Establishment Papers Fell Short in Coverage of Genocide Charges

Establishment media in the US were slow to cover South Africa’s charge—initially providing the public with thin to no reporting on the case.

The post Establishment Papers Fell Short in Coverage of Genocide Charges appeared first on FAIR.


South Africa on December 29 presented a historic case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ)—the highest court in the world. In an 84-page lawsuit, South Africa asserted that Israel’s deadly military campaign in Gaza—following the October 7 Hamas attacks, which killed 1,200 Israelis and foreigners—constitutes genocide. So far, more than 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been slaughtered, while over 71,000 have been injured in Israeli attacks.

Establishment media in the US were slow to cover South Africa’s “epochal intervention” in the ICJ—initially providing the public with thin to no reporting on the case. While the quantity of coverage did eventually increase, it skewed pro-Israel, even after the court in January found it “plausible” that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, and ordered Tel Aviv to comply with international law.

Thin early coverage

Wall Street Journal: Israel Expands Operations in Southern Gaza Amid Worsening Humanitarian Crisis

In the Wall Street Journal (12/29/23), the initial accusation of genocide got second billing even in the subhead.

FAIR used the Nexis news database and to identify every article discussing the genocide case published in the print editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for one month, from the announcement of the case on December 29 through January 28, two days after the ICJ’s preliminary ruling.

Under international law, genocide is one of the gravest charges that can be brought against a state. Since its 1948 ratification by the UN, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has only been presented to the ICJ on a handful of occasions, and the historic nature of the complaint was not lost on its applicant: “South Africa is acutely aware of the particular weight of responsibility in initiating proceedings against Israel for violations of the Genocide Convention.”

Unfortunately, the two most widely circulating newspapers in the US cannot say the same. In the lead-up to the hearing (12/29/23–1/10/24), the New York Times only published three articles focused on the case (1/8/24, 1/9/24, 1/10/24), while another Times piece (1/10/24) included a brief mention of the genocide charges.

The Wall Street Journal ran no pieces focused on the charges prior to the hearing. The Journal‘s only mention of the genocide case in the pre-trial period came in a broader article about the war (12/29/23), which included six paragraphs about South Africa’s application. The paper did not reference the case again until the trial began.

‘Without any basis in fact’

NYT: Accused of Genocide, Israelis See Reversal of Reality. Palestinians See Justice.

The New York Times (1/11/24) seemed to feel that the accusation of genocide was so serious that it should offer readers as few clues as possible as to whether it was true or not.

During the two-day hearing, each paper ran two articles about it in their print editions. Each published an overview of the case (New York Times, 1/11/24; Wall Street Journal, 1/11/24). For their second piece, the New York Times (1/11/24) looked at both Israeli and Palestinian reactions, while the Journal (1/12/24) focused only on Israeli reactions; the one Palestinian it quoted was identified as an Israeli citizen.

After the trial’s January 12 conclusion, and through January 27, two days after the court’s announcement of its preliminary ruling, the Times ran five more articles in its print edition primarily about the case, while the Journal ran only one.

Experts have said that “all countries have a stake” in South Africa’s application, and that the case “has broad implications” (OHCHR, 1/11/24), but the papers’ thin coverage suggested to their readership that it is of little consequence.

US news outlets’ dismissive reaction to the hearing was consistent with the Israeli narrative surrounding the genocide charges. Israel’s denunciations of Pretoria’s accusation were widely reported—they were “blood libel” (CNBC, 12/30/23); “nonsense, lies and evil spirit” (The Hill, 1/31/23); and “outrageous” (Jerusalem Post, 1/5/24). US officials followed suit, brushing off the allegations as “meritless” (The Hill, 1/9/24) and “without any basis in fact whatsoever” (VoA, 1/3/24).

So while the ICJ case was met with spirited support from the global human rights community, establishment media’s initial choice to treat it as unnewsworthy may have convinced some audiences to believe what Israel and its allies want them to believe—that South Africa’s application has no basis in reality.

Uneven sourcing

The coverage the two papers did offer largely perpetuated US media’s longstanding tradition of skewing pro-Israel (, 8/22/23; Intercept, 1/9/24 ). Though Palestinians are at the center of the case, they often seemed to be an afterthought in the newspapers' coverage of it.

The papers were mirror images in terms of their frequency of quoted pro-Israeli and pro–South African positions in their coverage. The Wall Street Journal’s three articles that focused on the ICJ case included 23 quoted sources. Of these, 11 (48%) expressed or supported Israeli government positions, and 8 (35%) expressed or supported South African government positions. (Four were not clearly aligned with either party.) In the Times' 10 articles focused on the case, the paper featured 65 quoted sources. Those taking a clear position on one side or the other expressed or supported the South African position more often, with 30 sources (46%), compared to 23 expressing or supporting the Israeli stance (35%). (The remainder did not have a discernible stance.)

