A backgrounder on extremist politicians in the Israeli Knesset. A profile of a celebrated Palestinian poet and academic killed by Israeli airfire. A human-interest feature on Christians in Gaza fearful amid the war.
These are just a few examples of the story ideas pitched by journalists in Canadian newsrooms that never made it to air or to publication in these news outlets. Some were initially approved and completed, but then pulled at the last minute. Others were declined, with no cited reason.
Story idea rejections are part of a picture of anti-Palestinian bias manifesting within newsrooms across the country. Journalists wanting to tell stories about Palestinians are feeling exhausted and unheard while doing their job, as J-Source has learned through interviews with multiple newsroom employees, all of whom requested anonymity for fears about their job and professional reputation.
Even providing context for the current crisis is seen as problematic by some editors.
“Stories get turned down all the time, but most of the time you can understand why, or how there is another story that takes more precedence,” one journalist at a mainstream broadcaster said. “But this is our top story. And if it’s our top story, we should be doing as many interviews that provide as much of a 360 view as possible.”
Many journalists say they have been discouraged to write stories about context that they say should make the Canadian audience better informed about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. In one case, a journalist pitched an explainer on those currently put under so-called administrative detention by Israel so readers could understand the backdrop of the Hamas-Israel prisoner/hostage swap, but their newsroom showed no interest in this kind of expanded, contextual storytelling.“The frustrating thing is I would feel better if they said ‘no,’ if they just said, ‘that’s outside of our scope,’ or even that they don’t know,” the journalist said. Instead, they say they are being met with “just a blank stare. I’m being ignored and not even acknowledged. And then they move on, right?”
There is a glaring dearth of deeper analysis from the stories covered in legacy media, says Dania Majid, president of the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association. “They’re really trying to keep it just to destroyed buildings and body counts and victims and not, ‘how did we get here? What is the Nakba?. Or the occupation? The siege? What are Palestinian rights under international law?’” says Majid. “All that context would help the public understand what’s happening. I believe all that information is deliberately being withheld.”
Majid, who authored an extensive report on anti-Palestinian racism last year, said she and her colleagues, who are leading international law scholars, are rarely approached by Canadian legacy media journalists to offer expertise on Israel-Palestine. “We’re often given a myriad of reasons as to why: They don’t have room for it, it doesn’t fit their story, or they don’t want to deal with the backlash,” she says.
On Nov. 5, an op-ed pitch was submitted to a major news publication by an academic who moved to Canada as a refugee child. The op-ed urged Ottawa to “live up to its reputation as humanitarian protector” and called for an immediate ceasefire after Israel dropped bombs on three refugee camps in Gaza in October.
In an email thread obtained by J-Source, the publication’s editor agreed to review the piece, but added: “I must also say off the top, however, any talk of a ceasefire must also address how Israel is supposed to address Hamas.”
In their response, the academic explained that their op-ed, based on their knowledge of and research on refugee studies and war—and it was in that capacity that they were commenting on alleged war crimes by one of the world’s strongest military powers—that this reality was in violation of international law.
The editor promptly declined the piece.
Majid, who learned of the exchange from the academic, said the response was off-putting and another example of how the media excludes Palestinian narratives. She thinks the editor’s response “essentially barred most perspectives on Palestine,” creating an unfair barrier by requiring those advocating for Palestinian victims of violence to first resolve the question of Hamas, effectively asking them to be experts on the geopolitics first.
“Why must we come up with a solution to the Hamas question in order to express our humanity and experiences? Why must Palestine always be viewed through the lens of Hamas?” says Majid.
The frustration felt by individual journalists in legacy newsrooms across Canada reveals a significant bias in newsroom decisions on reporting on the ongoing war. In smaller, more independent spaces including The Breach and Canadaland, journalists have been more successful at publishing contextual stories and a wider array of perspectives from the Palestinian side. However, even those spaces have not been without struggle. The union for Canadaland employees signed a public letter last week citing concerns about recent “misleading,” “targeted,” and “irresponsible” statements by their publisher against pro-Palestinian voices.
Truth is the first casualty of war, goes the old adage, and how true that holds in the murky era of social media, where platforms are both a blessing and a curse — enabling people to send eyewitness accounts from the ground while simultaneously being a vehicle for misinformation and disinformation.
In an op-ed last month, Washington Post journalist Karen Attiah suggested considering the role of race and colonialism in the current war. “Today’s violence is a legacy of the British Empire’s strategy to ‘divide and rule,’ by which a small island of European colonizers used strife as a weapon to enhance their power,” she wrote.
