The website newmatilda.com describes itself as "an independent Australian website of news, analysis and satire" which "aims to provide non-partisan information" but also to feature "issues and ideas often left untouched by the mainstream media". Anyone can read the site's content online but readers can also register (for free) which enables them to receive notice of particular content of interest and to participate in online discussion.
The site offers extensive facilities for reader comment. Its comments policy reads:
We welcome comments of all kinds supportive, dissenting, critical or otherwise. However, we reserve the right to delete or censor comments that: are abusive, promote hate of any kind, attack the writer not the argument, are blatantly off-topic, do not contribute to the discussion (or) mislead through impersonation.
newmatilda provides extensive coverage of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians targeted at Australian audiences. Contrary to its stated aims the coverage is heavily partisan, disproportionate and, of greatest concern, it
frequently hosts comments that are hate-filled and not uncommonly antisemitic.
This report analyses newmatilda's coverage of Israel and related comments in the first three months of 2009. This period includes most of the Gaza incursion, Operation Cast Lead, and the aftermath. While it can be argued that this
period was atypical because of the significant events, it also provides a useful concentration of material that is in fact characteristic of newmatilda's style, editorial choice and the posts which appear on its site.
Matters of concern
The issues of concern raised by newmatilda are based on a content analysis applying journalistic standards of reporting and opinion writing. New media are at best ambivalent about these standards. The line between reportage and opinion
is typically much more blurred than in traditional media. New media writers are often not trained journalists. They are not sub-edited nor subject to the news judgment of news editors.
They do not serve an apprenticeship of basic reporting skills and do not develop "rounds" that give them expertise in a subject area. Partly because there are not the space considerations that apply in a newspaper or broadcast bulletin,
neither issues of balance nor selection for quality is given the same weight. There is no commitment to equal space for both sides of a debate. There is no selection among comments as
there is among letters to the editor, excluding those that are intemperate or unfair. Although racial vilification law technically applies it is much harder to prosecute and much easier to remove traces so the compulsion a new media
editor feels to ensure every word published is within the law is much less than that of a newspaper editor or broadcast producer.
In an earlier media age, the opinions and kind of reportage on sites like newmatilda would not have had an outlet. They would have been excluded from the mainstream media by their failure to meet journalistic standards and would have been
consigned to the pamphlets and private publications of extreme organisations. Now such material is accessible to anyone. It is therefore appropriate to view it through the lens of journalistic standards.
This analysis is based on three classic measurements applicable to both reporting and opinion: balance, proportionality and fairness.
Content analysis: Balance
This report contains a content analysis of all articles on the Israel/Palestinian conflict in the first three months of 2009. This period covers most of "Operation Cast Lead," the action
in Gaza which ran from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009 and the analysis which followed.
In broad, and clearly simplistic, terms, it is possible to characterize coverage of this conflict according to the competing narratives of the two sides. A news service seeking to provide non-partisan coverage needs to run an equivalent
number of articles using each narrative and/or present the competing narratives within single articles.
For the purposes of this analysis articles are characterized as giving the Palestinian narrative or, the Israeli narrative or a neutral/balanced narrative. The Palestinian narrative
characterizes Israel as an oppressor. The Palestinians are victims of occupation/apartheid/racism and/or heroes of
resistance. Israeli victims or security concerns are not acknowledged. Hamas is painted as a legitimate government. The Jewish community is portrayed as a powerful and paranoid lobby. By contrast, in the Israeli narrative, Israel is
characterized as taking defensive action against terrorism. Hamas is described as a terrorist organisation which wants to destroy Israel. Israelis are victims of terrorism and rocket
attacks. Palestinians civilians are victims of their own leaders' attacks on Israel and the resulting war. In neutral articles both
narratives are presented without judgment. This category also includes articles that do not directly address either narrative.
