Inside the ‘New York Times’ Debate Over Its Gaza Hospital Bombing Coverage

A series of Slack messages obtained by Vanity Fair shows there was immediate concern inside The New York Times over the paper’s presentation of the Gaza hospital bombing story. But senior editors appear to have dismissed suggestions from an international editor, along with a junior reporter stationed in Israel who has been contributing to the paper’s coverage of the war, that the paper hedge in its framing of events.

Several news organizations are facing scrutiny for early coverage of the explosion, including the Times, which issued a rare editors’ note Monday admitting that the paper “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified” in its early coverage of the blast. These internal messages provide a window into the Times’ decision-making process and reveal how some journalists urged caution in the early moments of an unfolding tragedy.

On the afternoon of October 17—shortly after the Times published its first version of the story, with the headline, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinian Officials Say”—a senior news editor tagged two senior editors on the Live team and wrote, “I think we can be a bit more direct in the lead: At least 500 people were killed on Tuesday by an Israel airstrike at a hospital in Gaza City, the Palestinian authorities said.”

One of the tagged Live editors replied, “You don’t want to hedge it?”

A junior reporter for the Times who has been covering the conflict for the paper from Jerusalem chimed in: “Better to hedge.”

The senior news editor replied, “We’re attributing.”

The exchange took place in a Times Slack channel called #israel-briefings, which hundreds of journalists have access to. Vanity Fair is withholding the names of the Times staff involved at this time. The Times declined to comment on the Slack messages.

A few minutes later, a senior editor on the International desk wrote in the same Slack channel, “The [headline] on the [home page] goes way too far.”

A second senior news editor asked, “How is it different than the blog hed,” referring to a headline in the paper’s live-blog format. “They both say Israeli strike kills, per Palestinians.”

“I think we can’t just hang the attribution of something so big on one source without having tried to verify it,” the International editor said. “And then slap it across the top of the [home page]. Putting the attribution at the end doesn’t give us cover, if we’ve been burned and we’re wrong.”

Then a second senior editor on the Live team replied to the International editor, asking them to confer with a senior Standards editor. “This was discussed with a bunch of people,” that second senior editor on the Live team noted.

As NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton reported, the “Israeli Strike” language was not removed from the top headline until 4:01 p.m.

On Monday, nearly a week after the hospital bombing and Slack messages in question, the Times published the editors’ note, which was notably the first since executive editor Joe Kahn took the helm 16 months ago. “Given the sensitive nature of the news during a widening conflict, and the prominent promotion it received, Times editors should have taken more care with the initial presentation, and been more explicit about what information could be verified,” it read.

Kahn also addressed the note on Monday in an interview with Lulu Garcia-Navarro on one of the Times’ own podcasts, The Headlines: War Briefing. “What I think we needed to reflect on a bit was not necessarily the news-gathering process, as it plays out all the time, but when a certain piece of information is verified or valuable enough to put into that very, very top headline—what I refer to as the banner headline—and to get the extra promotion and attention that that kind of headline would get,” Kahn said.

“Given Hamas’s role in this story, given that it had just attacked and murdered hundreds of Israelis, one thing that I’ve been trying to understand is it would have been easier to err on the side of caution,” Garcia-Navarro said. “I mean, this wasn’t a scoop by the Times. If there was any question whatsoever of who was responsible, wouldn’t it have been easier to sort of be very forthcoming with the audience about that and lean into the ongoing ambiguity, given the significance and the stakes of this? Why didn’t the Times do that?”

Kahn said they published an editors’ note “to reflect on exactly that.” Asked about his personal involvement in the decision to publish the headline, Kahn said, “We were all aware, and we discussed the developments in that hospital bombing or blast. The actual words in the headline were debated by a team of people who routinely work out the wording. I wasn’t directly involved in that, but I was watching very closely on the coverage.”

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