New York Times Ombudsman on "Balanced" Coverage of Israel-Lebanon Conflict:

I missed this when it first came out:

While fairness can't be determined solely by the numbers of pictures in a situation like this, there is one statistic worth keeping in mind: the death toll. Nearly 1,150 Lebanese died, most of them civilians [actually, we have no idea how many of the "civilians" were actually Hizbollah fighters]. This is more than seven times as many as the roughly 150 Israelis, mostly soldiers, who died, according to The Times's latest estimates. (One factor, of course, was that Israel's population apparently had more access to shelters that offered greater protection from Hezbollah's bombs.) The death toll appeared to relate closely to what was happening in the conflict [only, as I discuss below, if the primary focus of war coverage is supposed to be short-term civilian suffering], and therefore to provide a reasonable measure for shaping — and subsequently evaluating — the coverage. Indeed, Times editors responsible for both photography and news articles had those cumulative numbers of the deaths on each side in their minds each day. "We were totally aware," said Michele McNally, the assistant managing editor for photography. "Absolutely."

This focus on the death toll led me to review the number of Times pictures depicting corpses and coffins. There were about eight times as many photographs of Lebanese as of Israelis, a ratio roughly comparable to the overall one for deaths during the conflict. "We try to reflect what happens on the ground," said Susan Chira, the foreign editor. "We are extremely conscious of the death tolls. It would be unfair to truth to do otherwise."

Estimates of the relative physical damage weren't so readily available to Times editors as the conflict unfolded. But I'm comfortable with the editors' estimates that the relative physical destruction was even more disproportionate than the death tolls. The pictures in the paper reflected that. Eight times as many pictures of physical damage in Lebanon, compared with those of destruction in Israel, appeared on Page 1. The ratio for all such photographs used in the coverage shrank to three to one, but the pictures from Lebanon that ran inside the paper tended to be larger.

What an odd way to justify the "fairness" of media coverage! For one thing, it suggests that the Times' coverage of the Iraq war has been grossly unfair to the Iraqis, or, if you prefer, the Iraqi "resistance."

For that matter, consider the "unfairness" of the Times' coverage of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. We certainly got more pictures of "American suffering" because of 9/11 than of suffering in Afghanistan because of NATO military action.

Sure, the Times is an American paper, and thus gives the U.S. a "home field advantage," but that just raises the question of why Israel, a close American ally, fighting Hizbollah, a sworn American enemy, doesn't get at least a less extreme version of the same sort of advantage.

For another thing, the ombudsman later acknowledges that these photos were completely acontextual, because the Times almost never carried any photos of Hizbollah forces:

Times readers got hardly any photographs of Hezbollah fighters. Photographers were actively discouraged [what a euphemism for "were threatened with death"!] from taking pictures of them, Ms. McNally said. I found only two pictures that portrayed Hezbollah fighters; both ran on Aug. 10, and both showed the difficulty the guerrillas had in crossing the Litani River after Israeli attacks had put bridges out of commission. The two fighters in the front-page photo were wounded.

Meanwhile, although Israel didn't allow photographers to accompany its soldiers in the field, the Times managed to run quite a few photos of Israeli soldiers. The ombudsman says that this was for "balance," but it strikes me as the opposite, a propaganda victory for Hizbollah. The visual image Times' readers received, after all, was of the Lebanese civilian population suffering at a far greater rate than the Israeli civilian population, with pictures of Israeli soldiers doing the damage, and no pictures of Hizbollah forces (not to mention Syrian and Iranian assistants) at all--much less pictures of them hiding among the civilian population--save for two photos of wounded soldiers, which would naturally raise the basic human sympathy of many readers.

Perhaps the most disturbing comment in the column is this: "editors had to shape their photographic coverage, however, with the knowledge that the access of Times photographers to the death and suffering on each side was not equal." It reflects a mentality, that is present in the entire column, that the essence of war is the suffering it creates on each side while the war is going on. The reasons for the war, the implications of victory or defeat for each side, the moral status of the combatants (an issue the ombudsman says is irrelevant!), and so forth, is at best a sideshow. I'd be the first to admit that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to use photographs to illustrate these complexities. But to the extent newspaper photographs play on visceral, but acontextual, emotional reactions of readers, the Times should at least be contrite about this, rather than bragging of it's "balance" because its photos reflect a given ratio of casualties. Moreover, the ombudsman acknowledges that the death toll affected news coverage as well, despite his disclaimer that the Times shouldn't consider "morality" in its coverage! [Is not the choice to focus on acontextual civilian suffering in Lebanon as the essence, or at least, an extremely important aspect, of the war itself an implicit moral choice, a choice that implicitly favors a pacifistic response to terrorism when the terrorists hide among civilians?]

UPDATE: I notice many commentors are focusing on tangential quibbles, and missing three basic points: (1) The ombudsman's explanation of the coverage, if accepted, would mean that the Times is "unfair" in virtually ever other conflict it has covered, a rather startling admission. (2) The ombudsman chose to focus on the photographs covered by the Times as an indication of objectivity, but if you follow the ombudsman's own "count", readers who relied solely on the visual saw no pictures of Hizbollah gunmen, lots of pictures of Israeli soldiers, few pictures of Israelis suffering, and many pictures of Lebanese suffering. That's only "balanced" in some sort of alternate universe. (3) The idea that the "balance" of war coverage should be determined by how well a paper covers "suffering" on each side suggests that the suffering is the most important aspect of the war. This is hardly a neutral perspective, and the Times should not pretend it is.