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War on Gaza: analysing the impact of vulture journalism

Sameera Casmod | sameerac@radioislam.co.za
22 November 2023 | 12:38 CAT
3-min read

Picture: Instagram (Motaz Azaiza)

Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza has claimed the lives of almost 15 000 people to date, including more than 5 500 children and 3 500 women. Israel has agreed to cease hostilities for four days in return for Hamas’ release of 50 prisoners of war.

The ongoing war has presented an unprecedented portrayal through violent visual footage. While it is imperative to document the war, a concerning trend of sharing graphic images and video footage of the massacre on social media has emerged.  Adding to this, numerous humanitarian organisations employ these visuals to garner funds for their causes.

In an interview on Radio Islam International, experts weighed in on the ethical challenges faced by journalists covering the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The discussion covered the impact of graphic images shared on social media, raising concerns about vulture journalism.

William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) discussed the importance of balancing providing a true account of the situation to inform people with avoiding circulating extremely graphic content. Bird noted that research has shown that violent images are ineffectual in driving action to change a situation. Rather, “When you see that level of horror… it traumatises people. And it leaves them feeling more powerless and even less able to act,” Bird explained.

“The trouble is, you put yourself in a death spiral, because as you show one image, it no longer carries the same power as the image the day before,” noted Bird. He emphasised the potential desensitisation of audiences when continuously exposed to graphic images, calling into question the effectiveness of such reporting.

Ayesha Mall, a journalism lecturer at the Durban University of Technology, acknowledged the shift towards social media as a primary news source. Mall noted that social media plays an important role in spreading information and shaping public perceptions.

“Social media has been able to change mindsets, has been able to bring attention to… [the] war in Gaza…it is social media rather than legacy or traditional media that has really, really shaped and influenced the way people have perceived the onslaught on Gaza.”

Mall addressed the impact of the sheer volume of gruesome images that is shared online, noting that trauma content can lead to survivors’ guilt.

The interview addressed the ethical codes employed by news organisations, with Bird pointing out, “Many news organisations have their own codes. The SABC, for example, has an excellent section on dealing with gratuitous violence.”

The delicate balance between informing the public and avoiding gratuitous content emerged as a central theme.

Bird acknowledged the importance of informing the citizens of the world about the true cost of an airstrike, for instance, or a ground force invasion, but emphasised the fact that publicising the indignity of war victims and circulating gruesome, humiliating pictures online is not fair or helpful.

Mall raised important questions of both legacy and social media ownership, which affects the content that is published. She emphasised that Israel is known for banning images and people from social media if the content does not align with their worldview. This media censorship extends to the targeted killing of journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh previously, and 46 Palestinian journalists (known) to date since the fighting began.

This brings to life the assertion that “ruling elites use their control of the media to ensure conformity and compliance and to stifle dissent by one means or another.” (McQuail 2010:436).

Mall brought into focus the fact that the news is manufactured for common consumption by the ruling elite. She gave the example of a BBC publication indicating Hamas taking prisoners of war to the Al-Shifa hospital, which was later revoked because it was false. The source of this news piece was the Israeli government. Mall noted, “An outright lie is in mainstream media, and people hold on to those tropes.”

The conversation touched upon the impact of sensationalism on perpetuating biases and stereotypes. Bird expressed concerns, stating, “There’s no doubt that it does [perpetuate biases]. These particularly gruesome images often serve exactly that purpose.”

Bird encouraged thinking critically about the sources of images and news, about whose interests it might be serving, and about how it helps its audience to understand the conflict or war.

As the war unfolds, the interview underscored the critical role journalists play in shaping public perception. The experts left audiences with a call to reconsider the consumption of graphic content and to question the motives behind sharing such images. The ethical dilemma in reporting on conflicts remains a complex issue that requires ongoing dialogue and reflection within the journalism community.

Listen to the full interview on Sabaahul Muslim with Moulana Junaid Kharsany.

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