Saturday, September 19, 2009

The deceptive use (or absence) of quotes

Skim through a series of Reuters articles on the Middle East conflict and you will notice a decidedly asymmetrical use of quotation marks. When Reuters writers and editors wish to create an aura of credibility for an individual or hold the same view as the speaker, remarks made by the person will be cited absent quotation marks -- as if the statement was one of indisputable fact. Conversely, when Reuters disavows the speaker's view or wishes to invite reader skepticism, its writers will invariably employ quotes around the citation.

In a story on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas meeting with Egyptian president Mubarak, Reuters' Alastair Sharp begins by informing us:

Failure to agree a settlement freeze inhibits the resumption of peace negotiations with Israel...

Almost as an afterthought, Sharp adds:

...Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Egypt's Hosni Mubarak on Saturday, according to state media.

Note that the statement by Abbas is cited declaratively (as fact) sans quotation marks and with attribution only provided at the end of the paragraph.

Sharp repeats this device later in the story:

Negotiations could not resume because Israel would not consider including Jerusalem in any settlement freeze, nor would it stop building in settlements to accommodate natural growth, MENA quoted Abbas as saying.

Now compare Sharp's treatment of Abbas' statements with those of Israeli officials:

Israel has blamed Abbas for the impasse, saying Palestinian negotiators "showed no flexibility while Israel did".

Here, Sharp uses quotation marks around a truncated statement to assign clear ownership of the statement to Israel and to characterize it as an allegation rather than (as with Abbas' qualitatively equivalent allegations) a fact.

As evidence of Reuter's deliberate use of this device to validate and promulgate Abbas' position blaming Israel, note that in this excerpt from Sharp's story:

Abbas has said he would not agree to renewed negotiations with Israel unless it agreed to a total freeze on settlement expansion and stressed that the United States must push Israel to comply with the 2003 "road map" call for a cessation of all settlement-building.

Sharp fails to inform the reader that the Road Map also calls for the Palestinians to comply with conditions like:

Rebuilt and refocused Palestinian Authority security apparatus begins sustained, targeted, and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. This includes commencing confiscation of illegal weapons and consolidation of security authority, free of association with terror and corruption,

which they have utterly refused to do.

Rather than provide a balanced report on the impasse in negotiations, properly and even-handedly citing the positions, allegations, and obligations of each party, Reuters embraces the Palestinian line and constructs a guileful and misleading partisan piece to affix blame to Israel.

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