One of Palestinian filmmaker Bisan Owda’s Instagram posts from early January begins with these words: “2:09 am. Can you sleep while this sound is in your head?” When the viewer unmutes the post, they hear a loud, unwavering drone that continues through the next two frames, time-stamped 3:08 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. “This is the unmanned plane and the buzzling sound is what we have been hearing for almost 20 years . . . We call it in Arabic, ZANNANA,” Owda writes, using a word that means a buzzing sound or noisemaker. “This sound is loud because, they are multiple ones and so close! It’s an Israeli war craft, it bombs, destroyes and kills.” Sonic warfare, which causes post-traumatic stress disorder by paralyzing communities with fear, is the kind of thing that Palestinians are used to, and with Owda’s documentation, the rest of the world can also now hear it.
More than 4.1 million people currently follow twenty-five-year-old Owda’s Instagram channel, where she posts daily accounts of human, cultural, and capital loss—the devastation of a tiny strip of occupied land described as an open-air prison by rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Over the past few months, Owda and other Palestinian journalists and media workers, including Plestia Alaqad and Hind Khoudary, have broadcast the destruction and violence of Israeli attacks to millions of social media followers through their on-the-ground, immediate, unfiltered, and personal video stories. (Alaqad left Gaza in November but continues to post on the crisis from afar.) Twenty-four-year-old photojournalist Motaz Azaiza once captured joyful images for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), such as this photo of smiling Palestinian women wearing traditional tatreez embroidery. With an audience of 18.5 million on Instagram and additional accounts on TikTok and Twitter, he kept telling the stories of his people until he made the difficult decision to evacuate in late January.
While the devastating statistics of the current Gazan crisis have been widely reported, the eyewitness posts Owda, Khoudary, Alaqad, and Azaiza share—often multiple times a day—have provided a human lens to audiences around the world. Since October 7, when heavily armed Hamas fighters carried out an attack on towns, kibbutzim, and military bases in southern Israel, killing roughly 1,200 people and taking around 240 hostages, Israel has responded with an almost incessant campaign of airstrikes on Gaza. More than 26,000 people have been killed, including more than 9,600 children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem too, more than eighty children have been killed since October. Human Rights Watch reports that almost 1.9 million people—85 percent of Gaza’s population—are displaced. International humanitarian law prohibits the forced displacement of civilians except temporarily, but even if people can return, the daily attacks leave little to return to. In mid-November, a panel of United Nations experts called the Israeli bombardment of Gaza “a genocide in the making.” In December, South Africa filed a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice at the Hague, alleging that its actions against Palestinians in Gaza have been “genocidal in character.” In its application, the South African government noted that it compiled its case based on numerous international reports as well as “eyewitness accounts from Gaza—including from Palestinian journalists on the ground—in circumstances where Israel continues to restrict access to Gaza by international journalists, investigators and fact finding teams.”
Yet, even this significant public hearing at the Hague, livestreamed on January 11 and 12 for a global audience, has been treated differently by mainstream Western media outlets. Coverage of the first day of hearings—when South Africa presented its case—was either incidental or completely missing. By comparison, coverage of Israel’s arguments was treated as important news, featured on front pages and livestreamed on news websites.
Given this landscape, independent journalists like Owda and Azaiza, whose online audiences rival those of some major broadcasters, have become indispensable to viewers and international observers. Despite wearing “PRESS” flak jackets, the kind worn by journalists covering active war zones and respected under the laws of war, they—as well as their colleagues working at news outlets— appear to have been targeted by Israeli forces. At least eighty-three journalists and media workers have been killed in Gaza since October 7, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. (The government media office in Gaza accounts for more than 100 killed, but the discrepancy may stem from how the two organizations count journalists, and its proximity may result in an easier verification process.) By contrast, the CPJ reported that sixty-seven journalists were killed around the world over the entirety of 2022, including fifteen fatalities in Ukraine and thirteen in Mexico. For further context, seventy-one journalists died covering the Vietnam war over twenty years, according to the Associated Press’s Saigon bureau’s tally of that period.
