Accuracy, Humanity, Context: Responsibly Covering the Israel-Hamas War

Palestinian journalists during the aftermath of Israeli airstrike in Gaza on Oct. 15, 2023. (Photo by Momen Faiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

At least 31 journalists have died since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, eight have been injured and nine have been reported missing or detained, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists

For reporters in the region, there is first and foremost the danger of covering airstrikes and ground assaults, and then there is the difficulty of relaying accurate, contextualized information to the public. War journalists must keep up with ever-shifting developments, decipher propaganda and disinformation, and witness death, torment and starvation on a daily basis. The divisiveness of the conflict only adds to the stresses.

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Covering the Israel-Hamas war can feel especially daunting for many reasons, but it is a journalist’s job — whether in the region or abroad — to provide facts and clarity about what’s at stake.

To understand how to sort through an onslaught of incoming reports, how to present humanity and context in reporting and acknowledge the weight of this moment while continuing to do the work, I spoke with two NBC journalists invested in covering the war responsibly: Tehran bureau chief and correspondent Ali Arouzi and Chris Scholl, senior deputy editor of Standards for the NBCUniversal News Group. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Prioritizing accuracy and skepticism

The Israel-Hamas conflict is constantly changing. How do you keep up? 

Arouzi: It’s very important to stay on top of the facts. In the so-called fog of war, you get overloaded with information. Some of it is salient, some of it isn’t, some of it is propaganda. And you don’t always have eyes on the situation yourself, so you have to be very careful not to get overexcited about a piece of news and run with it. It’s important not necessarily to be the first with the news, but the most accurate. To decipher everything that’s in front of you, have reliable sources and don’t get caught up in the excitement and the fog.

Scholl: In terms of standards, our focus primarily is bringing an appropriate degree of skepticism to everything, regardless of where it’s coming from. 

While we may be able to recognize propaganda, it’s much harder to recognize what might be disinformation. There is misinformation, which is just people getting facts wrong, and there’s disinformation — people putting out things that may or may not be factual in order to persuade public opinion. And if we’re not skeptical of that, we can very easily be played. 

Especially when it’s coming from one source or one side, ask: Is it real? Do we have reason to believe it? Do we have independent reporting to support that? And if we don’t, what do we do with that information? Do we report it with caveats? Or do we not report it at all pending further reporting? Those are the questions we focus on.

What do you see as a journalist’s responsibility in covering war, or this war?

Scholl: With this particular war, I don’t think there’s a more divisive or controversial issue in the world in recent history. It’s extremely difficult for people to detach feelings and passions and beliefs from what we might be covering. And I think that requires us to rise to the challenge. I don’t believe that my opinion is so important that people have to hear it. I prefer to speak through the journalism because I see our role as putting the facts out there, so people can make appropriate judgments as to what they think is going on, and then we try to bring as much context to that reporting as possible. 

Arouzi: It’s not an easy thing to detach your emotions from what’s going on on the ground, especially when it’s particularly horrifying, and you’re seeing civilians getting caught up in the most heinous ways, but I think Chris is absolutely right. The responsibility of a journalist — especially as we’re in the field and not sitting on a round table in a studio having a discussion — is you’ve got to just talk about the facts. Our opinion is irrelevant in the field. Otherwise, your viewers can’t really trust you. They think you may have an agenda if you go on too much about one thing regardless of how you feel about it. 

Just last week, I had an interview with the Hamas representative in Iran. It wasn’t an easy interview to do with him — he had talking points, which he stuck to. But rather than getting emotional while challenging someone’s statements, you’ve got to talk about what’s going on in the ground. And when they deny that, again, bring figures and facts and videos that have been verified rather than get into an emotional discussion with them. 

Scholl: I do think it is particularly a challenge when you’re in the field like Ali is, or others on our team are, to witness these tragedies firsthand, while we may sit back in New York watching video. It would be naive to think that we don’t have emotions, or that we necessarily can suppress those emotions in all cases. I mean, I see a dead baby, I feel big time. I see a starving mother, I feel it. It’s not that we can’t report on those things compassionately — as humans, we should, that’s our job. But to the point Ali made, when it comes to injecting our beliefs or our takeaways or conclusions, we have to be very careful.

Humanizing and contextualizing news on the ground

That brings me to my next question: How important it is to humanize tragedies like this and report on the people impacted by them?  

Arouzi: If you’re on the ground and if you have access, you tell that story through their own words. These are the people who are experiencing it. These are the people whose house got hit by a rocket or family’s been abducted, so let them tell you about their experience. And then let the viewer make up their own mind, rather than you going on about their experiences the whole time. 

Scholl: Everything we do has to be told through a human prism. If you’re not doing that, you’re not giving people at home, whether they’re reading online or watching on TV, any sense of context. It’s our job as reporters, they say, to give voice to the voiceless. It’s not simply that we do that and we don’t interview experts or government officials — we try to inform as well. But one of the most effective ways to inform is to tell stories through the eyes of actual human beings. 

As you mentioned, another role of journalists is to provide context. How important is it for journalists to offer the historical and political context that led to this moment?

Arouzi: It’s vital. Firstly, as a journalist, you need to have an overview of everything that’s going on globally. And my advice to any aspiring journalist is know your beat backwards. Because it all relates; history always repeats itself. And if you want to give some context, you’ve got to know what led up to what happened that day. Even if you’re getting parachuted in, make sure you’re really, really well read up before you get there. It’s of vital importance to have an understanding of the region, the people, the conflicts, the disagreements, to be able to inform the viewers properly.

