2004. It has also appeared on various websites, including National Review Online. (The National Review is, with The Nation, one of America’s two highest-circulation opinion magazines. National Review Online is, with Slate, one of America’s two most widely-read opinion websites.)

I was not as critical about Reuters’ approach to the Arab world as others have been. One commentator, for example, maintains that Reuters is so sympathetic to Islamic militants that it should be renamed “Al Reuters” after “Al Jazeera” and other Arab news media.

Nevertheless my article provoked a lengthy response from David Schlesinger, “Global Managing Editor, Head of Editorial Operations, Reuters,” which even in an edited form took up most of the letters page of a subsequent edition of The National Review.

After the article below, I attach Mr. Schlesinger’s letter in its published, edited form, together with my response in the National Review (or as much as I could give in the space I was allotted), and an article that appeared a few days later in the New York Times business section on Mr. Schlesinger and Reuters.

“The Case of Reuters” was discussed at length behind closed doors both in Reuters’ Jerusalem bureau and in the London office that oversees that bureau, and since it was published, whatever Mr. Schlesinger’s protestations, Reuters coverage of Israel has become a little more balanced (at least for the time being).

Nevertheless Israel is still often given a rough ride by Reuters.

It is ironic, incidentally, that the Jewish state should bear the brunt of Reuters’ bias, given that the original founder of the agency, Paul Julius Reuter, was the son of a rabbi.

-- Tom Gross

THE ARTICLE: THE CASE OF REUTERS

Reuters was the first in Europe to report
news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination

MANY people still think of Reuters as the Rolls-Royce of news agencies. Just as the House of Morgan was once synonymous with good banking, Reuters has long been synonymous with good news-gathering. In 1940, there was even a Hollywood film about Paul Julius Reuter, the German-Jewish immigrant to London who as early as 1851 began transmitting stock-market quotes between London and Paris via the new Calais-Dover cable. (Two years earlier he had ingeniously used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels.)

His agency quickly established a reputation in Europe for being the first to report scoops from abroad, such as news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Today, almost every major news outlet in the world subscribes. Operating in 200 cities in 94 countries, Reuters produces text in 19 languages, as well as photos and television footage from around the world.

Though it may report in a largely neutral way on many issues, Reuters’s coverage of the Middle East is deeply flawed. It is symptomatic, for instance, that Reuters’s global head of news, Stephen Jukes, banned the use of the word “terrorist” to describe the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. Even so, such is the aura still surrounding Reuters that news editors from Los Angeles to Auckland automatically assume that text, photos, and film footage provided by Reuters will be fair and objective. Reuters and Associated Press copy is simply inserted into many correspondents’ reports – even in papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post – without, it often seems, so much as a second thought given to its accuracy.

This has led to some misleading reporting from Iraq, and still worse coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newswires are much more influential in setting the news (and hence diplomatic) agenda of that struggle than most people realize.

“REUTERS SETS THE TONE AND SPIN IS EVERYTHING”

One veteran American newspaper correspondent in Jerusalem, eager to maintain anonymity so as not to jeopardize relations with his anti-Israel colleagues, points out that “whereas foreign correspondents still write features, they rarely cover the actual breaking news that dominates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In terms of written copy on the conflict, I would estimate that 50 percent of all reporting, and 90 percent of the attitude, is formed by these news agencies. The important thing about Reuters is that it sets the tone, and here spin is everything.”

“If, for example, a Reuters headline and introduction say that Israelis killed a Palestinian, instead of saying that a Palestinian gunman was killed as he opened fire on Israeli civilians, this inevitably leaves a different impression of who was attacking, and who defending.”

Not a “terrorist” attack, according to Reuters

In a study last year, the media watchdog HonestReporting found that in “100 percent of headlines” when Reuters wrote about Israeli acts of violence, Israel was emphasized as the first word; also, an active voice was used, often without explaining that the “victim” may have been a gunman. A typical headline was: “Israeli Troops Shoot Dead Palestinian in W. Bank” (July 3, 2003). By contrast, when Palestinians attacked Israelis (almost always civilians), Reuters usually avoided naming the perpetrator. For example: “New West Bank Shooting Mars Truce” (July 1, 2003). In many cases, the headline was also couched in a passive voice.

Often it is a question of emphasis: Important and relevant information is actually contained in Reuters text, but buried deep down in the story. Many newspaper readers, however, never get beyond the headlines, and for space reasons many papers carry only the first few paragraphs of a report – often inserted into their own correspondents’ stories. When the TV networks run only brief headlines, or Reuters news ribbon at the foot of the screen, the full text is never shown.

Sometimes, Reuters presents unreliable information as though it were undoubtedly true. Most people are unlikely to notice this. For example, Reuters will note that “a doctor at the hospital said the injured Palestinian was unarmed” – when in fact the doctor couldn’t possibly have known this, since he wasn’t present at the gunfight. But because he is a doctor, Reuters is suggesting to readers that his word is necessarily authoritative. Yet, Reuters headlines and text are used unchanged by newspaper editors because they assume it is professional, balanced copy, which doesn’t need any further editing.