Journalists in Gaza are navigating a lethal obstacle course, including direct threats of assassination, with little access to water, food, and electricity. All this as they watch their houses being destroyed and their relatives, friends, and community members getting killed. In a November interview with The Nation, Al Jazeera Gaza correspondent Youmna El Sayed said that, despite these conditions, she and her colleagues are driven by a fundamental need. “The only thing that’s really keeping me standing, keeping me going to work every day and standing in front of the camera to speak, is the suffering that I’m seeing, the constant bombardments that never stop, the ongoing killing of people and civilians around me. If I let these people down, who is going to speak out for them? Who’s going to tell the world their stories?”
Notably, the majority of journalists killed by Israeli forces have been reporters for non-Western news outlets, including several Palestinian news organizations, such as Quds News Network, Al-Majedat Media Network, and Ain Media, as well as the Egyptian broadcaster Al Qahera News, the Turkey-based Anadalou Agency, and Al Jazeera Media Network, which is headquartered in Qatar. At a time when most major Western news organizations have all but completely shuttered their international bureaus and rarely parachute correspondents into conflict zones, the work of these journalists has been vital and precarious. The lack of a unified response from Western news organizations to this blatant attack on press freedom is shocking and evidences concerns about the diminished value of the life of a non-Western journalist.
The dangers of covering the Israel–Palestine crisis are not limited to front-line reporting alone but also manifest behind the scenes in North American newsrooms. Mainstream news stories with an intentional focus on Palestinian perspectives are rare. Instead, many news organizations remain mired in straw-man debates around objectivity, balance, and bias, often using these journalistic ideals strategically (and with double standards) to punish, fire, or push out reporters who have shown support for fairer coverage of Palestine.
The impact of the silencing and censorship of journalists within mainstream news organizations isn’t limited to the coverage of the current crisis in Gaza. It raises significant press freedom concerns, including the chilling effect of self-silencing that bears on the accuracy of the public record. It alienates journalists who question the status quo. It has far-reaching implications for how journalism is conducted and whose stories aren’t told. And it undermines the very standards newsrooms claim to be upholding.
Calls for greater integrity in reporting on the Israel–Palestine conflict have been the subject of two open letters from Canadian journalists, both of which we have signed. The first was released in May 2021, during a roughly ten-day aerial bombardment of Gaza, which ended in a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and the latest letter was published in December 2023. Citing the systematic targeting of journalists in Gaza and the “chilling silence” of Canadian media organizations on the incredibly high number of journalist deaths, as well as internal newsroom decisions to penalize reporters who have expressed solidarity with Palestinians, the letter points out that “columnists and editorial boards who publish unequivocal support for Israel and dismiss civilian deaths as unfortunate collateral face no similar sanctions.” The recent letter has been signed by almost 300 journalists, among whom were more than twenty at mainstream media outlets who signed anonymously.
Since October, two Palestinian Canadian journalists, Global TV’s Zahraa Al-Akhrass and CTV Atlantic’s Yara Jamal, have been fired for posts and comments they made about the ongoing crisis in Gaza that their news organizations considered to be violations of their editorial standards. In an Instagram post following her termination, Al-Akhrass said she was surprised that she received “not a single word of sympathy from anyone” in light of her personal connections to the region. Instead, she said, some colleagues were “outraged” at her for sharing images about the war. Jamal, meanwhile, took to TikTok weeks after her firing to share her story. “There was absolutely no regard that I am witnessing my own people getting killed,” Jamal said of the newsroom’s decision to fire her. “Absolutely none.” In evaluating whether journalists have violated their editorial guidelines, newsrooms should consider the toll of covering the crisis from afar, especially on journalists from the diaspora.
