OpinionIsrael at War

Poynter, PolitiFact ‘fact check’ misleads on beheadings

If these organizations are the credible fact checkers they claim to be, they owe readers an apology.

A home in Kibbutz Be'eri after Hamas terrorists attacked civilians of all ages, Oct. 25, 2023. Photo by Edi Israel/Flash90,
A home in Kibbutz Be'eri after Hamas terrorists attacked civilians of all ages, Oct. 25, 2023. Photo by Edi Israel/Flash90,
Gilead Ini, senior research analyst at CAMERA. Credit: CAMERA.
Gilead Ini
Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA. His commentary has appeared in numerous publications, including The Jerusalem Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Columbia Journalism Review and National Review.

Note: This piece references gruesome and distressing atrocities by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

The Poynter Institute bills itself as a specialist in journalistic ethics and accuracy. It owns a newspaper, runs a journalism school, operates a well-known fact-checking organization and claims to be no less than “the global authority on trust, transparency and accountability journalism.”

If so, it must urgently correct its recent story about Hamas atrocities and prominently retract one of its main arguments.

An Oct. 24 fact check by Poynter and PolitiFact shows inexplicable sloppiness (at best) on a topic that deserves utmost care—the youngest victims of the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel. The piece, by PolitiFact staff writer Sara Swann, repeatedly flip-flops on the proposition being examined—first, whether the Palestinian terror group Hamas beheaded any Israeli babies, then whether it beheaded 40 babies, and back again. In conflating the two, the piece falsely makes the case that politicians and media outlets spread misinformation on the issue, and worse, falsely communicates that there’s no merit to the idea that Hamas beheaded babies.

The story slips back and forth between the distinct propositions as if they’re identical. The headline promises to tackle “uncorroborated reports of beheaded babies,” period. But the piece opens with a reference to unverified claims that Hamas beheaded “dozens of babies.” The piece insists this claim of “dozens” of decapitations was spread by certain politicians and news reports—but as proof links to statements referring just to beheadings, not dozens of them. The author asks, “So why did a weakly sourced claim about 40 beheaded babies travel far and wide?” But shortly thereafter, she charges news outlets with having “repeated the claim that Hamas had beheaded babies,” period.

The errors begin from the top of the report. Its headline reads, “How media outlets and politicians amplified uncorroborated reports of beheaded babies in Israel.” The subhead continues, “The claim stemmed from reporting by an Israel-based news reporter who cited Israeli soldiers. The report has not been corroborated by other sources.” But as we note below, it has been corroborated.

Misrepresenting politicians and news organizations

The body of the piece wastes little time before confusing the two distinct claims. The second paragraph introduces the charge that Hamas beheaded “dozens” of babies, while the third paragraph charges that this claim was repeated by politicians, media outlets and social media users:

“There have been verified reports that Hamas, which attacked Israel on Oct. 7, committed violence against children. But one particularly disturbing claim — that the Palestinian militant group beheaded dozens of babies — gained prominence in the days after the massacre, amplified at the U.S. and Israeli governments’ highest levels. This report remains unverified.

“Since the attack, the claim has been widely repeated by politicians including President Joe BidenRep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.; news outlets, such as CNNFox News and the New York Post; Israeli officials, including the prime minister’s office; actor Noah Schnapp and other social media users with large followings.”

But not one of the linked statements by politicians describe “dozens” of beheaded babies. Biden referenced “terrorists beheading children.” Greene spoke of Hamas “cutting off babies’ heads.” And Stefanik named “the beheadings of babies” among Hamas’s atrocities.

Nor do the links to news organizations show what the author purports. CNN cited Israeli officials who said “babies and toddlers were found with their heads decapitated.” Fox correctly cited Israeli media referring to “dozens of dead babies, some with their heads chopped off.” And the New York Post likewise pointed to Israeli reports that “Hamas terrorists slaughtered at least 40 babies and young children — decapitating some of them.”

Swann provides no link to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office, and we’ve found no evidence that the office referred to dozens of decapitated babies.

And even among the five cited “social media users with large followings” (which include a TikTok account with 1,383 followers as of this writing), two of the posts did not reference 40 beheaded babies.

With the exception of the three other social media accounts, then, Poynter “corrected” something that wasn’t actually said.

Casting doubt on any beheadings

Along with continued slipperiness regarding what, exactly, is being disproved, the piece stumbles in other ways, all seemingly meant to cast doubt on whether Hamas committed the atrocity in question.

