What’s the best way to disarm a gunman? How about with words? That’s what the nation’s leading newspapers seem to be doing.
First some background. In Bethlehem, some armed Palestinians are holed up in the Church of the Nativity -- the site where many Christians believe Jesus was born. On April 2 the Palestinians shot their way in and “took refuge” in the church. The Israeli military has surrounded it since. The Israelis say they won’t leave until the armed Palestinians surrender.
Of course, that raises the question: How many of the Palestinians in the church are actually armed. And, over the past few weeks, the Washington Post and New York Times have, without explanation, changed their reporting about that important point.
A story in the April 18 Washington Post reported, “Israeli military officials said today they are in no hurry to end the siege of the Church of the Nativity, figuring that time is on their side as hunger, thirst and stress take their toll on the estimated 200 armed Palestinians inside.”
On April 20 the paper explained how the standoff began: “The prayers that evening, April 2, were interrupted by a gunshot coming from the Franciscan monastery…A bullet blew apart a lock to a century-old side door, enabling a handful of Palestinian gunmen to walk in. Over the next two hours, dozens more followed, about 200 in all, until the sanctuary was filled with Palestinians”.
It’s pretty clear in this story that the gunmen were not welcome in the church -- after all, they shot their way in through a locked door -- and it’s also clear there were some 200 of them. That head count was confirmed on April 24, when the Post reported that “about 200 armed Palestinians have taken refuge along with about three dozen clergy members.”
So it was surprising to pick up the Post on May 2 and read that, “Israeli troops have besieged the church…saying there are armed Palestinians inside who are wanted by Israel. About 200 people, including 25 to 30 Palestinian fighters, have been holed up in the church complex for nearly a month”.
Presto. According to that dispatch, as many as 175 of the Palestinians have disarmed. They’re now simply “people” and no longer “fighters”. Not bad for a week’s work.
Furthermore, the paper is no longer stating it as a fact that there are armed Palestinians in the church. It’s now attributing that to a statement by Israeli troops. That’s what journalists do when we doubt a story -- we attribute it, so if we’re wrong, we have some place to point the finger.
The Post is now couching the story in a way that raises doubts about whether there are actually any Palestinian gunmen at all. If a reader decides not to believe the quoted “Israeli troops”, the reader is free to believe whatever he wants.
In the New York Times, a similar process occurred. In a report printed on April 9, the paper reported that, “More than 200 armed Palestinians have been holed up since last week in the church”.
On April 11, the paper told readers, “about 200 Palestinian gunmen are in a taut standoff with the Israeli Army”. Again, on April 15, the Times wrote about the siege, “in Bethlehem outside the Church of the Nativity, where 200 gunmen have been holed up for almost two weeks”.
But suddenly, on April 24, the Times discussed, “the Israeli army’s siege of the church, where more than 200 Palestinians, dozens of them armed, have been holed up since April 2”.
According to that report, more than 100 Palestinians have laid down their arms in the face of the Israeli siege. But where did all the guns they carried into the church go?
It’s entirely possible that the numbers were changed simply because of confusion. Nobody outside the church actually knows how many of the Palestinians are gunmen and how many are civilians. And those inside the church aren’t likely to tell us how many of them are armed.
That’s why, when it comes to reporting numbers, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. For example, when reporting how many people were killed by a storm, it’s better to report one person was killed and later increase that to three people killed, rather than starting out saying three people were killed, and later move the number down to one.
The Times and the Post stayed with the number “about 200 gunmen” through several stories over several weeks, so there must have been a solid basis for it. They should keep reporting that number now. And if they choose to go with a smaller number, we deserve an explanation of what changed to bring the number down.