University of British Columbia professor Mary Lynn Young and Candis Callison, an associate professor currently on leave, write in their 2019 book, Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities, that given the problematic history of journalism in the twentieth century, “the social location of journalists and news organizations on a North American terrain of settler-colonialism” needs to be recognized. This involves journalists’ understanding of bias informed by the intersections of their individual and collective race and class identities. While this is an important journalistic practice, often when journalists from underrepresented communities locate themselves in the newsroom in connection to stories, they end up opening themselves up to charges of bias. Newsroom leaders seem to pick and choose what constitutes lived expertise and what is advocacy.
In a recent interview with the podcast Longform, data journalist Mona Chalabi, who won the Pulitzer and gave it away and is of Iraqi descent, said of Western newsrooms, “I would wager there are fewer Arab journalists than there are journalists who have done Birthright”—the Israeli government’s program to bring diasporic Jewish youth on fully funded trips to Israel. Referring to The New York Times Magazine journalists Jazmine Hughes and Jamie Lauren Keiles, who resigned in November after they were reprimanded for signing a public statement published by a coalition called Writers against the War on Gaza, Chalabi continued: “Why is it that for you to sign a letter saying you support Palestinian human rights means you are no longer a credible journalist, your neutrality is under question? But if you have gone on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel by the Israeli government with the stated intention of fostering better relations, better sympathy for the state of Israel, your objectivity is not under question?”
The ongoing “dehumanization” of Palestinians, as described by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights Volker Türk, has been reflected in media coverage of the Israel–Palestine conflict. In a letter sent to Al Jazeera in November, eight BBC journalists criticized their broadcaster for its uneven coverage. On the one hand, its reporters sensitively portrayed Israeli suffering by sharing the names of individual victims, covering their funerals, and interviewing their families. “In comparison, humanising coverage of Palestinian civilians has been lacking. It is a poor excuse to say that the BBC could not better cover stories in Gaza because of difficulties gaining access to the [Gaza] Strip . . . This is achieved, for example, by telling and following individual stories across weeks. Little attempt has also been made to fully utilise the abundance of social media content from brave journalists in Gaza and the West Bank.”
In 2020, when Darnella Frazier recorded an eight-minute cellphone video of Minneapolis police officers choking George Floyd to death, she committed what has since been widely acknowledged as an extraordinary act of journalism. The visual evidence of police brutality was too significant to ignore, and news outlets around the world used her footage to tell the story of police violence against Black people. The power of the images she captured, amplified by social media, was a catalyst for global anti-racism movements. The following year, Frazier was recognized with a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee for “courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.” The journalistic force of Frazier’s video asks us to consider whether professional standards and practices have evolved. With their global reach, the eyewitness reports from Owda, Alaqad, Khoudary, and Azaiza pose a serious challenge to traditional editorial gatekeeping and newsroom decision making. But they shouldn’t have to.
To understand how the journalistic concepts of objectivity and bias are enforced in newsrooms—and classrooms—it’s important to first recognize that, for centuries, journalism in the Western world was a profession dominated almost exclusively by white men. Because there are no official certification requirements for employment as a journalist, the reinforcement of dominant cultural norms persisted as North American newsrooms continued to hire from within their social and professional networks. In recent decades, the needle of newsroom demographics has shifted when it comes to gender, but racialized journalists remain a minority. The Canadian Association of Journalists’ 2023 newsroom diversity report, for example, shows that 75.5 percent of journalists in Canada identify as white and, more tellingly, only three out of ten newsroom leaders identify as non-white.
Over time, journalists have developed an understanding of objectivity as providing “both sides” of a story in order to be fair. But this is an inaccurate and flawed definition. In crisis situations, including the current Israel–Palestine war, there are clearly more than two perspectives; there are a range of views on statehood, identity, and occupation among Israelis, Palestinians, and the diaspora. In perpetuating a binary of two sides—pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian—and by presenting a homogenous Israeli point of view as the objective truth, news media are missing a significant chunk of the narrative.