The principle of balance in journalism requires that an equivalent coverage is given to both sides of a conflict. Balance is not a strictly mathematical equation. It cannot be measured
purely in the length of articles or in the number of articles displaying given narratives - particularly in new media where selection is much more a matter for the reader than the editor. But particularly in a news site where a general readership is to be expected balance requires coverage of both narratives in approximately equal quality, quantity and impact.
Of the 18 articles run by newmatilda.com in the period, 17 presented the Palestinian narrative, characterizing Israel as an oppressor and not acknowledging its victims or security concerns. Only one article characterized Hamas as a
terrorist organization in the context of a discussion of the future aims of Al-Qaeda. No article could reasonably be characterized as neutral or balanced. One article acknowledged the existence of competing narratives but argued for the validity of the Palestinian narrative.
Content analysis: proportionality
The Gaza situation provided a strong news context for the coverage of Israel in the first couple of weeks of the period under examination. But in the whole period studied newmatilda displayed a prejudice towards covering problems between Israel and the Palestinians which appears to be an obsession. Conflict in the region and any issue involving Palestinian victims was covered extensively, out of all proportion to other international issues. The site featured 18
articles on the subject, more than one a week in
the first three months of 2008.
The degree to which this is disproportionate is clear from an examination of coverage of other humanitarian issues and international political conflicts. During the same period there were:
· No articles covering the humanitarian crisis and genocide in Darfur
· One article on Burma, focused on strategic analysis not humanitarian concerns
· No articles covering humanitarian concerns in North Korea
· No articles covering humanitarian concerns in Zimbabwe
· No articles covering humanitarian concerns in Tibet.
This disproportionate coverage is of deep concern because it implies that the humanitarian challenges of Israel and the Palestinians are the only problem in the world, or certainly the worst in the world. This implication which is demonstrably false leads to misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict and fuels anger and prejudice.
Content analysis: fairness
Fairness requires news outlets to be without prejudice in the way they choose and cover stories, to be open to different points of view and to respect the legal and ethical limitations
on free speech by not disseminating material that is defamatory, racially vilifying or hate-inducing.
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The writers and editors of newmatilda exhibit strong prejudice but little journalistic experience, in relation to coverage of Israel. Eight of the 18 articles were written by either
Anthony Loewenstein or Michael Brull, both of whom are well-known as polemicists for the Palestinian position. Neither of these writers is based in the Middle-East or has worked as a
correspondent in the conflict at any time. They do not have mainstream journalistic experience and could be characterized as players in the conflict but not reporters of it.
newmatilda displays a newsfeed to Al-Jazeera, the English language page of the Arabic news site - its only newsfeed. Al-Jazeera is a legitimate source but in the context of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, it is noteworthy that this is the source an Australian news site chooses. There are no balancing sources to sites that might be expected to give the other side of the conflict.
The deepest concerns about newmatilda must be reserved for its comments section. Broad slabs of hate towards Israel and Jews are common. A number of writers, including those using the pseudonyms maryj, dazza and rockjaw, are particularly
virulent. The themes of troubling comments include:
· The Holocaust did not happen - or has been exaggerated or "used" by Jewish people for other ends
· Jews have no right or historical attachment to Israel
· There is no such thing as antisemitism/ antisemitism is exaggerated/ Jews are paranoid
· Jews are a threat to the world/ would infect the whole world with plague
· Israel is supported by "blood money"
· Jews/Israel are inordinately powerful and control the media
It is likely some of these comments breach the racial vilification provisions of both the Australian states and Commonwealth. Certainly they are abusive and promote hatred. However newmatilda rarely deletes them. When comments are deleted, it is often after the damage is done. A
comment which denied the Holocaust and concluded
"just stop with the jew thing its so tedious" (sic) remained on the site for almost a month before it was removed.
Israel coverage and antisemitism
It is not coincidental that abusive and antisemitic comments are featured on pages with articles emphasizing the Palestinian narrative and delegitimizing Israel. The lack of balance in
editorial about Israel is clearly reflected in the comments which make little distinction between Israel, Zionism and Jews.
