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Israeli Raid Becomes PR Disaster - And News Orgs Walk Tightrope

Monday’s Israeli army raid on an aid convoy into Gaza that left 10 people dead quickly emerged as a public relations disaster for Israel, with political condemnation from Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East and protests erupting around the globe. Each side, the Israel Defense Forces and the “Freedom Flotilla” organizers, released video purporting to support their dueling claims about what happened on May 31.

And news organizations worked to strike the right tone in the coverage of an incident that many believe was designed, at least in part, to lure the IDF into a confrontation.

“Every story out of that region that has a hostile engagement [component] to it is complicated and fraught with difficulty because the passions on both sides run so high,” says Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC World News With Diane Sawyer. “It’s clear, based on the numbers of cameras on board and the rudimentary weapons, that some of the passengers had sort of set a trap. It’s always challenging. My hope is we have struck the right tone. But ultimately there are people who are going to see this through their own lens no matter what we report.”

The flotilla’s organizers, which include the Free Gaza Movement, were Webcasting the mission live.  IDF video of passengers on the Mavi Marmara attacking Israeli soldiers with sticks and clubs as they rappelled onto the ship’s deck has been viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube. There are also dozens of similar videos online, and many of them have received more airtime as news organizations have continued to use them.

In an era where cameras are ubiquitous and organizations are savvy about means of dissemination, news organizations walk an increasingly fine line between reporting the facts and getting spun.

“It’s always been a tough story to cover,” says Bob Epstein, executive producer of NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.

“There’s language, there’s a built-in bias on every side of this story,” Epstein adds. “But that’s been part of the problem in covering the Middle East, probably forever.”