Reporters of course can’t be everywhere at once. The increased speed of the Internet and the demand for instant, 24-hour TV news coverage means that the world’s news outlets rely heavily on Reuters and the AP, which in turn rely on a network of local Palestinian “stringers.” Virtually all breaking news (and much of the non-breaking news) on CNN, the BBC, Fox, and other networks comes from these stringers.

PROVOKING THE WRATH OF ARAFAT’S SECURITY FORCES

Such stringers are hired for speed, to save money (there is no need to pay drivers and translators), and for their local knowledge. But in many cases, in hiring them, their connections to Arafat’s regime and Hamas count for more than their journalistic abilities. All too often the information they provide, and the supposed eyewitnesses they interview, are undependable. Yet, because of Reuters’s prestige, American and international news outlets simply take their copy as fact. Thus non-massacres become massacres; death tolls are exaggerated; and gunmen are written about as if they were civilians.

The true face of the Intifada:
A Palestinian boy holds a gun and a
Koran as Hamas supporters celebrate
another bus bomb on Israeli civilians

As Ehud Ya’ari, Israeli television’s foremost expert on Palestinian affairs, put it: “The vast majority of information of every type coming out of the area is being filtered through Palestinian eyes. Cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army’s actions and never focus on Palestinian gunmen. Written reports focus on the Palestinian version of events. And even those Palestinians who don’t support the intifada dare not show or describe anything embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority, for fear they may provoke the wrath of Arafat’s security forces.”

One Palestinian journalist told me that “the worst the Israelis can do is take away our press cards. But if we irritate Arafat, or Hamas, you don’t know who might be waiting in your kitchen when you come home at night.”

Some of Reuters’s Palestinian stringers are honest and courageous. But, according to several ex-Reuters staffers, they feel the intimidating presence of Wafa Amr, Reuters’s “Senior Palestinian Correspondent.” Amr – who is a cousin of former Palestinian minister Nabil Amr, and whose father is said to be close to Arafat – had this title specially created for her (there is no “Senior Israeli Correspondent,” or the equivalent in any other Arab country) so that her close ties to the Palestinian Authority could be exploited.

As one former Reuters journalist put it: “She occupies this position in spite of lacking a basic command of English grammar. The information passed through her is controlled, orchestrated. Reuters would never allow Israeli government propaganda to be fed into its reports in this way. Indeed, stories exposing Israeli misdeeds are a favorite of Reuters. Amr has never had an expose on Arafat, or his Al-Aqsa Brigades terror group.”

But things may well be improving. Lately, with a new Jerusalem bureau chief, Reuters has taken some steps to ensure greater balance. For example, it no longer claims Hamas’s goal is merely “to set up an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza” (which it is not), but instead writes that Hamas is “sworn to Israel’s destruction” (which it is).

Reuters no longer carries the highly misleading “death tolls” at the end of each story that lumped together Palestinian civilians, gunmen, and suicide bombers. (Agence France-Presse continues to do this.) And, apparently, there are plans to relocate Wafa Amr by next year. Is it too much to hope that one day soon Reuters might actually call terrorism terrorism?

(Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and New York Daily News.)

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Reuters founder Julius Reuter
David Schlesinger

Letters to the editor
The National Review
September 13, 2004

[From the Global head of Reuters, followed by a response from Tom Gross]

Trouble in Reuterville

Tom Gross commits all the sins of journalism of which he accuses Reuters (“The Case of Reuters,” July 26), with no proper evidence except comments from an unnamed and disgruntled former employee. That is hardly an impeccable source and its use breaches a cardinal rule of good journalism. Gross also failed to ask us for comment.

As he acknowledges, Reuters has a 150-year reputation that is synonymous with good, fair, and objective news-gathering. This reputation is maintained throughout the world, including in our coverage of the Middle East conflict.

All of our journalists are made fully aware that balance is essential in every story. They are also bound by a code of conduct that bars them from political activity. We have a no-tolerance approach to bias whether it concerns text, pictures, or television.

Reuters stories also go through a scrupulous editing process, both locally and on our central editing desk in London, to ensure that they are balanced and that no phrase could be misconstrued. Complaints about coverage from readers or viewers are taken seriously and dealt with swiftly and fairly.

Gross acknowledges in his article that Reuters stories do indeed contain the necessary context and background to explain this complex conflict, yet appears to hold Reuters responsible for the fact that our customers do not always publish those stories in full.

The most unpleasant aspect of Gross’s article, however, is his vicious personal attack on Wafa Amr, again based on dubious references to evidence from “several” former Reuters staffers. Gross casts odious slurs on a respected correspondent, with little or no evidence except hearsay. Amr has worked commendably for Reuters for more than a decade – often braving violence and threats to report the news.