Palestinian voices, however, were marginalized in both papers. Fourteen of the 65 Times sources were Palestinian (22%); 22 (34%) were Israeli. Five of its 10 articles on the genocide case that appeared in print quoted no Palestinian sources. By contrast, only one—a piece about South African domestic politics (1/27/24)—quoted no Israeli sources.

Of the Journal's 23 sources, five (22%) were Palestinian, and 9 (39%) were Israeli. Two of its articles were evenly balanced between Palestinian and Israeli sources, while one (1/12/24) quoted five Israelis and only one Palestinian—the citizen of Israel mentioned above.

The lack of Palestinian representation is consistent with establishment media trends, which often neglect Palestinian voices in Israel/Palestine coverage. In fact, a 2018 study conducted by 416Labs, a Canadian research firm, found that, in five major US newspapers’ coverage of Israel/Palestine between 1967 and 2017, Israeli sources were cited 2.5 times more often than Palestinian ones.

Consequently, the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association’s media resource guide advises reporters: “Interview Palestinians. Your story is always incomplete without them."

Unchallenged Israeli talking points

NYT: At World Court, Israel to Confront Accusations of Genocide

The only independent legal expert quoted in this New York Times article (1/10/24) suggested that it was impossible to say whether a genocide was going on while there was still time to stop it.

While the New York Times' sourcing was somewhat more balanced, that did not reflect the absence of a pro-Israel skew. The paper failed at the basic task of evaluating arguments, reducing the grave charge of genocide to an unresolvable he said/she said back-and-forth.

In the Times' most extensive pre-trial article (1/1o/24), Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner and Johannesburg bureau chief John Eligon provided an overview of the hearing. Of 11 quoted sources, only a single independent legal expert was included: William Schabas of Middlesex University, London, who averred that it would be months before South Africa assembled all of its evidence, and "only then can we really assess the full strength of the South African case." Meanwhile, four Israeli sources and a US official were quoted in support of Israel, against three South African sources and one Palestinian source.

The Times piece also uncritically presented easily refutable Israeli claims about the legality of the IDF military campaign in Gaza:

Israel’s military insists that it is prosecuting the war in line with international law. Officials point to the millions of messages, sent by various means, telling Gaza’s civilians to evacuate to safer areas ahead of bombings, and say they are constantly working to increase the amount of aid entering Gaza.

Israel's insistence that it follows international law is contradicted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, all of which have documented evidence of war crimes committed by Israel in this conflict, as well as in past conflicts. Journalists' job is to hold the powerful to account, not to simply relay their claims, no matter how flimsy. Yet the Times offered no hint of pushback to Israel's assertions.

Moreover, those “millions of messages” are often inaccessible to Gazans under rocket fire. The designated “safe zones” are usually announced on social media posts or via leaflets dropped over Gaza containing QR codes to maps (Guardian, 12/2/23). As the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, “It is unclear how those residing in Gaza would access the map without electricity and amid recurrent telecommunications cuts.” Since October 7, Israel has purposely cut Gaza’s electricity and internet supply—another violation of international law (Human Rights Watch, 10/21/23; Al Jazeera, 12/4/23).

Even if Gazans make their way to the designated zones, there is no guarantee that they will find safety; many of the areas that Israel allotted as civilian safe zones have been targeted and bombed by the army (New York Times, 12/21/23). As UNICEF spokesperson, James Elder, told the BBC (12/5/23): “There are no safe zones in Gaza.”

Unscrutinized statements

WSJ: Israel Rebuts Genocide Accusation at World Court

The Wall Street Journal (1/12/24) provided no questioning of the claim that "Israel’s inherent right to defend itself" required the killing of thousands of children.

The idea that the Israeli military is “constantly working to increase the amount of aid entering Gaza” is also patently incorrect. A Human Rights Watch report (12/18/23) found that

Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food and fuel, while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to their survival.

Nearly the exact same paragraph about Israel sending "millions of messages" and "constantly working to increase the amount of aid" appeared in the Times the next day (1/11/24), without any analysis.

Another Times piece, by Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley (1/12/24), offered a brief explanation of the accusations leveled by South Africa, followed by Israel's rebuttal that it is taking “significant precautions to protect civilians.” Again, the Times offered no evaluation of such claims.

The Wall Street Journal (1/12/24) advanced a similar assertion from Tal Becker, chief lawyer for Israel’s Foreign Ministry: “Israel…recognizes its obligation to conduct military operations in line with international humanitarian law, which requires efforts to minimize civilian casualties.”

With no scrutiny of Israeli officials’ statements, US news becomes little more than a bullhorn for government propaganda.

Research assistance: Xenia Gonikberg, Phillip HoSang

The post Establishment Papers Fell Short in Coverage of Genocide Charges appeared first on FAIR.

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