The Objectivity Double Standard

Media industry employers readily invoke “objectivity” as a professional responsibility. However, our analysis suggests that what counts as “objective” and what is deemed biased depends on factors including the background and identity of the worker; the prejudices of management; and external pro-Israel individuals and advocacy groups exerting pressure on any given media organization. As a result, the concept of objectivity has been used to reinforce dominant narratives as normal, reasonable, and neutral, while the perspectives of marginalized groups are more likely to be seen as fringe or biased. Newsrooms then often fail to publish stories that challenge the status quo or hold power to account.

As our findings demonstrate, Palestinian, Middle Eastern, North African, and Muslim media workers are disproportionately scrutinized and discredited for alleged partiality when it comes to coverage of Israel-Palestine affairs. Those with clearly demonstrated bias or conflicts of interest that favor Israel frequently go unchecked.

Perhaps the most high-profile lapse in the pretense of “objective” journalism unfolded at the New York Times, after the outlet published an investigation alleging systematic use of sexual violence by Hamas on October 7. Questions about the strength of the reporting derailed an episode of one of the publication’s podcasts, The Daily, according to The Intercept. The Times responded to The Intercept’s report by launching an internal leak investigation, which targeted Middle Eastern and North African employees, leading the New York Times Guild to file a grievance. Meanwhile, reporting uncovered that one of the reporters on the New York Times story was an Israeli filmmaker with no prior investigative journalism experience, who had liked a social media post calling for Israel to turn the Gaza strip “into a slaughterhouse.” Times management publicly condemned the reporter’s behavior but has continued to stand by her reporting, even as more evidence surfaced that key details were inaccurate.

At multiple publications, reporters with clear institutional ties to Israel have played prominent roles in covering Gaza. The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and CNN are among the outlets that have allowed reporters who served in the Israeli military to cover the war without clear disclosure. In fact, several news reports have found internal pro-Israel bias at organizations like the New York Times and Upday, the largest news aggregator in Europe. At CNN, veteran news anchor and correspondent Christiane Amanpour challenged the news channel’s top brass over the practice of sending stories about Israel and Palestine to the Jerusalem bureau, which is subject to rules of the IDF’s censor, for review.

Outside the newsroom, some publications have shown inconsistency in how they address different kinds of political speech. As NWU has documented, media workers have faced workplace retaliation and suffered attacks on their professional credibility after signing letters in support of journalists who are risking their lives to cover Gaza under bombardment. In contrast, past campaigns decrying the targeting of journalists by other hostile governments have enjoyed widespread support, with media workers often using hashtags, online petitions, vigils, and other means of drumming up awareness and support—without receiving pushback from newsroom leaders.

Several cases included in this report involve organizations like Canary Mission, StopAntisemitism.Org, HonestReporting, and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA). Such groups pressure media employers, often by labeling workers’ social media posts criticizing Israel as antisemitic. Data suggest that incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab bias have all risen since October 7. At the same time, the conflation between antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment has allowed the former to be weaponized to stifle Palestinian voices and coverage critical of the Israeli government. It has also muddied data on antisemitism. For example, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 361-percent increase in antisemitic incidents between October and January, compared to the previous year. However 1,307 of 3,291 incidents were rallies “including antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism.” Reporting by The Intercept pointed out that, alongside clear examples of antisemitism, the ADL has included anti-Zionist protests led by Jews in its lists of antisemitic incidents.

When presented with allegations of antisemitism, publishers are forced to choose between accepting a reputational risk by standing up for their workers or complying with a pro-Israel narrative and silencing critical voices. At a number of workplaces, employers have chosen suppression. A Washington Post exposé reported that StopAntisemitism.org boasted about its social media posts, which often identify targeted individuals’ workplaces and social media profiles, leading to the firing or suspension of nearly three dozen people.

Nevertheless, some media organizations have resisted pressure from external organizations and stood by media workers amidst attempted character assassinations. For example, when CAMERA accused Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Sara Yasin of harboring “pro-Hamas” sentiments for sharing posts that were critical of Israeli state actions, the publication’s management mounted a full-throated defense of Yasin. Unfortunately, examples like this are few and far between.

Atmosphere of Fear

We left several cases of potential retaliation out of our quantitative analysis, either due to their opacity or because we were unable to independently verify them. Still, many of these cases are worth highlighting here precisely because of their apparent ambiguity—and the atmosphere of fear they engender.