As the Palestinian journalist Rahaf Farawi wrote in Review of Journalism, we see this limitation reflected in policies such as the CBC’s language guidelines, which forbid using “Palestine,” despite the UN’s 2012 recognition of its pre-1967 borders and the approval of its non–member state observer status. Canada, along with Israel and the US, opposes the motion. “The U.N. does not grant nationhood, and it remains premature to call Palestinian territories the country of Palestine,” CBC guidelines read. Reflecting upon this official line in an interview, a former CBC employee told Farawi: “Historically, CBC has been so concerned about being branded as being too far on the left on everything, but including on foreign policy, and especially on Palestine, they feel that they need to establish their non-left credentials. . . . In this case, it basically means repeating the government’s official line.”
In early January, The Breach reported that the CBC recently responded to Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission complaints that came from retired professor Jeff Winch, who criticized the CBC’s use of evocative adjectives to describe the violence perpetrated by Hamas while employing neutral language around Israeli attacks. This skews “the reader’s empathy towards Israel and away from Palestinians—a further dehumanizing of an already downtrodden people,” Winch wrote. The terms don’t apply to the killings of Palestinians, argued the broadcaster’s senior manager of journalistic standards Nancy Waugh, because Israel carries out its killings “remotely.”
This kind of subjectivity in decision making demonstrates that standards and practices aren’t as institutionalized as newsrooms say they are. Instead, they seem to be enforced by the personal preferences of the editorial leadership, which privileges the perspectives of some journalists and not those of others. Over the past several years, while news organizations have launched multiple initiatives to diversify their newsrooms, traditional journalistic norms have not changed substantially.
This blinkered approach has led to mainstream news organizations rendering themselves increasingly less relevant and trustworthy to audiences, who can turn to other platforms for multiple on-the-ground perspectives—from Palestinian journalists like Owda, Alaqad, and Azaiza in this case.
The repression of Palestinian perspectives in news coverage ignores fundamental facts about the ongoing crisis. In the preface to the 2001 reprint of his graphic novel Palestine, journalist Joe Sacco wrote that despite the passage of a decade since its publication, nothing had changed on the ground; at the time, the second intifada was getting underway. “The Palestinian and Israeli people will continue to kill each other in low-level conflict or with shattering violence—with suicide bombers or helicopter gunships and jet bombers—until this central fact, Israeli occupation, is addressed as an issue of international law and basic human rights,” Sacco wrote.
Centring complex narratives isn’t easy. It’s often not a question of one or two sides but of multiple layers and divergent experiences. A journalist’s job is to articulate that complexity clearly without losing nuance. But research shows that younger audiences and members of underrepresented communities question the journalism profession and its authenticity today because of its tainted historical record of coverage of issues such as state violence against Indigenous and Black people. “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging,” Palestinian American scholar Edward Said wrote in a 1993 essay collection, “is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.”
The narratives that many Western newsrooms have thrust on the public have persisted in driving a myth about a simple historic binary in Israel and Palestine—Muslims against Jews. Yet there is little to corroborate this narrative. In the historical long view, Muslims and Jews have coexisted in relative harmony and with respect for one another, as have both groups with Christians of the land. Since October 7, however, the question of occupation has rarely been discussed or even raised in mainstream Western news media. Journalists must situate the current crisis within the larger historical and present-day contexts, including global political and economic factors. Without this background, we are in danger of perpetuating fractured, dominant narratives and cementing them in the public record.
By comparison, the social media posts from reporters on the ground like Owda and Khoudary are dangerously temporal. Alaqad and Azaiza are no longer reporting from Gaza. The crucial eyewitness stories they and their fallen colleagues have posted since October 7 can be erased at the whims of technology giants who are not invested in preserving the proverbial first draft of history.
These open-eyed, young Palestinian journalists know how fleeting their impact can be. On December 31, 2023, the eighty-sixth day of Israeli bombardments on Gaza, with winter and disease creeping in and starvation a tragic reality, a once-hopeful Azaiza posted on social media: “You are all useless / Without shame watching us getting killed one by one / Will wait my turn to be killed by Israel / And believe me you are gonna do nothing.”