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Oct. 23, 2023, 1:02 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Sarah Scire   |   October 23, 2023

For the Recode Media podcast, Peter Kafka did a worthwhile interview with The Washington Post’s Douglas Jehl about running a major news operation in a conflict zone and getting the story right in the fog of war.

Jehl oversees The Washington Post’s coverage outside the United States as its international editor. He’s been in that role since 2009.

A few takeaways from their conversation last week:

“We’ve mobilized the entire newsroom.” The Washington Post has “12 or 13” people on the ground in Israel. But that’s just the start of it, Jehl said. There are additional reporters in neighboring countries Lebanon and Egypt. On the ground in Gaza, the Post is relying on a long-time contract reporter and photographer. There are teams in Seoul and London focused on breaking news around the clock. And then in Washington, D.C., the Post’s visual forensics team is working to authenticate the “flood of images and video pouring in,” Jehl said.

The labor-intensive story “does require drawing on people who haven’t spent the last decades covering Israel and Palestine,” Jehl said. That has come with its own issues: “It’s been incumbent on us — and we’ve done a good job of it, I think — to help bring people up to speed on potential pitfalls in terms of language and usage, so that our coverage brings the rigor and adherence to standards that’s really important to us at the Post.”

On coverage of the Gaza hospital blast. “I’m really proud of the way we’ve covered this event,” Jehl said. (Not all newsrooms can say the same.) The Post went with the headline “Hundreds feared killed in strike on Gaza hospital, Palestinian authorities say” on its original story.

“It’s vital that we report what we know and what we don’t know,” Jehl said. “What we knew … moments after the blast was that Palestinians officials said hundreds of people had died. They also asserted that Israel was responsible for the attack. We were careful in what we reported in that we alerted the claim from Palestinian officials that hundreds were dead. That clearly proved to be true. We were careful not to give that prominence to what — at the time and what remained — unverified assertions about responsibility.”

Jehl noted that most reporters who’ve covered conflicts recognize that the first reports are “invariably inaccurate” and that “certainty takes time.” Competing claims and sky-high levels of scrutiny make coverage of this conflict “particularly difficult,” he acknowledged.

“We’ve seen in the immediate reaction to this event how unverified information can ignite protests [and] raise the threat of a wider war,” Jehl said. “We’re aware of what’s at stake, and we have been very, very careful in sticking to the facts.”

What does it mean when The Washington Post “verifies” a video? Kafka asked Jehl about a story datelined from Gaza that includes footage the story says has been “verified by The Washington Post.” The Post’s visual forensics team used tools, including metadata, to investigate the claim the video was shot where the poster said it was shot, Jehl said.

How The Washington Post is reporting from inside Gaza. No one has been able to get in or out of Gaza since October 7 but, before the war began, the Post had a longtime contract reporter and photographer on the ground. Conditions for the two — and everyone else in Gaza — are “perilous,” Jehl said. “Their ability to report is limited by the risk of being caught up in attacks, limited by fuel, limited by limits on communication.”

In a conflict that has taken the lives of at least 23 journalists, Jehl said the Post is pushing reporters put their own safety first. There have been times where the Post has decided a particular area is simply too dangerous for on-the-ground reporting.

“These are decisions we make in Ukraine, decisions we make in Israel, and decisions we make around the world,” Jehl said. He added, “There are absolutely times when we say the potential reward is not worth the risk.”

Focused on the facts. Kafka asked Jehl if there was “an ongoing discussion about what objectivity means in a conflict like this.” Jehl said the Post is “focused on providing the best and most reliable and accurate and trustworthy coverage of this conflict that we can.”

He added: “I’ll be candid, we haven’t had a lot of deep discussions about the meaning of objectivity in the last 10 days. We’ve just been, at least at my level, focused on deploying correspondents and ensuring our coverage is both fast and accurate around the clock.”

Is this level of coverage even sustainable? “Well, unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of experience [covering] neverending stories,” Jehl said, pointing to the coronavirus epidemic, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We’ve continued to cover the major stories on a 24-hour basis. We built breaking news teams in London and Seoul that launched in the summer of 2021, just in time for this intensive period of news,” Jehl said. “I don’t mean to minimize the impact on our reporters and our teams. We need to make sure people pace themselves, that they get enough rest, that we rotate people into conflict zones so that we give them the breaks they need — but this is going to be a story that goes on. And it’s one that we believe is our obligation to cover with this intensity and rigor and velocity that we’ve brought to it for the last 10 days.”

You can listen to the full podcast here.

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