Reporter Mehdi Hasan, formerly MSNBC’s highest-profile Muslim host, is known for his critical coverage of Israel and tenacious interviewing style. In November, Hasan pushed back against various false claims by a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including the advisor’s suggestion that Israel had not killed children in Gaza. Within two weeks of that interview, MSNBC announced that Hasan’s show was being canceled. MSNBC has claimed that this decision was unrelated to his coverage of Israel. But a source familiar with the programming changes told The Cut that Hasan became a “sacrificial lamb” in the aftermath of October 7, amid mounting internal and external pressure to reign in critiques of Israel. Hasan has since left MSNBC and started his own media company, Zeteo. However, the secrecy around his show’s cancellation contributes to a sense that even high-profile journalists may not be safe from retaliatory dismissal if they cross invisible red lines drawn by management.

We also encountered cases in which media workers reported editors killing commissioned pieces that expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments; other workers faced layoffs, cancelled appearances, or missed out on anticipated job offers after criticizing Israel online. Although these workers were not directly informed that these opportunities had been withdrawn due to their views on Palestine and Israel, they suspect that this was the cause.

Since receiving the most distinguished award in our profession, I have been almost entirely without work. My experience over the past six months has shown that the board, as well as the country’s most powerful media institutions, are refusing to engage in a dialogue about the crisis in journalism. The silence is loud and frightening.
—Mona Chalabi

For example, when freelance data journalist and illustrator Mona Chalabi was awarded a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for a data story published in the New York Times, she used her platform at the October ceremony to rebuke journalists for avoiding the word “Palestine” in their Gaza coverage. Chalabi donated her $15,000 award money to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, and self-published a graphic highlighting bias in the New York Times’ Gaza coverage. Since the Pulitzer ceremony, “I have been almost entirely without work,” Chalabi wrote in a March 2 email to Columbia University’s president and the head of its journalism school, Jelani Cobb, who is also a member of the Pulitzer Prize board. Chalabi added, “My experience over the past six months has shown that the board, as well as the country’s most powerful media institutions, are refusing to engage in a dialogue about the crisis in journalism. The silence is loud and frightening.” As of April 19, when she posted an excerpt of this email on Instagram amid Columbia University’s crackdown on peaceful pro-Palestinian student protests, Chalabi had received no response.

The findings of NWU’s self-censorship survey illustrate the silencing effect experienced by media workers, in both confirmed and suspected cases of retaliation. The 22 responses received between December 13 and February 1 are best viewed as a snapshot of workers’ firsthand experiences with self-censorship across the media industry. Although the demographics and professional experience of respondents were diverse, nearly all of them reported pressure to self-censor for fear of professional consequences.

One respondent said that showing any support for Israel had become a “nonstarter” and that expressing Jewish identity felt risky. “I fear that even showing support for the concept of ‘Zionism’ would be twisted, as it has been all over the world, to mean something sinister and evil. It is this anti-Jewish sentiment that I greatly fear has taken hold among my colleagues and would leave me stigmatized in my field.” The respondent added, “I fear I would lose out on assignments in the short term.”

However, the vast majority of respondents expressed concerns about expressing support for Palestinians or speaking critically about Israel. Twenty people, including three Jewish respondents, named views related to Palestine (including expression of solidarity with Palestinians, criticism of Israeli state actions, and the characterization of the Israeli military assault on Gaza as “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide”) as ones they felt pressure to withhold.

I’m much more scrutinized because I’m Arab and Muslim… They will continuously try to strip away my credibility as a journalist.
—Survey Respondent

A staff writer from Philadelphia said their identity shaped managers' responses to their speech. “I’m much more scrutinized because I’m Arab and Muslim,” they wrote. “They will continuously try to strip away my credibility as a journalist.” Eighteen respondents reported that these pressures had increased since October 2023, with 11 people reporting “much more” pressure than before. Fifteen respondents explicitly named firing, blacklisting, and marginalization within the industry as among the consequences they expected would follow if they were to voice their views on the war on Gaza.

If I don't censor my own speech about Israel/Palestine, I'm afraid it'll get me blacklisted.
—Survey respondent

Nine of the respondents described new or newly enforced social media policies and/or contract provisions from companies where they worked or contributed. More than half reported that they had changed or limited the way they used social media for fear of professional consequences. About half of the survey respondents described staying home from public events and protests, and nine said they had not signed onto open letters or public statements expressing their views, which they might have otherwise signed under less hostile workplace conditions.

