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US Media Is Still Avoiding the Word Genocide — It’s Past Time to Start Using It

What constitutes genocide is clearly defined, and it is what we are witnessing in Palestine.

A protester holds a placard saying "This is not war, This is Genocide" during a demonstration in solidarity with the Palestinian people in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on October 22, 2023.

The images that have emerged from Gaza over the last several weeks are not ones we can easily forget: a once vibrant city reduced to rubble by Israeli occupation forces. A Ministry of Health press conference held in the aftermath of a massacre, where the bodies of murdered Palestinians are piled up around the podium. Young children, visibly in shock, covered in the blood of their families and debris from their homes that no longer exist. Parents, hysterical with grief, holding their dead and dying babies.

Amid all of the pain and suffering we have seen, among all of the incomprehensible stories emerging, we find ourselves returning to one extraordinary fact: Palestinians are going to great lengths to ensure their voices are heard. Decades of evidence tells them that the media will get it all wrong, so they are using their last bits of power during a blockade and sometimes their final moments on earth to correct the public record.

Palestinian journalists who have recently had their homes, families, colleagues, and places of work bombed by Israeli occupation forces continue to do interviews with Western media. No doubt they feel tremendous pressure to address rampant disinformation from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), to correct the media’s use of passive language, and to introduce words like “apartheid” to ahistorical reporting. Everyday Palestinians are also using social media to relay the facts on the ground, documenting the violence of settler colonialism.

These efforts at truth telling are a strong indictment of the U.S. media. Palestinians know what many across the world are just beginning to understand: While Gaza and the Palestinian people stand on the brink of oblivion, the press will only gloss over U.S.-backed war crimes, rationalize their collective punishment, and spin narratives that further erase their rights and realities.

In this earth-shattering, history-defining moment, the American media is failing. Despite the facts on the ground, many American news outlets refuse to identify what’s happening in Gaza as genocide, citing a lack of evidence for the term. But in fact, the very definition of genocide and the metrics for identifying it under international law require precisely the kind of evidence we’re seeing now, which means that any news outlet claiming to produce “evidence-based” journalism that won’t use the word “genocide” is violating its own stated principles.

Our understanding of genocide is largely based on how it’s been defined by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish attorney who campaigned to establish the Genocide Convention as the Holocaust was unfolding during World War II. The definition is clear and concise: the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. There are also clear metrics and measuring sticks under the Genocide Convention and international law. Through journalistic sleight of hand — including the use of passive language, ever-shifting headlines, bothsidesism, and the myth of objectivity — reporters across the U.S. are fueling the genocide their newsrooms are refusing to acknowledge is taking place.

The Center for Constitutional Rights released an emergency briefing on October 18 detailing the State of Israel’s crime of genocide of the Palestinian people and how the U.S. is complicit. The report notes, “There is plausible and credible case, based on powerful factual evidence, that Israel is attempting to commit, if not actively committing, the crime of genocide in the occupied Palestinian territory, and specifically against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.” The report also details that the U.S. is not only failing “to uphold its obligation to prevent the commission of genocide, but there is a plausible and credible case to be made that the United States’ actions to further the Israeli military operation, closure, and campaign against the Palestinian population in Gaza, rise to the level of complicity in the crime under international law.” And what has oft been left out of news coverage since the Hamas attacks on October 7 is that, “no State or individual can ever be permitted to justify genocide in the name of self-defense.”

But you would not know this if you were simply relying on U.S. mainstream media sources. By continuing to frame this as a war between the State of Israel and Hamas, newsrooms across the country continue to break the backbone of journalistic integrity and ignore Israel’s pattern of dehumanizing Palestinians.

Israeli officials have been very clear in their language when referring to Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) that Israel’s assault on Gaza is a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” He reiterated a similar racist stance in a Wednesday address, saying, “We are the people of the light, they are the people of darkness.” Dan Gillerman, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN, described Palestinians as “inhuman animals” in an interview with U.K. outlet Sky News on Wednesday. The journalist interviewing him allowed him to continue after his dehumanizing language. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated, “We are fighting against animals.” In failing to call out the use of these white supremacist framings of a civilized race’s conquest of a barbaric or uncivilized race, U.S. and other Western media is implicitly refusing to recognize Palestinians as human enough to have a genocide committed against them.

Numerous articles regurgitate the words of U.S. government briefings and IDF officials, uplifting the occupying government’s invocation of so-called self-defense for its siege and displacement of 1.4 million of the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. As of publishing this op-ed, the IDF’s continuous bombings have totaled more than 12,000 tons of explosives since October 7 — about the equivalent explosive force of the U.S. nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. In 19 days, Israel has killed more than 6,500 people, including more than 2,700 children. Many more remain trapped under the rubble. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more people have been killed by the occupation forces’ bombings within the last 19 days than died of all causes throughout 2022. The State of Israel’s bombings in Gaza also killed 16 health care workers and 35 humanitarian and aid workers and staff members with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and is targeting members of the press and their families, killing more than 20 Palestinian members of the press. By holding back aid and cutting off electricity and water (and the capacity to maintain water health standards), Israel has also condemned thousands more to health crises and slow, torturous deaths.