“Given that many countries around the world were either colonized by the British or experienced U.S. military occupation in the post-World War II era, this conflict has come for many of us to symbolize ‘the West versus the Rest.’”
The powerful narrative that this is an “Us versus Them” conflict painted in black and white instead of a vastly complicated event rooted in a web of social, racial, political and military realities, serves only the most powerful actors — in this case the Israeli state, the United States and its allies.
Palestinian-American theorist Edward Said coined the term “orientalism” to explain how large groups of people with diverse histories become oversimplified through narrow and misleading portrayals as social and cultural “others.” Such portrayals lead to dangerous divisions based on ideological differences that may or may not exist, leading to the kind of “clash of civilizations” theory that Samuel Huntington put forth. The simplistic us-versus-them characterizations can have devastating consequences.
We are seeing this play out in the form of the dehumanization of Palestinians by several tiers of power, including members of the Israeli military and political elites, all the way down to journalists.
Indeed, the war coverage from Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia, demonstrates a manifestly different treatment of Israelis and Palestinians. In a post on X on Nov. 2, journalist and opinion editor of the Maple, a reader-funded publication that advocates for the working class, Davide Mastracci, compared the representation of Palestinians versus Israelis on four different front pages of the National Post after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.
In his analysis, Mastracci showed how Israelis photographed on these pages were seen as either a victim or a hero, while the few images published of Palestinians featured a compromised political leader, a Hamas fighter, or a crazed demonstrator on the streets of Toronto. In fact, the headline over the protestors image literally read: “Another week of terror rallies.”
This sweeping reduction of Palestinians and demonstrators echoes the so-called “clash of civilizations” narrative.
Spectre of scrutiny
Such skewed representations are not limited just to Postmedia. Palestinian sources and story ideas are often subjected to an added burden of proof in a way that Israeli sources are not, a producer told me. In one instance, for example, they were told to fact check what a guest had said about a family member dying in an Israeli airstrike. “In order for me to ascertain whether this guest’s family member had died, I would need a death certificate and a family tree,” he said. “I’ve never been asked to fact check a guest’s personal sensitive claims before. So that upset me.”
And when Gaza has been covered, there is a singular focus. In an investigation of Bell Media’s CTV last month by The Breach, one producer said that the few commentators booked to speak for the Palestinian side only speak to the humanitarian crisis, but not about the geopolitics of the conflict.
The producer told The Breach that there is “a hesitancy to bring on any kind of Palestinian activist or policy analyst who speaks about human rights, or can provide a political or historical context.”
Contextualizing is often misinterpreted as offering justification for Hamas’s actions against Israel, she added. But offering a background story “isn’t justifying and it isn’t condoning.”
One Palestinian-Canadian woman in British Columbia with siblings in Gaza told J-Source that she suspected she was not invited to speak on air after a pre-interview with CBC The National in October because she focused her comments on what she wanted the public to know about Israel instead of how saddened or worried she felt about her sisters.
“They asked questions like: “How do you feel about your family? How are you coping? Of course I live on hell on Earth, and it’s sometimes good for people to know I’m feeling this way. But if I got four minutes on CBC I don’t want to waste it crying. It’s not only about me and my siblings back home, it’s about everyone and why this is happening, right?” Asking only about how my family is doing and how Canadians can help is tone deaf and reeks of white saviorism, she said.
Several experts on Palestine often called upon for interviews said they are so frustrated with Canadian news outlets that they called them out on social media for bias or an absence of basic political knowledge about the conflict. In late October, global media communications professor Adel Iskandar spoke publicly about his cancelled interview with CBC, noting that a discussion about disinformation and censorship became “itself an act of censorship and disinformation.”
Iskandar, who teaches at Simon Fraser University, said he had a detailed conversation about the history of the conflict with the interviewer, who informed him that it’s been difficult to get voices that reflect the Palestinian perspective in Gaza because of gatekeeping practices in the newsroom.
Iskandar told her he preferred a live interview instead of a pre-recorded one, and the producer agreed. “Shortly before the live, I got a call saying she was deeply apologetic and that they couldn’t proceed and would instead prefer a recording.”
Although he reluctantly agreed, Iskander told her how disappointed he was given the infrequency of hearing Palestinian voices on air. Five minutes later, she informed him that her bosses had pulled the story.
This wasn’t an unusual experience for Iskandar, who says he spent an hour with one reporter discussing disinformation, but was frustrated because all their questions focused only on Hamas-led disinformation.