The ournalistic failures of biased or unbalanced coverage or on the complexities of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are not the province of the Anti-Defamation
Commisison. Our primary concern is the effect this prejudicial coverage is having on the attitude of Australians to Jewish people, both inside and outside Israel. The cumulative effect
of this coverage can be seen dramatically in the comments pages of newmatilda. Many of these comments draw, no doubt subconsciously, on traditional antisemitic tropes which attribute to Israel the insidious motives previously
attributed to Jews - disproportionate power, secrecy, financial strength and malevolence.
These are supplemented by a peculiarly modern form of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, which minimizes Jewish grief and uses Nazi terminology against Israel, usage that is commonplace on newmatilda.
The Australian Jewish community has cause for deep concern when Australian-based editorial about Israel leads to hate-filled comments about Jews. There is a documented connection between events in Israel and incidents of local
antisemitism. For a mainstream website to host comments of this kind not only delegitimizes Israel but undermines the freedom and security of Australian Jews.
The website acknowledges in theory its right to ban comments that are abusive or promote hate but it does not implement this policy when dealing with Israel, nor even acknowledge a problem.
In April, the Anti-Defamation Commission wrote to newmatilda expressing our concern about antisemitism on the site's comments page arising from unbalanced and disproportional coverage of Israel.
The response from the editor Marni Cordell was one of simple denial. She believes newmatilda coverage is fair and that the website is "doing its job" in disseminating opinions that are not
commonly found in other publications. She made no response on the issue of comments and no commitment to stopping hate on the site's pages.
Her response is reproduced in full below:
Thank you for your email. Unfortunately I have to disagree with you on most of the points you made.
"We believe we provide a fair coverage of this important nexus of issues - but we are very committed to publishing informed /opinion/ pieces, and our content reflects that.
"The possibility that your organisation doesn't share the outlook of the bulk of our contributors - who also differ among themselves - does not make us unfair.
"I should also point out that while we strive to give a fair coverage of the issues, we do not aim to replicate the mainstream media. If you read opinions on our site that are not commonly found in the major dailies or in publications like the /Australian Jewish News/, then that is one sign that we are doing our jobs.
"The opinions of our contributors, as you may be aware, are very common outside of Australia, in countries like Israel and the US, and in Europe. If they do not get as much space in this country, then we see ourselves providing the local reader
with valuable alternative viewpoints they would otherwise miss out on.
"As I'm sure I don't need to remind you, the Israel/Palestine question is not a conflict on the same level as other regional problems that you mentioned. Problems in the Middle East,
within which Israel/Palestine is a major issue, are something that play out in innumerable ways across the globe. For us not to cover it adequately (and that means giving it more space
than we give to many other matters) would be to fail at our task of providing news and analysis to a wide audience in proportion to its global and local significance.
"But thank you for your feedback - and we're glad to see you are listening to a range of voices in this important debate.
As an increasing percentage of the population relies on websites for news, discussion and opinion formation it is essential that we bring the standards of quality journalism to bear on this new medium. In particular we need to consider the limits of fair comment on interactive sites where comments are anonymous.
On the subject of Israel, newmatilda's chosen articles are demonstrably unbalanced, consistently providing a Palestinian perspective and almost never explaining the ways in which Israel is also a victim in the conflict. Its coverage of the conflict is completely disproportionate implying that the humanitarian challenges of the region are the worst in the
world - an implication which is demonstrably false. Its dissemination of hate and prejudice is unfair both to Israel and to the Jewish people.
The lack of balance, proportionality and fairness on newmatilda.com in terms of both events in Israel appears to have prompted a rush of hate filled comments which the site makes little attempt to control. Most worryingly, newmatilda's comments section contains many abusive and hateful comments about Israel, Zionism and Jews, some of which are clearly antisemitic. The coverage of the Israel/Palestinian conflict on this site is of deep concern because it disseminates a biased and misleading perspective, distributing polemic while claiming to be a news service.