Thursday, April 14, 2016

Letter to Reuters Editor: Stop the Bias - by Gilead Ini

The following letter, about severe violations of Reuters ethical guidelines by Jerusalem bureau chief Luke Baker, was mailed to Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler and other senior editors in early March. Disturbingly, Reuters has given no indication that it is taking steps to rectify the pattern of bias described in the letter. It is reprinted here in full.

Gilead Ini..
Times of Israel..
14 April '16..

Dear Mr. Adler,

We’re writing to raise concerns about substantive errors, demonstrable bias, and extreme lack of professionalism and accountability by Reuters’ bureau chief in Jerusalem, Luke Baker.

In recent weeks and months, Mr. Baker has refused to publish corrections to false and misleading statements in Reuters news stories. He has betrayed a glaring double standard, both in news stories and on Twitter (where, with his account handle @LukeReuters, he is seen as a representative of Reuters). And he has responded to carefully substantiated critiques with ad hominem attacks targeting his critics.

These behaviors, discussed in brief below and detailed in the enclosed articles, infringe on Reuters’ core values promising journalism “free from bias and executed with the utmost integrity.” That being the case, we urge Reuters to treat these concerns with the seriousness they deserve.

Allow me to start at the end, with Mr. Baker’s response to critiques.

Shortly after CAMERA’s Israel Director testified (alongside Mr. Baker) at a Knesset subcommittee meeting, and just days after CAMERA published a critical examination of Mr. Baker’s testimony at that meeting, Mr. Baker responded, in effect, by announcing on Twitter the salary of CAMERA’s executive director. Moments later, he shared a Twitter post slurring CAMERA as “foreign-funded enemies of freedom of the press and democracy in Israel.”

And after CAMERA’s Israel Director published an article taking issue with his handling of criticism (see “Reuters’ Jerusalem Bureau Chief Displays Anti-Israel Bias,” enclosed), Mr. Baker’s response was limited to stating that the article’s author “needs to get out more.”

These attacks, which are at essence acts of retribution against his critics, are unbecoming, unprofessional, and in flagrant violation of media codes of ethics, which call for accountability to the public. Indeed, in a section of Reuters own handbook entitled “Dealing with Complaints,” journalists are told: “As an underlying principle, remember throughout the process of dealing with complaints that attitude counts.” The handbook cautions against “getting mad or sounding overtly hostile.” And your guidelines on social media state that, “At all costs, we must avoid flame wars, incendiary rhetoric and loose talk.”

By way of background, CAMERA has a long history of productive engagement, and occasional polite disagreement, with reporters and editors at major news organizations around the world. In our correspondence with journalists at The New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, NPR, BBC, CNN and many others (including, up until this point, Reuters), I don’t believe we’ve ever encountered such an unprofessional and hostile response to substantive criticism.

Mr. Baker’s hostility may have to do with the fact that CAMERA has previously urged him to correct articles that were inaccurate or otherwise in violation of Reuters’ handbook.

For example, we recently called on him to update a Reuters story on a disputed shooting incident, after an article failed to include Israel’s account of the shooting. According to a public statement by Israel’s security forces, Israeli soldiers were attacked first, and only then used their firearms. Israel’s account was omitted despite the fact that the authors and Mr. Baker, who edited the piece, was aware of the statement — the article quoted an unrelated part of it. (Other reports including by the Associated Press, New York Times and Los Angeles Times shared Israel’s position, as appropriate.)

We reminded Mr. Baker that the failure to provide Israel’s account, even while relaying the Palestinian account in great detail, violates Reuters promise to “Take no side, tell all sides,” as your handbook puts it.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Israel’s account was included in early copies of the article, but appears to have been cut from later iterations. Emails to Reuters Standards Editor Alix Freedman went unanswered. (For details, see enclosed, “Despite Promise to ‘Tell All Sides,’ Reuters Leaves Israeli Account on Cutting Room Floor.”)

We also recently contacted Luke Baker about a factual error in a Reuters article, which he declined to correct despite Reuters’ guidelines that reporters should “always hold accuracy sacrosanct” and “always correct an error openly.”

