Israel Election Results: To Hurry but Not to Haste

The principles guiding coverage of breaking news, such as tonight’s Israeli election results, are well-known: objectivity, speed and accuracy. But with the proliferation of 24/7 news coverage and informal and unchecked media sources, are these principles under threat?

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

On May 30, 1996, Israelis say they went to sleep with Shimon Peres, and woke up with Benjamin Netanyahu. It was the morning after the elections to the fourteenth Knesset. The caretaker Prime Minister Peres, in power since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin some six months earlier, went head-to-head with the Likud’s new, young leader, Netanyahu, in the first Israeli election where the electorate voted directly for the prime minister, in addition to the regular ballot to decide which political parties would enter the Knesset, and in what strength. Throughout the campaign, pollsters and analysts pegged Peres as the likely winner.

And indeed, when the exit poll results were published at 10 P.M. on the day of the election, everybody was sure that Peres had won.

By the morning, however, with 98 percent of the vote counted, it was Netanyahu who had emerged victorious, albeit by a slim majority of 30,000 votes - some 1.2 percent.(If you want to see coverage of how the reversal happened, see here.)

The average Israeli watching the news on election night 1996 really believed that Peres had won. Of course, between the exit polls and the final results, anything can happen, but the media coverage of the race, the journalists' narrative, played a part in the public’s understanding of events as they unfolded. This story raises clear questions about the media’s role in keeping the public informed, and about the ethics of journalism.

I myself am involved as a journalist in this process of the unfolding of events. On a regular day, my job is one of the strangest there is. I sit surrounded by television and computer screens, clicking from one website to another, moving from channel to channel, listening to the radio, watching my phone and my email inbox, poised, ready for something, somewhere to happen.

When this something does happen, if it is important or of interest to our readers, and above all, if it is “breaking,” I must rush to tell them about it, making split-second decisions about how to report what is taking place. Guiding this are principles of journalism that anyone can read about by googling the term: objectivity, speed and of course, accuracy.

In December last year, I along with my journalist colleagues around the world made a mistake, one of the worst imaginable, all for the sake of bringing our readers the latest information available on a breaking news story - the online media equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses.

Some of you may be familiar with this mistake. It was the day of the Newtown massacre, and as the details of the tragic events trickled into our news desk in Tel Aviv, we along with many other outlets published a number of mistaken reports. Not least of these was misidentifying the suspect in the shooting, and publishing a photograph of him taken from his personal Facebook page, something that was done by the majority of news outlets reporting the story.

This error spread across the globe. Those reading about the horrific events that were taking place on the other side of the world on Israeli news websites (Haaretz included), heard the name of the mistakenly identified suspect and saw his photograph soon after CNN first reported that an anonymous law enforcement official had named him as the shooter. Ryan Lanza, brother of the actual perpetrator of the massacre Adam Lanza, rather fittingly responded to the accusations on Facebook, with a status update that read: “Fuck CNN, it wasn’t me.”

Of course, as soon as we realized, that it wasn’t him, we corrected the mistake.

But this is one extreme example of what can often happen throughout a relentless 24-hour news cycle. And the fact that the initial misreport came from none other than CNN, begs the question, especially on the eve of a news story such as the Israeli elections: What is more important when reporting the news? To be first or to be right?

The balancing act is a tough one. On the one hand are the principles of journalism, which in theory should ensure journalistic integrity. But on the other, if every other news organization is already carrying a piece of information, and you are the only one that isn’t, you risk appearing out of touch and out of date, as Karl Rove did on the night of the U.S. elections last year, when he insisted on exercising “a little bit of caution” in calling battleground state Ohio for Obama, in effect delaying Fox News' call of the elections for Obama.

If you do provide your audience with new information that has not been 100 percent verified, but you at least inform your readers that it is nothing more than a report, cited from a source who says that to the best of their knowledge, it is a fact, are you not upholding journalistic standards?

Journalism’s recent history is replete with examples of misreporting. These include the reporting of the death of sex-scandal-mired former U.S. football coach Joe Paterno last year, one day before it actually took place. It also includes the reporting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ death in the 2011 Arizona shooting when she didn’t actually die.

After the misreporting in Newtown, a number of editorials called for media soul-searching, pointing out that, in reporting mass shootings in particular, U.S. media tends to publish false reports in the rush to satisfy the hunger of news consumers for information amid the shock and the grief, and, of course, for the sake of filling airtime.

Since that Friday in Newtown, I have asked people who have lived in Israel longer than I have whether they remember similar examples here. The one that most seems to have stuck in people’s memory, aside from the Peres non-victory mentioned above, is the announcement of the death of MK Amnon Rubinstein in 1999 by then-Knesset speaker Avraham Burg from the Knesset podium, after he had received a hoax telephone call. The 'death' was misreported live on Israeli television, as was Burg's eulogy.

Another example a friend recalled was in 2003, when an Israeli news site reported that the Space Shuttle Columbia, with the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon among its seven-person crew, had landed safely, when in fact it had disintegrated on re-entry with the loss of the entire crew.

Another colleague mentioned common misreporting that becomes, as he put it, “standard practice,” in coverage of Palestinian civilian casualties in cases involving the Israel Defense Forces and cases involving settlers – but exploring the complications of that issue would require another column.

So where does the responsibility lie? With the producers or with the consumers of information? And if news outlets correct their mistakes after the fact, how much does misreporting really matter anyway?

It matters, because if a lie told a thousand times becomes truth, then with publishing comes great responsibility. And it matters, because if anybody today can easily produce “news” via social media , then serious news outlets are the key filters for distinguishing reliable from ungrounded sources. News consumers must share some of the responsibility, and “vote with their feet,” by sourcing news from outlets that uphold the standards of journalism, rather than making do with ones that provide them with a higher volume of unreliable information.

So as the votes start coming in during Israel’s 2013 elections, my colleagues and I in the newsroom will work fast to bring our readers the information and analysis that will help them make sense of events, but we must also make sure that what we publish is accurate. It is surely more important to bring people correct and balanced reporting, than to rush to publish, in order to be the first to say what may not stand the test of a few hours, let alone the long-term. In a fast-paced media environment, we must, above all, remember to pace ourselves.

Alona Ferber is an editor at Haaretz.com.

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