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Oct. 23, 2023, 11:45 a.m.

The New York Times offers a limited mea culpa for how it initially presented news of the Gaza hospital blast

“Given the sensitive nature of the news during a widening conflict, and the prominent promotion it received, Times editors should have taken more care with the initial presentation, and been more explicit about what information could be verified.”

The New York Times says that it “should have taken more care with the initial presentation” of its coverage of the Gaza hospital explosion last week. That’s the takeaway from an editor’s note published to NYTimes.com this morning. The Times has faced criticism for initially giving credence to the Hamas claim that the blast was caused by an Israeli attack; Israeli officials later said a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket was to blame. (There’s still a lot unknown about the explosion, but independent analysts have generally come down on the side of the misfired-rocket version.)

Here’s the key part of the editor’s note (full text at the bottom of this post), emphases mine:

The Times’s initial accounts attributed the claim of Israeli responsibility to Palestinian officials, and noted that the Israeli military said it was investigating the blast. However, the early versions of the coverage — and the prominence it received in a headline, news alert and social media channels — relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified. The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.

The Times continued to update its coverage as more information became available, reporting the disputed claims of responsibility and noting that the death toll might be lower than initially reported. Within two hours, the headline and other text at the top of the website reflected the scope of the explosion and the dispute over responsibility.

Notably absent in the 308-word note were any links to the Times coverage in question. (The Times has published 22 stories mentioning “al-Ahli,” the name of the hospital in question, since the blast.) So here’s a re-creation of what someone looking at the NYTimes.com homepage would have seen on the afternoon (New York time) of October 17.

This was the Times homepage at 2:09 p.m. ET, the earliest version that mentions the blast, at least among versions saved by the Internet Archive.1 (As of 2:01, the lead story had been House Republicans’ continued struggle to elect a speaker.)

Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinian Officials Say

• At least 200 people were killed, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, who said the number of casualties was expected to rise.

• The deadly strike on the hospital came as President Biden was preparing for a visit to Israel as conditions in besieged Gaza grew ever more desperate.

Note that the headline leads with “Israeli Strike,” although it attributes that claim to “Palestinian Officials.” By 2:25 p.m., the homepage had been updated to strip the “Israeli Strike” line across the width of the site, with a new secondary headline beneath it:

Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinian Officials Say

At Least 500 Dead in Gaza Attack, as Biden Prepares to Visit to Israel

• The Palestinian Health Ministry said the number of casualties was expected to rise. Many civilians were sheltering at the hospital.

• The deadly strike on the hospital came as President Biden was preparing for a visit to Israel as conditions in besieged Gaza grew ever more desperate.

That remains steady for about an hour until the Israeli government’s notes of caution are added for the first time at 3:44 p.m.

Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say

At Least 500 Dead; Israel Urges Caution as It Investigates

• The Palestinian Health Ministry said the number of casualties was expected to rise. Many civilians were sheltering at the hospital.

• The deadly strike on the hospital came as President Biden was preparing for a visit to Israel as conditions in besieged Gaza grew ever more desperate.

A few minutes later, at 4:01 p.m., the top headline is updated to remove the “Israeli Strike” language and more fully represent the Israeli version of events.

At Least 500 Dead in Strike on Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say

Israelis Say Misfired Palestinian Rocket Was Cause of Explosion

• The Palestinian Health Ministry said the number of casualties was expected to rise. Many civilians were sheltering at the hospital.

• The deadly strike on the hospital came as President Biden was preparing for a visit to Israel as conditions in besieged Gaza grew ever more desperate.

That span — from 2:09 to 4:01 p.m. — is the “within two hours” span the Times’ note is referencing.

(At 4:28, the top headlines were revised to the less numerically specific “Hundreds Dead in Blast at Gaza Hospital, Palestinians Say” and “Israeli and Gazan Officials Blame Each Other for Explosion.” And the bullet points underneath laid out more specifics: “The health ministry in Gaza said the blast had been caused by an Israeli airstrike, and that the number of casualties was expected to rise. The Israeli military said its intelligence indicated that Islamic Jihad, an Islamist group aligned with Hamas, was responsible for the hospital strike.”)

This was the paper’s lead story in print the next day — the closest thing to an official all-encompassing narrative from the Times. It placed the Hamas and Israeli versions of events side-by-side in the lede:

An explosion killed hundreds of people on Tuesday at a hospital in Gaza City that was packed with people sheltering there, Gazan officials said, as Palestinians and Israelis blamed each other for a tragedy that inflamed the region just as President Biden was expected to arrive in Israel.

Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, said an Israeli airstrike had caused the blast at the Ahli Arab Hospital. Hours later, Israeli officials said that one of the rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian militants had failed shortly after launch, causing what could be the deadliest single incident of the 10-day-old war.

The issue here, both in the complaints and in the Times’ note, is primarily about the high-level presentation of the story — in headlines, in news alerts, in tweets — but if you’d like to see the evolution of the Times’ story itself, you can see that here. Or, more simply, you can see it on the actual article page itself — It’s in the Times’ now frequent live-blog format, with each atomic update listed in reverse chronological order, with a writethru at the top. The first mention is here (“An Israeli strike hit the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, killing at least 200 Palestinians, according to a spokeswoman of the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza”), posted at 1:36 p.m. A post on the Israeli version of events follows just three minutes later, at 1:39. (“The Israeli military says it is looking into reports of an Israeli airstrike on a hospital in Gaza City. ‘We’re checking,’ said Maj. Nir Dinar, a military spokesman.”)

Here’s the full text of the Times’ editors’ note.

On Oct. 17, The New York Times published news of an explosion at a hospital in Gaza City, leading its coverage with claims by Hamas government officials that an Israeli airstrike was the cause and that hundreds of people were dead or injured. The report included a large headline at the top of The Times’s website.

Israel subsequently denied being at fault and blamed an errant rocket launch by the Palestinian faction group Islamic Jihad, which has in turn denied responsibility. American and other international officials have said their evidence indicates that the rocket came from Palestinian fighter positions.

The Times’s initial accounts attributed the claim of Israeli responsibility to Palestinian officials, and noted that the Israeli military said it was investigating the blast. However, the early versions of the coverage — and the prominence it received in a headline, news alert and social media channels — relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified. The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.

The Times continued to update its coverage as more information became available, reporting the disputed claims of responsibility and noting that the death toll might be lower than initially reported. Within two hours, the headline and other text at the top of the website reflected the scope of the explosion and the dispute over responsibility.

Given the sensitive nature of the news during a widening conflict, and the prominent promotion it received, Times editors should have taken more care with the initial presentation, and been more explicit about what information could be verified. Newsroom leaders continue to examine procedures around the biggest breaking news events — including for the use of the largest headlines in the digital report — to determine what additional safeguards may be warranted.

  1. The timestamps I’m citing here are from the Times’ coverage, embedded in the homepage’s HTML. The Internet Archive captures the Times homepage around 200 times a day, but it’s certainly possible that an update could have been made — or made and reversed — in the time between any two of those captures. []
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 23, 2023, 11:45 a.m.
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