This, he said, reflects a bias because the reality is that the Israeli government has many more communication channels, spokespeople, press offices and embedded reporters. The reporter told Iskander that the story wouldn’t run based on their conversation. “I found that to be quite indicative of the climate inside the organization,” he said. “There are certain things that are permissible and certain things that are not permissible.”
The specter of scrutiny often cast on Palestinian narratives is reflected in language as well, most notably through the decision to attribute any data about the Palestinian collateral damage to their “Hamas-run” health ministry.
“Hamas-run ministry” is an IDF construct aimed at delegitimizing all civilian and civic institutions in Gaza. In fact, the Gaza health ministry is run by bureaucrats and medical professionals with significant international oversight because of the nature of the reality of life in Gaza – not by militants. Over and over, experts have attested to the reliability of the ministry’s numbers in Gaza as shown for example in this piece in the leading medical journal The Lancet. By this point in the war, however, hundreds of these medical experts and workers have been killed.
Meanwhile, interviews with Israeli government officials are commonly featured and often go unchallenged. Canadian news anchors – including those like the CBC’s Rosemary Barton who historically have been upheld as bold interviewers – fail to interrogate Israeli guests. This doesn’t mean that accountability interviews have not taken place, however. J-Source has learned of instances where such interviews were recorded, but were withheld for “being too divisive” or “not adding anything new.”
“They will push (pro-Israeli talking heads) back on again and again and just let them repeat demonstrably false claims. For instance, the idea that civilians can go south for safety,” one journalist told J-Source.
Stifling industry silence
It is clear that journalists in Canada and beyond are struggling with covering this war – yet journalism organizations have been oddly silent about its impact on their own. At least 90 journalists and sometimes their entire families have been killed by Israeli forces over 70 days. To put that number in perspective, consider that a total of 68 media workers were killed on a global scale in the whole of 2022.
On Nov. 3, the apartment building of Palestine TV reporter Mohammed Abu Hatab was hit by an airstrike, killing him and ten family members. Upon learning of his death, his colleague Salman al-Bashir, ripped off his “press”-emblazoned helmet and vest live on air, reducing his news anchor to tears.
“There is no international protection at all, and no humanity,” he declared. “These shields and hats do not protect us. They are just slogans that we only wear and they do not protect any journalist at all … We are waiting for our turn, one after the other.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the first few weeks of this war have been the deadliest period for journalists covering conflict since 1992, when the group first began tracking.
Somehow, though, the death of Palestinian journalists fails to jolt our industry in a way that it has done so around other journalist casualties and press freedom concerns globally. It wasn’t long ago that Canadian and U.S. professional advocacy groups sounded the alarm about Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s state-backed assassination or Ukrainian journalists killed on the frontlines of war with Russia.
Consider also the industry’s responses to the genuinely outrageous but far less alarming tendency by former U.S. president Donald Trump to verbally insult journalists and denigrate the press. Trump’s antics were considered “beyond the pale,” an “existential threat to American freedom of the press,” and “the stuff of authoritarian governments.”
In the face of dozens upon dozens of journalists being killed, and mounting allegations that Israel is targeting them and their families in Gaza, organizations like Journalists for Human Rights, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Journalism Foundation have been largely silent. Individual journalists have tried to fill the void by launching grass-roots calls for the protection of journalists in the war.
More than two months into this crisis, Canadian news media has much to atone for. The editorial bias and false equivalences that have helped hide the clear imbalance of power between the state of Israel and the scattered population inside the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where little attention has been paid to daily attacks on Palestinians by settlers, is a clear transgression of journalistic practice and ethics.
The coverage is already having a direct impact on North American soil, as reflected by two chilling cases, the stabbing of a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy and his mother by their landlord in Chicago, who said he was “angry about what was going on in Jerusalem,” and the shooting of three young Palestinian students in Vermont because they were wearing keffiyehs.
“We are failing as an industry,” a journalist quoted in this article who resigned from their job in protest last month told J-Source. “In the span of 20 years (since the U.S invasion of Iraq) there have been no lessons learned. There was never a pause to reconsider what we just went through or how we were complicit in it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the Palestinian-American boy who was murdered was 12 years old. He was, in fact, six.
Shenaz Kermalli currently teaches journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University and University of Toronto' School of Continuing Studies, and is a former producer and writer for CBC News, BBC News Online and Al Jazeera English. She is launching a new course, Decolonizing Journalism, at the U of T's School of Continuing Studies in Spring 2024, developed and co-taught by journalists Desmond Cole, Shree Paradkar, Dan David and Lela Savić .