NYT Gaza memo tells journalists to avoid ‘genocide,' ‘occupied territory', ‘refugee camps', ‘Palestine’

Ahram Online , Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

The New York Times newspaper told its journalists and editors to avoid using the terms “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” “occupied territory,” or "refugee camps," when covering Israel’s war in Gaza, reporting by The Intercept revealed.

Palestine protesters
File Photo: Pro-Palestine protesters flood the lobby of the New York Times offices and block the security entrances during a demonstration against the newspaper s coverage of Israel s war on Gaza. AP


The memo — written by Times standards editor Susan Wessling, international editor Philip Pan, and their deputies — “offers guidance about some terms and other issues we have grappled with since the start of the conflict in October”.

According to “a copy of an internal memo obtained by The Intercept” the Times reporters had been instructed not to use the word Palestine “except in very rare cases”.

Palestine is a term widely used for both the territory and the UN-recognized state.

However, the Times memo told the reporters that they “Do not use in the dateline, routine text or headlines, except in very rare cases such as the United Nations General Assembly elevated Palestine to a nonmember observer state or references to historic Palestine”.   

The memo also instructed the Times reporters not to describe the Palestinian lands captured by Israel as “occupied territories”.

According to The Intercept, the memo said “When possible, avoid the term and be specific (e.g. Gaza, the West Bank, etc.) as each has a slightly different status”.

The United Nations, along with much of the world, considers Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian territories, seized by Israel in 1967.

The admonition against the use of the term “occupied territories,” obscures the reality of the conflict, feeding into the American and Israeli insistence that the conflict only began on October 7, a Times staffer told The Intercept.

“You are basically taking the occupation out of the coverage, which is the actual core of the conflict,” said the newsroom source. “It’s like, ‘Oh let’s not say occupation because it might make it look like we’re justifying a terrorist attack.’”

The memo also directs journalists not to use the phrase “refugee camps” to describe long-standing refugee settlements in Gaza.

“While termed refugee camps, the refugee centres in Gaza are developed and densely populated neighbourhoods dating to the 1948 war. Refer to them as neighbourhoods, or areas, and if further context is necessary, explain how they have historically been called refugee camps”, The Intercept cited the memo.

The United Nations recognizes eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. As of last year, before the war started, the areas were home to more than 600,000 registered refugees. Many are descendants of those who fled to Gaza after being forcibly expelled from their homes in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, which marked the founding of Israel and the mass dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The Israeli government, which objects to the Palestinian "right of return", has long been hostile to the historical fact that Palestinians maintain refugee status because it signifies that they were displaced from lands they have a right to return to.

The memo of the Times claims that “The nature of the conflict has led to inflammatory language and incendiary accusations on all sides. We should be very cautious about using such language, even in quotations. Our goal is to provide clear, accurate information, and heated language can often obscure rather than clarify the facts”, according to The Intercept.

The memo directs its reporters that the “Words like ‘slaughter,’ ‘massacre’ and ‘carnage’ often convey more emotion than information. Think hard before using them in our own voice”.

Despite the memo’s framing as an effort to not employ incendiary language to describe killings “on all sides,” the Times has repeatedly used such language to describe attacks against Israelis by Palestinians and rarely in the case of Israel’s large-scale killing of Palestinians.

In January, The Intercept published an analysis of New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times coverage of the war from 7 October through 24 November — a period mostly before the new Times guidance was issued.

The Intercept analysis showed that the major newspapers reserved terms like “slaughter,” “massacre,” and “horrific” almost exclusively for Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians, rather than for Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli attacks.

The analysis found that, as of 24 November, the New York Times had described Israeli deaths as a “massacre” on 53 occasions and those of Palestinians just once. The ratio for the use of “slaughter” was 22 to 1, even as the documented number of Palestinians killed climbed to around 15,000.


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