“If I don't censor my own speech about Israel/Palestine, I’m afraid it’ll get me blacklisted,” wrote one respondent, a Black, queer freelance writer based in California. An absence of explicit prohibitions was no comfort. “On the one hand, my current employer hasn't told anyone outright to avoid writing about Israel's illegal occupation and genocide of Palestinian people. On the other hand, there are hardly any published articles that focus on Israel/Palestine. That silent disconnect scares me,” the respondent continued.

The Role of Social Media

Engagement with social media platforms is a professional requirement for many media workers, yet these platforms also represent important outlets for personal expression and community formation. In addition to expecting media workers to use social media to promote their work, newsrooms often seek to reach new audiences by capitalizing on their workers’ engagement with identity groups and niche communities. This dynamic creates problems in the context of selectively applied objectivity standards. For example, a writer lauded for skillfully engaging with “Black Twitter” during the hiring process may be subsequently penalized for urging critical coverage of police shootings. And where there are clear guidelines, freelancers are less likely than staffers to be privy to them.

There is a lack of consensus around how media workers’ social media activity should be monitored, if at all. This means that censorship is often up to individual discretion and is unevenly applied. NWU’s data suggests that marginalized workers are disproportionately penalized for allegedly violating policies regarding social media usage and political speech, while others enjoy wide latitude.

Social media companies have themselves systematically suppressed criticism of Israel. This censorship not only undemocratically constrains public discourse, but also interferes with media workers’ access to information and ability to support their livelihoods by sharing their work. On October 15, Instagram notified the journalist and illustrator Molly Crabapple that her account would be hidden from non-followers, and she would be temporariely unable to go “live,” because she reposted a Democracy Now! article about Israeli violence in the West Bank. In response, she posted, “As an artist I rely on Instagram as a major way to sell my work, and this clearly hurts my ability to do that.”

Finally, social media provides a powerful tool for individuals and organizations seeking to punish media workers for coverage that amplifies Palestinian perspectives. Doxxing, online harassment, and threats of violence transmitted over social media are favored tools for followers of groups like StopAntisemitism.org and Canary Mission.

The Power of Unions

A silver lining to the widespread repression of speech is the power unions have demonstrated in their efforts to protect workers from actual or potential retaliation. One telling example occurred among a group of Hearst Magazine employees. On October 10, Samira Nasr, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, used her personal Instagram to decry Israel’s communications blackout in Gaza. Her post resulted in public backlash from online commentators. Not only did Hearst corporate management condemn Nasr’s comments, management subsequently introduced a new social media policy to prohibit employees from posting about “politically charged” events, including on their personal social media accounts. The policy encouraged employees to report one another for social media activity that could “impact the reputation or objectivity of Hearst Magazines” and mandated that posts must be “consistent” with the views expressed in the company’s publications.

Hearst Magazines Media Union, a unit under Writers Guild of America, East, organized pushback against the policy. Union members filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and encouraged workers to refuse to sign the egregious policy. In the end, the company stopped pressuring workers to sign the policy, but the complaint process is ongoing.

“Hearst's claim that personal social media accounts are not to be used for posting personal opinions would be laughable if it weren't so concerning. We will not let these scare tactics work,” said Hearst union shop steward Zach Lennon-Simon. “The only good thing about this policy is that it has united all of us, union members and editorial managers, in their outrage at Hearst's attempts at authoritarianism. We remain committed to each other and to our fight against corporate censorship.”

The New York Times Guild similarly pushed back against divisive management tactics, using a labor rights framework. The publication’s leaders launched a leak investigation after unidentified staff provided information to The Intercept about internal concerns regarding the paper’s handling of the October 7 sexual violence story. As part of the investigation, Times management conducted a “targeted interrogation” of members of an employee resource group (ERG) consisting of Middle Eastern and North African workers. According to the NewsGuild, which represents the New York Times Guild, “Members faced extensive questions about their involvement in MENA ERG events and discussions, and about their views of the Times’s Middle East coverage.” They were also asked to turn over the group’s membership list. New York Times Guild members filed a grievance declaring management’s tactics to be a violation of the Guild’s labor contract.

Workers without the protection of a union lack a key resource for pushing back; freelancers, who largely lack the legal protections of full-time employees, are especially vulnerable. Our analysis underscores the importance of ongoing labor organizing—and solidarity between full-time staff and freelance workers—across the media industry. Media organizations that do not already protect their workers from retaliation are unlikely to start on their own. Workers must use their collective power to push employers to respect their workplace rights and uphold fair labor practices.

The only good thing about this policy is that it has united all of us, union members and editorial managers, in their outrage at Hearst's attempts at authoritarianism. We remain committed to each other and to our fight against corporate censorship.
—Zach Lennon-Simon