Scholl: Context is almost always important. There are occasions — and I’m not speaking about the war here — where context may not matter that much. For example, you’ve got a convicted serial killer who’s confessing to a bunch of crimes — I don’t really care about his childhood and how it was rough on him. I don’t think that context is particularly informative or relevant. It may be in a book later on, but when he’s just been convicted, perhaps not. We do have to be sensitive to a particular moment in time, where we’re not tone-deaf as to what’s going on. But overall, that is our job: to provide context to get people to understand not just one linear point of view or one perspective, but to give them a full and complete understanding to the extent we can of what’s really going on.

Ali, you mentioned parachuting into stories. Whenever there’s a major news narrative, a lot of journalists who don’t normally cover this type of story are suddenly thrown in. What is your advice to them? 

Arouzi: You’re going to want to get all the facts you can gather before you get on the ground. And then when you get on the ground, you’ve got to talk to locals. You’ve got to go to the cafes where people gather and have political discussions. Mingle with locals of various opinions on either sides of the aisle in whatever country you’re in, to understand the thinking of the place. Somewhere like Iran is very divided between the government and the people. But it’s essential to understand the government’s point of view, so you can understand the people’s gripes.

Verifying news and images

Chris, you also talked about how misinformation and disinformation are very rampant. What is your advice to journalists who are not reporting from the area but are trying to get the most accurate information?  

Scholl: For a young journalist, it’s best not to believe anybody at face value. I mean, we report on the U.S. government critically all day long, yet somehow, when we get into a war, we say, “Oh, well, they’re saying it must be true.” It’s important to have that suspension of faith in any particular entity, even our best longtime sources who might have never given us any reason to doubt them — maybe they had second-hand knowledge or were well-intentioned but were just wrong. Every time you learn a fact, you should be saying, why? Or is this true? And if it doesn’t make sense, that’s a particular alarm bell. If you don’t really know the answer, that’s reason to stop and think. 

Arouzi: To add to what Chris was saying about sources, especially in countries with authoritarian regimes where sources can be gotten to, they may be forced to give you misinformation. You have to be very aware of that and know your circumstances.

Chris, when it comes to graphic imagery — and there’s a lot circulating online — how do you decide what to use? On the one hand, you want to show the accurate horrors of war, but what is too much? 

Scholl: Our job is not to sanitize war. People have to understand the stakes of what’s happening. If we see horrific things, we need to be able to report them. If we blur images, for example, we are, by definition, withholding information from somebody who might be looking at those pictures. It doesn’t mean there’s no good reason to blur. Sometimes we have to blur things that are just so horrific. You risk the cumulative effect of wearing people down to the point where they’re seeing so much horrific video, they may not be turning on the TV, and then they’re often misinformed. So it’s a real judgment call. There’s no golden rule for doing these things. But at the end of the day, our job is to report and provide information wherever we can, and that should be our default mindset.

Checking in with your emotions and judgment

We got into this a little bit earlier, but obviously, perspectives are very heated right now. On the one hand, as journalists, we are presenting the facts and should hold our opinions and emotions at bay. But on the other, we talk about the importance of bringing your authentic self and perspectives to the newsroom. What is your advice to journalists with ties to these cultures, identities and regions as they report on this war and are faced with tragedy and suffering every day?  

Scholl: You have to be introspective enough to say, “Am I doing my job as a journalist? Or am I letting my emotions solely guide my reporting?” If I happen to have ties to something that may give me unique knowledge, that’s extremely helpful in my reporting. But if it is clouding my vision, then that is something that everybody has to decide for themselves. There are people who recuse themselves from covering a story — not this story, necessarily, but others in which they have so much interest that they feel they can’t report on it objectively. And I think that’s a wise decision. We’re all human beings; we can’t always just check our emotions at the door. In fact, it’s very difficult to do in some cases, if we have a personal stake in something. But unless you can honestly answer the question, in your own mind, “Am I doing my job as a journalist? Or am I letting my own personal experience and views cloud the situation, rather than inform the story?” If I’m not doing that, then I may be able to sit this one out.

Arouzi: It takes an enormous amount of maturity, especially for somebody who’s on air, to recuse themselves. And I completely agree with Chris — that is the best thing to do if you can’t detach yourself. It’s important to give both sides of the story, because there’s always two sides. 

Scholl: Adding to what Ali just said is that there are both sides and sometimes there’s more than two sides. We don’t use the term “balanced coverage” because “balanced” implies 50-50. It’s our job as journalists to assess things. And I don’t have to give 50% of a story to one perspective that I know is not accurate. In fact, I should be a lot choosier than that in order to do journalism.

What kind of stories do you think we should be paying more attention to? What would you like to see more coverage of?

Arouzi: Personally, obviously, because it’s my business, I’d like the focus to stay more international. When you’re reporting about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza, and it has nothing to do with America, people get a real view of what’s going on — they don’t have to relate it to home. I’d like to see more reporting just focus on the area and the people themselves.

Scholl: If we look at everything purely through an American perspective, it’s really not helpful. It’s a big world with a lot of countries with various interests. What I would love to see more of is the setting in a broader context. Hamas does not operate in a bubble isolated from everybody. Israel does not operate in a bubble isolated from everybody. There are many different forces at work between different countries, different religions, different forces, sometimes different financial forces. I think that broader context often gets lost. We do sometimes get down into the weeds so far, in the specifics of a certain situation, that we lose sight of the forest.