According to media reports, Israel’s raid on an Iranian military base in January had all the trappings of a spy movie: undercover agents (some presumably Iranian), a tight and precise timeline, blowtorches cutting through safes, the theft of hundreds of classified documents on a nuclear weapons program and a successful exit no one has yet explained. Except it wasn’t a spy movie — these are the facts of the operation. News outlets could have stuck to that, but instead they added drama and left out key information.
Here’s a look at what was added and what was missing, and why it may matter to readers.
‘It was a dark and stormy night’
Maybe not stormy, but considering the operation started at 10:30 p.m. Tehran time, it was dark. And the time of day was, among other elements, something the New York Times dramatized in its coverage. Consider its headline and lead sentence:
How Israel, in Dark of Night, Torched Its Way to Iran’s Nuclear Secrets
The Mossad agents moving in on a warehouse in a drab commercial district of Tehran knew exactly how much time they had to disable the alarms, break through two doors, cut through dozens of giant safes and get out of the city with a half-ton of secret materials: six hours and 29 minutes.
The dramatic language (marked above), writing style and selected details of the heist can easily draw readers in — it’s entertaining! And entertainment isn’t problematic in itself; it just doesn’t usually fit within objective news reporting. Compare those excerpts from the Times to the equivalent from The Knife:
Israel shows reporters documents allegedly stolen from Iran
On Sunday, The New York Times reported that last week Israel gave a Times reporter and two other reporters additional information about documents detailing Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, which Israel said it took from Tehran during a raid in January. Iran has said the documents are fraudulent.
When news outlets favor sensationalism in reporting, it’s often at the expense of data that would otherwise allow readers to quickly understand a story. In this case, the Times’ opening lost the bigger political picture on both sides: Israel’s claim that Iran has lied about its nuclear weapons program, and Iran’s denial of the claim.
Now, the Times’ story does inform, and it does present Iran’s account later in the article (as do the other three outlets). But to get to the data, one must sort through the more entertaining aspects of storytelling. Here’s a similar example from The Washington Post.
What is new is the detail, some of it startling, about the sophistication of Iran’s nuclear efforts, and how far Iran’s scientists advanced before the project was put on ice.
What “startling” and “sophistication” seemingly allude to is a chamber that Iran allegedly used to test an implosion device of “the type used to trigger a nuclear detonation,” according to the Post. But before you get to the details, the notion of “startling” is already in the mix.
The same can be said of describing the raid as “daring” or “dramatic,” as the Post and The Wall Street Journal did, respectively. Again, the way these articles are written, readers must approach the data simultaneously, if not pre-emptively, with the media’s sensationalism.
Now you see it, now you don’t
By comparing four news articles against each other, the Knife’s analysts can detect discrepancies in data. Some outlets include key information that could change readers’ understanding of the story, while others don’t. These articles had several issues in this regard.
For instance, the Israeli publication Haaretz slanted its coverage by omitting the fact that Iran has publicly questioned the stolen files’ authenticity. The omission may seem small, but it slants the coverage in a way that favors the Israeli perspective.
Along with Haaretz, the Journal and the Post omitted that Iran has honored its international agreement and publicly stated it would not pursue nuclear weapons. Regardless of the veracity of statements on either side of the issue, balanced, objective journalism would report both accounts, not just one. Had the Journal and Post included the above information, it would have given greater legitimacy to Iran’s account.
But it can also work the other way. For instance, the Times included in its coverage that U.S. and British intelligence reviewed the stolen documents, compared them to others they had previously obtained from “spies and defectors,” and said they believed the information was genuine. The other three outlets didn’t include this information, which would support Israel’s point of view.
Why less drama and more complete information?
It’s possible that the more sensational news reporting becomes, the more it may be accepted as the norm. Objective journalism affords readers an opportunity to examine the data and draw their own conclusions about it, instead of getting swept up in the drama and accepting biased accounts. And when the stakes are high — such as with the Iran nuclear deal — it might be best to stick to the facts first.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media