The headline and body of that piece claimed, incorrectly, that a new Israeli law would tighten penalties on “Palestinian petrol bombers and rock throwers.” In fact, the law applies broadly to all Jewish and Arab citizens or residents of Israel alike, and not to Palestinians in the West Bank. (Reuters routinely refers to Arab citizens of Israel as “Arab Israelis” or “Arab citizens,” as distinct from “Palestinians” living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.)

Reuters not only mischaracterized the law, but also effectively misquoted Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyanu. The piece, we explained, opens with the claim that “Israel will impose a minimum four-year jail term on Palestinian petrol bombers and rock throwers and will ease open-fire regulations and impose harsher fines, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday.”

As we informed Mr. Baker, this is absolutely not what “Netanyahu said.” On the contrary, he explicitly noted that the measures apply to “all citizens and residents of Israel.” Mr. Baker, though, refused to correct the piece. And again, an email and a phone call to Alix Freedman went unanswered. (For details, see enclosed, “Unlike The Atlantic, Reuters Doesn’t Meet ‘Mandatory Minimum’ of Accountability.”) This is a significant factual error that should still be corrected and that, in our experience with many other media outlets, would have been promptly addressed. (Indeed, The Atlantic immediately corrected when we informed editors that they made a similar error.)

Finally, consider a recent example of Mr. Baker’s double standard, one that played out on Twitter and which perfectly underscores the concerns many have about an anti-Israel bias at Mr. Baker’s bureau.

After the unfortunate incident in which the Washington Post’s William Booth was detained by Israeli security officials, Mr. Baker on Twitter called the incident “wholly unacceptable,” and said Israel had “harassed” Mr. Booth.

But incredibly, only days later, Mr. Baker was detained and taken in for questioning by Hamas security. This time, he took pains to exculpate the security officials, noting in a string of Twitter posts that he was “briefly” taken in for “polite” questioning by Hamas. The arrest, he pointed out, did not occur while he was reporting (how is that germane?); he was “not escorted by anyone with guns” (there’s a reason Israeli security forces at the Damascus Gate carry guns, and it of course has nothing to do with journalists, but rather with the spate of violent attacks that have taken place there); and he informed his Twitter followers that he was “given coffee and then tea” by the Hamas officials who detained him.

All this to underscore his belief that, while it was “unacceptable” for Israelis to briefly detain a journalist after a tip by a confused passerby who thought something was amiss, it was wholly acceptable for Hamas to do the same. (Reuters published an article about the detention of Mr. Booth, but apparently did not publish anything about the detention of Mr. Baker.)

Note how this same bias extends to Reuters news coverage: In an article about Mr. Baker’s trip to the Gaza Strip, during which he was detained, Mr. Baker referred to a Hamas leader as “a medical doctor seen by many as a hardliner.” Why is it that this Hamas leader, who has a history of making vile anti-Semitic comments and has publicly called for the elimination of the Jews, said only to be “seen by many as a hardliner,” when Mr. Baker and Reuters have freely described Israeli officials including Benjamin Netanyahu as being, in fact, hardliners? (For details, see enclosed, “Luke Baker Suggests Okay for Hamas, but not Israel, to Detain Journalists.”)

The behaviors described above — the personal attacks online, the errors in news stories (and, especially, the refusal to correct them), the failure to “tell all sides,” and the double standards — violate Reuters’ promise that “everything we do as Reuters journalists has to be independent, free from bias and executed with the utmost integrity.” And the result will be precisely what Reuters warns of in another document: These behaviors “threaten our hard-earned reputation for independence and freedom from bias of our brand.”

For the sake of Reuters’ journalistic output and its reputation, we urge you to insist that the Jerusalem bureau, headed by Luke Baker or anyone else, remember and abide by the organization’s promised news values. We hope to see correction of the misrepresentation of Israel’s policy regarding rock and bomb throwing by protesters. And we hope to see a new commitment to accuracy, accountability, and freedom from error and from bias.

Thank you in advance for your attention to these important issues. We look forward to hearing from you.


Gilead Ini
Senior Research Analyst
Committee for Accuracy in
Middle East Reporting in America


Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA, where his writing on media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict highlights how one-sided and inaccurate reporting can distort understanding of the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at @GileadIni.

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