Jewish Dog Wags International Media's Tail

Why were news outlets around the world so quick to report on a story about a religious Jewish court's apparently ludicrous ruling, when the original source had already issued a retraction?

In the age of instant news and the spreading like wildfire of information - true or false - via the Twittersphere, there are genuine questions which need answering about the future of accurate news reporting. The debunking of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, which it turns out was written by an American man in Scotland, made many people nervous about how easy it is to be taken in by an internet persona. Journalists continue to be banned from action hotspots like Syria, where information is at a premium - maybe it was just easier to believe in Gay Girl than to do without her.

The recent story about the alleged sentencing to death of an Israeli canine inhabited by the spirit of a hateful secular lawyer reminds us that verification of facts can still play second fiddle to getting a juicy story out quickly. Worse, the response from media outlets following a debunking raises similarly serious issues as the original publication of the skewed report.

BBC report screenshot

On 3 June, Maariv published, ‘Mea Shearim: Beth din ordered stoning of a female dog’ which told of how a dog had entered a religious court room during proceedings and refused to leave. I must admit to not having read the original article as the content has since been removed from the newspaper’s website (the headline remains). However, according to reports, it claimed that one of the sitting judges announced that the dog was inhabited by the spirit of a secular Jewish lawyer who had insulted the court twenty years prior and called for it to be killed.

What followed is somewhat confusing. The religious court issued a lengthy and unequivocal denial that any such order was given, counter-claiming that, "The only thing that happened… was that the judges called 106- the Jerusalem Municipal dispatch in charge of stray dogs – requesting that the dog be picked up from Beth Din. Until that happened, the dog sat down in the corner- peaceful, calm and unharmed. That story can be verified with the municipal dispatch." The statement also rebuked the media for apparently misrepresenting the facts.

Whatever the case, on 15 June, Maariv saw fit to publish a clarification in which it admitted that its headline claiming that the court had ordered the dog’s death "did not reflect the full story and we apologize to the court and its members for the distress caused."

But the media horse had bolted: rabbis handing down death sentences to dogs, and in Israel - this was too good to miss out on, surely. Global news agency AFP produced, "Jewish court sentences dog to death by stoning" on Friday (two days after the retraction); the BBC went with, "Jerusalem rabbis 'condemn dog to death by stoning'’ on Saturday; and Time published ‘Shocking Sentence: Jewish Court Condemns Dog To Death by Stoning’ on the same day. The latter piece received over 2,000 Facebook likes and was retweeted more than 800 times. According to Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, the BBC story even featured as "Most Read" on the website for a time.

The fact that all these stories were released after Maariv acknowledged that their claim that the court ordered the death of the dog was unjustified is seriously worrying. It indicates that journalists did not contact the source of the story but simply relied on second hand reporting, in this case, from Israel’s English-language Ynet website, which also published its story subsequent to Maariv’s retraction.

Presumably as a result of numerous bloggers flagging the retraction, a number of publications which released the seemingly false story have engaged in some level of manoeuvring, generally not involving acknowledgment of any wrongdoing on their parts. The BBC has published, "Jerusalem court denies dog condemned to stoning" which notes that "The source of the report, Israel's Maariv newspaper, apologised for its headline and for any offence caused." As though the retraction had only just occurred and was hence responsible for the BBC’s initial sloppiness.

The Daily Telegraph website, which carried the AFP article over the weekend, removed its original article and posted, "Israel dog stoning reports strongly denied" which also insinuated that Maariv was entirely to blame.

Perhaps a more fitting response would have been to acknowledge the timeline in their follow-up coverage, thus accepting some responsibility for the fact that they too had fallen foul of basic journalistic standards in not checking the facts with the source.

Carmel Gould is the Editorial Manager of Just Journalism, a non-profit think tank focusing on British media coverage of Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East.