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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gaza, Social Media and The Odyssey

Homer, early journalist
The war in Gaza appears to be winding down. It may just moving into another phase - one that hopefully, might include peace talks. Regardless, this awful war with its dreadful visuals of murdered children has been one in which the role of social media has changed how legacy media have reported this conflict and possibly, in future wars as well.

Israel has been accused of using disproportionate force and the tally of dead Gazans compared to dead Israelis has allowed for a powerful international denunciation of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.

The emotional tone of the coverage has reduced any attempt by Israel and its supporters to justify its position to mere sputterings. Rocket attacks by Gaza were met with a much more violent reply. There was no military equivalence, despite attempts by the Israeli government to claim that it was the first victim. In the realm of public opinion, the Israelis have lost this round. Even if Hamas were to disappear tomorrow, Israel's ability to respond in this heavy-handed way in future battles, will be even more strongly resisted.

Media organizations especially in the US and Canada (and to a lesser extent in the UK) have come under heavy criticism for their perceived pro-Israel coverage. My sense is that the coverage in this instance was less pro-Israel than in the past.

It is now considered part of a reporter's obligation to tweet and post on Facebook at least five times a day. The goal is all about marketing - to attract (younger) eyeballs on social media and drive them to the newspaper or the broadcast.

My sense of the tweets from Gaza is that they were highly emotional, deeply descriptive and utterly anguished. If there was a sense of perspective, or context (difficult to achieve in 140 characters), that sense was absent in those digital despatches.

Watching the nightly television newscasts, the reporting was equally powerful and emotional. But the intensity of the tweets often found their way into the standup closers.

This may have been the reason why so many people on the pro-Israel side found yet again, more reasons to condemn legacy media.

Which leads me to The Odyssey, Homer's immortal tale of Greek war, passion and struggle.

I am grateful to Martha Bayles and her book entitled "Through A Screen Darkly." Ms. Bayles talk about how public diplomacy in the United States has failed to convey the better angels of America's nature. After 9/11, the issues were stark. But the ability to tell the story had been weakened by an overdependence on Hollywood values and the quest for ratings and profits.

In her book, she describes teaching about Odysseus in her Humanities class at Boston College. That's when it occurred to me that Ms. Bayles isn't just talking about the failure of public diplomacy. She is speaking about the weaknesses of modern-day journalism as well.

She refers to a Greek concept called sophrosune which means "shrewdness, gutsiness, persistence and grace. Mostly it mean knowing what to do in the right situation...Above all it means alertness: the capacity to read the situation, fathom the other guy's motives, grasp the moral imperative at work, and act. The personification of sophrosune is Odysseus..."

But our hero also has a flaw (he's human after all and the Greeks understood this well): he lost sight of his long goal which included listening to those with whom he disagreed. Odysseus was brought down by hubris - again a Greek concept meaning pride and overconfidence that usually results in punishment from the gods.

In Homer's reporting of the story, Odysseus is held captive by a one-eyed giant called The Cyclops who eats several members of the crew and washes them down with red wine! Odysseus comes up with a clever plan: he drives a stake into the eye of The Cyclops then as the giant is writhing in pain, the Greeks escape by hiding in the fleece of the monster's sheep. They get into their boat and begin to row away to freedom and safety.

Bayles again: "But then Odysseus trades sophrosune for hubris. Looking back, he can't help taunting the raging Cyclops: 'If ever mortal man inquires how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him / Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye!' This is a mistake, because the Cyclops complains to his father, the sea god Poseidon, who sends a mighty tempest to blow Odysseus off course and delay his homecoming for ten years."

Did reporters from Gaza hype the story and trade their sophrosune for hubris? While there was much great reporting, the emotional tone was very high. Twitter and Facebook (and possibly an absence of editing) helped drive it there.

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