Editorials should stick to the facts

by Bastiaan Vanacker

Last week I was contacted by Koby Nahmias and Omri Fine, founding member and chairman, respectively, of the University student group Friends of Israel. They had numerous concerns about the Daily’s coverage of their organization.

I was recently hired by the Daily as a readers’ representative, so it is my task to investigate and handle comments, remarks or complaints readers have about the Daily’s coverage. Nahmias and Fine immediately set me to task.

Their biggest complaint was an editorial that appeared Oct. 18 titled: “Middle East tensions inflamed by intolerance.” In that piece, the Daily’s editorial board asked both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups on campus to “take a step back from their own selfish perspective to realize people on both sides are, ultimately, human.”

The representatives of Friends of Israel I spoke with whole-heartedly subscribed to this conclusion, but they felt that the premise of the editorial – that there are growing tensions on this campus between Jewish and Muslim students – was based on inaccuracies, grossly-misrepresented reality and negated the efforts the two groups have been making to remain civil with each other, even if they passionately disagree on certain issues. I can only comment on their inaccuracy complaint.

Editorials are different from actual news stories: They make assessments and state opinions about matters of public concern rather than merely conveying factual information. However, statements of fact made in editorials should maintain the same high standard of truth as factual statements in a news story. The Minnesota News Council has stated this as a guiding principle on numerous occasions in cases regarding editorials brought against news organizations.

The Oct. 28 editorial fell short in maintaining this high standard of factual truth. For example, the editorial said “Friends of Israel, despite their protestations of good intentions, have forced their way into pro-Palestine events to disrupt and harass.” This referred to an incident that took place in Blegen Hall a couple of months ago, where Friends of Israel members were denied access to a public event organized by the Anti-War Committee. According to an Oct. 3 Daily story, the Friends of Israel members were denied access, and only after they called the police and talked to the organizers were they granted access to the room.

While only the people who were actually there can know what happened, neither the Oct. 3 Daily story, nor any other source that I am aware of, warrants the statement that Friends of Israel “forced” its way in to the event. There never seemed to have been an attempt by Friends of Israel to get in to the room after the group was denied access. According to the Daily report, the two groups were able to talk things out and come to an agreement.

Also the statement that “two events last spring became shouting matches on Northtrop Mall (between Muslim and Jewish students)” was not totally accurate. The Daily reported on only one event turning into a shouting match, not two. Here as well, the editorial board should have been more careful in its fact checking.

The piece also referred to “Muslim” and “Jewish” students as the two groups responsible for the alleged rising tensions on campus. Friends of Israel members said the group prides itself on the fact that it counts people from different national and religious backgrounds among its members. The students supporting the Palestinian cause also consist of more than just Muslims. If there are tensions between the two groups, it seems more than just Muslims and Jews would be involved; we should not only hold Jewish and Muslim students responsible for alleged tensions. Later in the editorial, the more accurate terms of “pro-Israel students” and “pro-Palestine students” are used.

Some might say the editorial’s main premise, even if it contains some inaccuracies, still holds true: There have been some “confrontations” on this campus; one shouting match did occur and the fact that the police had to mediate before the two groups could agree on the conditions under which Friends of Israel was admitted in the room in Blegen Hall also is not an indication of a smooth relationship. Moreover, in the Daily article, representatives of Friends of Israel and the Arab Student Association discuss the issue of the existing “tensions” between the groups with the Daily reporter.

But in a state famous for its niceties, where a mere frown already amounts to an act of aggression, we have to be careful not to cast every interchange that takes place between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students here on campus in the familiar framework of never-ending violence and conflict that has defined the media’s coverage of the Middle East for decades. The Daily, and the media in general, must be careful not to mindlessly adopt certain narratives that so easily seem to fit every event involving pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students. Therefore, it is mandatory to stick with the facts, even in an editorial, before making sweeping statements.

Bastiaan Vanacker is The Minnesota Daily’s reader’s representative. He welcomes comments at [email protected]