In an analysis in Jewish Currents, Israeli Holocaust scholar Raz Segal called the occupation government’s actions a “textbook case of genocide.” In a follow-up interview with Democracy Now!, Segal also said that the Israeli state’s exceptionalism and comparisons of its Palestinian victims to “Nazis” are used to “justify, rationalize, deny, distort, disavow mass violence against Palestinians.” Segal is not alone. Numerous historians, Jewish organizations, scholars, organizers, and Palestinians have confirmed the truth: It is a fact to call the State of Israel an apartheid state that has committed ethnic cleansing. It is a fact to state that the IDF has committed war crimes. It is also a fact that the reactions to the genocide aren’t being properly covered by mainstream media sources. There have been massive protests across the U.S. demanding a ceasefire and an end to the occupation; thousands are marching and engaging in civil disobedience, yet there is barely any news coverage in the outlets countless Americans rely on.

The national media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted that the Biden administration is actively suppressing discussion of deescalation and the HuffPost reported that a State Department memo instructed staff not to use the phrases “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed,” and “restoring calm” in press materials related to Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians. The U.S. news media has largely followed those directions. FAIR’s Oct. 24 analysis of U.S. TV broadcasts between Oct. 12 and 18 rarely mentioned the demands for a ceasefire and noted that ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour aired a total of 105 segments primarily about Israel/Gaza. Just eight of those segments included the word “ceasefire” or some form of the word “deescalate.” NBC and PBS aired three segments each with ceasefire mentions, CBS aired two, and ABC aired none.

But Black, Indigenous, and people of color, including Palestinian refugees and Palestinian Americans in the U.S., are acutely familiar with these journalistic failures. How the media is covering Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the genocide in Gaza mirrors how journalists and editors cover white supremacy and state violence committed against Black people in particular. If you’re asking yourself how the U.S. media could do this, look no further for answers than how the U.S. covers the criminal legal system. The media is a reflection of the nation, and the U.S., like the State of Israel, is a settler-colonial state. Our country committed a genocide against Native peoples, it enslaved and tortured millions of Africans, and through its drawing of borders and hostile policies, designates who is worthy of life and death. Today, U.S. federal agencies put migrants in camps, use cruel and unusual techniques to deter migration, and manufacture ways for migrants to die in the borderlands. The U.S. commits atrocities across the globe and calls it freedom. The rest of the Western world bows to the U.S., and together, these Western nation-states, with Israel as their creation, dictate who is worthy of humanity and who isn’t. And the U.S. media largely falls in line.

Some of us are choosing not to fall in line. An open letter organized by Prism workers and signed by us and hundreds of other media makers, clearly outlined our industry’s long history of engaging in these dangerous practices.

“Media has disproportionate power to manufacture consent for genocide based on the context that writers and editors choose to include,” the letter states. “Our industry’s history is rife with warmongering and platforming of some of the most violent voices calling for invasions, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. The white southern press was crucial in spreading lies and misinformation regarding lynchings — a fact that Ida B. Wells fought to acknowledge. Editors at the highest level of well-established and trusted media sources have spent the past few decades participating in the dehumanization of Muslims and Arabs across the world to desensitize readers and justify American-led wars. Media workers today are shaped by what information past writers and editors have chosen to give us and who they choose to humanize, but we cannot leave blame in the past. Newsrooms in recent years have fired reporters over their support for Palestinians, and legacy newsrooms continue to frame genocide as ‘grievances.’ These actions have persuasive power that molds how people, including elected officials, continue to think and talk about the occupation. As we have seen as newsrooms retract unsubstantiated claims, it makes us more willing to believe and propagate misinformation about Palestinians.”

Essential components in maintaining systems of oppression are the obfuscation of information and the amplification of the oppressors’ voice to incite violence and manufacture consent for genocide. We fail at our jobs when the telling of history uplifts the oppressor’s perspective and silences the oppressed. Audre Lorde knew this when she wrote about the U.S. government’s support of apartheid in South Africa and the interconnectedness of Black liberation across the globe. “We are citizens of the most powerful country in the world, a country which stands upon the wrong side of every liberation struggle on earth,” Lorde wrote.

During World War II, American newspapers routinely reported on the mass murder of Jewish people, but the reporting was inaccurate and often lacked evidence. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, many Americans likely dismissed these reports because of “exaggerated stories of German atrocities during World War I.” We cannot make the same mistakes. The evidence is there. It is screaming at us. It is journalistic malpractice to see the hard facts of genocide plainly before us and to pretend it is not happening. It is a moral failure to witness the displacement and murder of peoples and bombings of entire residential buildings, schools, refugee camps, mosques, and churches that pre-date our professions and not clearly state that this is a genocide. When we omit the truth in favor of protecting the oppressor, we create a chilling silence for people who rely on us to report the truth and shed light on injustice. A moral grounding only helps contextualize the truth because journalism is never without perspective. White supremacy and colonialism are inherently devoid of morality, yet they stain U.S. journalistic practice. Many in the U.S. rely on our work as something that they can point to as evidence of genocide, an attribution they can use so that they do not lose their livelihoods or safety for stating what is plainly in front of us. The world is watching, and there are many turning to our industry for information that helps them stay alive.

For those reporters on the fence about how to do their jobs, to editors who have tremendous power in shaping stories and influencing public opinion, for newsrooms obscuring the obvious in favor of the easy: Genocide is an evidence-based term, and it is here.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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