Story behind image of dead Palestinian baby highlights photographer challenges

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It was surely one of the most heart-wrenching and controversial news photos of the past year, perhaps in many years. The image of a Palestinian man -- his head thrown back in grief as he cradled the shrouded body of his infant son -- set off a fierce war of words between Israeli and Palestinian factions when newspapers and websites published it in November.

Palestinian supporters saw the photo, taken by an Associated Press photographer, as evidence of the Israeli military's aggression against Palestinian civilians; Israel's supporters viewed it as a carefully orchestrated bit of propaganda to engender sympathy for Palestinians during the brief Gaza-Israeli conflict.

It turns out that it was quite likely neither. The story behind the photograph suggests the continuing challenges journalists face in sorting out truth and fiction amid the chaos of a war zone, especially one in the Middle East.

Nearly four months after the image was circulated worldwide, a U.N. commission has concluded that Israel was not directly responsible for the child's death. It said the baby, Ahmad Masharawi, apparently was killed by a Palestinian rocket that fell on his family's house in Gaza. The rocket, fired by Gaza militants, was one of hundreds aimed at Israelis during the eight-day conflict.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in publishing its one-line conclusion about the photo, brought a surprise twist in its emotion-laden history. The photo evoked such a strong reaction that it became a kind of lightning rod for perceptions about the hostilities. The child's father was a journalist employed by the BBC.

Many readers of The Washington Post were outraged that the image was played across four columns atop its front page Nov. 15. Some asked why the paper didn't treat similarly photos of Israelis huddled in shelters to escape Palestinian rocket fire.

The Post's photo caption said the child died "after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City," which implied Israeli culpability. In light of the U.N. report, the paper said it would publish an editor's note along with the photo that clarified circumstances surrounding it. The note read, in part, that the U.N. report "has now cast doubt" on Israel's involvement.

The Associated Press this week has issued a correction on its photo caption. It wrote, "An errant Palestinian rocket, not an Israeli airstrike, likely killed the child during fighting in the Hamas-ruled territory in November, a U.N. report indicated, challenging the widely believed story behind the image which became a symbol of what Palestinians said was Israeli aggression."

The episode suggests "the fog of war and the fog of journalism" during a war, said Ken Light, a professor who oversees the photojournalism program at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. News photographers are usually diligent about ensuring that they have placed their images in the proper context, he said, but amid an armed conflict, "a lot can get through the cracks. ... A picture is worth a thousand words, but you don't always know the circumstances that led up to making the picture."

Michael Oren, Israel's U.S. ambassador, said the issue is further complicated by Hamas and Hezbollah, the anti-Israel Islamist groups in Gaza and southern Lebanon, respectively. "You have to understand that the media is as much of a battlefield for them as anything going on on the ground," he said. "You are dealing with terrorist organizations that will exploit and manipulate the media. They know how the Western press works and how to use it to their advantage."

Both organizations, Mr. Oren said, use civilian deaths to turn public opinion against Israel, even if those deaths occur under ambiguous circumstances. This should make any news organization wary about attributing particular casualties.

"The photo would never have been as newsworthy to Western media organizations if the caption had said it was unclear how the baby had died," said Eric Rozenman, Washington director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a watchdog group. That is because the image played into preconceived notions about Israel's military might. "The lesson for the news media is to use caution in reporting the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said. "If you really didn't know the circumstances for the information in a [caption], then it ought to have a flag on it saying as much."

After interviewing witnesses, the U.N. office concluded that the damage to the child's Gaza home was inconsistent with an Israeli airstrike. It said the infant was "killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket." A U.N. organization spokesman said he couldn't "unequivocally" blame Palestinian sources, but an investigation showed that there had been Palestinian rocket fire near the child's home when he was killed.

Despite the finding, the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said it still holds Israel responsible for the baby's death, the AP reported.

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