Finally, Gross incorrectly states that Amr and other Palestinians who work for Reuters are stringers. Some Palestinian journalists who work for us are indeed stringers, as are some Israelis. But Amr and very many of her Palestinian colleagues in Reuters are full staff members.

David Schlesinger
Reuters
London

Tom Gross replies: David Schlesinger obviously hasn’t read my article very carefully. For example, I never say that Wafa Amr is a stringer. Quite the opposite: I state that she is a correspondent. I did not speak only to one “disgruntled former employee” but to a number of people familiar with Reuters. And so on. Reuters’s problems in regard to the Mideast are well known among journalists in Jerusalem and beyond. This is why writers such as James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal call the agency Reuterville (since, when it comes to the Mideast, it lives in a world of its own), and why other commentators refer to it as al-Reuters, because they find it hard to distinguish its Mideast reporting from outlets such as al-Jazeera. It is regrettable that Reuters – if David Schlesinger is any indication – doesn’t acknowledge that it has a problem.

THE NEW YORK TIMES REPORTS:
CANWEST EDITORS WILL REFUSE TO USE REUTERS’ EUPHEMISMS

Reuters Asks a Chain to Remove Its Bylines
By Ian Austen
The New York Times
September 20, 2004

www.nytimes.com/2004/09/20/business/media/20reuters.html

Having their bylines appear in newspapers is an unexpected bonus for news agency reporters. But now Reuters has asked Canada’s largest newspaper chain to remove its writers’ names from some articles.

The dispute centers on a policy adopted earlier this year by CanWest Global Communications – the publisher of 13 daily newspapers including The National Post in Toronto and The Calgary Herald, which both use Reuters dispatches – to substitute the word “terrorist” in articles for terms like “insurgents” and “rebels.”

“Our editorial policy is that we don’t use emotive words when labeling someone,” said David A. Schlesinger, Reuters’ global managing editor. “Any paper can change copy and do whatever they want. But if a paper wants to change our copy that way, we would be more comfortable if they remove the byline.”

Mr. Schlesinger said he was concerned that changes like those made at CanWest could lead to “confusion” about what Reuters is reporting and possibly endanger its reporters in volatile areas or situations.

“My goal is to protect our reporters and protect our editorial integrity,” he said.

According to Mr. Schlesinger, members of Reuters’ sales staff in Canada have asked CanWest to remove writers’ names to conform to its guidelines for the use of “terrorist.” Reuters has also asked that CanWest add its name to that of Reuters as the source of revised articles and to display that information only at the end of the articles. Alternatively, Reuters suggests that its name not be used at all.

Scott Anderson, editor in chief of CanWest publications and an author of the policy, said Reuters’ rejection of his company’s definition of terrorism undermined journalistic principles.

“If you’re couching language to protect people, are you telling the truth?” asked Mr. Anderson, who is also editor in chief of The Ottawa Citizen. “I understand their motives. But issues like this are why newspapers have editors.”

Mr. Anderson said the central definition in the policy was that “terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians in pursuit of a political goal.”

The policy has caused Mr. Anderson’s paper to issue two corrections recently as the result of changes it made to articles provided by The Associated Press. On Thursday, The Citizen changed an A.P. dispatch to describe 6 of 10 Palestinians killed in the West Bank by Israeli troops as “terrorists,” a description attributed to “Palestinian medical officials.” The Associated Press had called those people “fugitives.”

The Citizen published a correction on Friday declaring it to be it an editing error and describing the six dead as “militants.” A week earlier, the newspaper inserted the word terrorist seven times into an A.P. article about the fighting between Iraqis and United States forces in the city of Falluja. Mr. Anderson called the two episodes “silly errors.”

Late Friday, a spokesman for The Associated Press, Jack Stokes, issued a general statement about changes to its articles. “We understand that customers need to edit our stories from time to time,” it said in part. “However, we do not endorse changes that make an A.P. story unbalanced, unfair or inaccurate.”

Mr. Anderson said he did not know how CanWest would deal with the Reuters request. No one else at CanWest, The National Post or The Calgary Herald was available for comment.

In an editorial published on Saturday, however, The National Post said it would continue to follow its current policy.

“Mr. Schlesinger’s broader implication – that the substantive meaning of his reporters’ stories are being universally vitiated by our house style – is one we reject,” it said. “The agency’s use of euphemisms merely serves to apply a misleading gloss of political correctness. And we believe we owe it to our readers to remove it before they see their newspaper every morning.”

ADDITIONAL NOTE

Tom Gross writes: In a follow-up interview on CBC radio in Canada, Mr. Schlesinger expressed concern for the “serious consequences” if “people in the Mideast” were to believe that Reuters calls such people “terrorists.”

This is the first public omission by Reuters that their reporters and editors are intimidated into using “neutral” language to describe those who murder and maim innocent civilians in acts of terror.