Poynter correctly noted that some people mistakenly merged two separate reports by Israeli news channel i24. According to the station, an Israeli soldier in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, estimated that perhaps 40 children were murdered. Separately, an i24 reporter had noted that she was told of decapitated babies. Contrary to how some social media users understood it, she never reported that there were 40 beheaded babies.

But the fact check doesn’t limit itself to untangling this misimpression. It also works to raise doubts that there were any beheadings at all, with a series of “but” statements doing much of the work:

• “Political leaders, first in Israel, then the U.S., gave the beheadings claim more credibility early on. But officials then amended their statements, which increased confusion.” (Emphasis added)

• “The i24 News reporter said the claim came from Israeli soldiers, but the Israel Defense Forces had not confirmed how many babies were killed or if any were beheaded.” (Emphasis added)

• “The beheadings claim traced back to a reporter who said she was relaying soldiers’ firsthand accounts. But other journalists on the ground in Kfar Aza, including Oren Ziv of +972 Magazine, which covers Israel and Palestine, and Samuel Forey of the French news outlet Le Monde, said their reporting did not corroborate this report.” (Emphasis added.)

Poynter quotes further from the two writers:

“During the tour through Kfar Aza, Ziv said he saw no evidence that Hamas beheaded babies, ‘and the army spokesperson or commanders also didn’t mention any such incidents,’ he posted on X. Ziv said journalists in Kfar Aza were allowed to talk to hundreds of soldiers without supervision from the Israel Defense Forces’ communication team.

“Similarly, Forey said, ‘No one told me about beheadings, even less about beheaded children, even less about 40 beheaded children.’ Forey said emergency services personnel he spoke with had not seen any decapitated bodies.”

First, it should be clear (and should have been clear to Poynter) that in a large-scale recovery operation like the one in Kfar Aza, where “hundreds” of soldiers are sorting through the carnage, it might be expected that some encountered the atrocity while others did not. The headline for such a scenario is that soldiers reported seeing the awful sight.

It doesn’t prove much that Oren Ziv didn’t hear what the i24 reporter heard—regardless of what Ziv might think it meant.

Perhaps more notable is that even Ziv, a writer for a fringe and virulently anti-Israel magazine, seemed to pull back from his conclusion. In an addendum to his posts on X, posted a few hours after he first noted his skepticism, he wrote: “Update: this story is still unfolding and information is still coming in that needs to be verified. I will update when I have more.” (He hasn’t followed up.) Incredibly, Poynter, which points to Ziv as evidence that babies might not have been beheaded, declined to mention this equivocation.

Forey, too, seemed to understand the limitation of one reporter’s experience in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas rampage. “I cannot verify these child beheadings,” he explained in the same Oct. 12 series of posts cited by Poynter, before quickly adding: “The future will provide further details.”

And it did.

Full reporting

If Poynter or any other news organization chooses to publish an in-depth investigation into reports of a gruesome atrocity, they have a responsibility to do so fully and fairly. This would require citing not only those who hadn’t encountered evidence of the atrocity, but also the full range of eyewitnesses and senior recovery workers.

On Oct. 11, CBS reported: “Yossi Landau, the head of operations for the southern region of Zaka, Israel’s volunteer civilian emergency response organization, told CBS News on Wednesday that he personally saw adults and children, including babies, who had been beheaded.” (He said the same on the day Poynter published its fact check.)

Also on Oct. 11, IDF spokesperson Jonathan Conricus told an audience:

“We got very, very disturbing reports that came from the ground that there were babies that had been beheaded, and I admit it took us some time to really understand and to verify that report, and it was hard to believe that even Hamas cloud perform such a barbaric act, but after eyewitnesses came forward and after a senior official in the Israeli [coroner] service Zaka came forward on record on CBS News and said, yes, I saw the bodies of beheaded babies, I think we can now say with relative confidence that this is unfortunately what happened in Be’eri.”

(Poynter, which insists that “the Israel Defense Forces had not confirmed how many babies were killed or if any were beheaded,” conceals Conricus’s comment from readers, though they were apparently aware of his words—while making a different point, the fact check cites a CNN article that includes the quote.)

That same day, IDF spokesperson Libby Weiss told CBS News “that more than one of the Israeli soldiers who first reached Kfar Aza reported finding ‘beheaded children of varying ages, ranging from babies to slightly older children,’ along with adults who had also been dismembered.”

On Oct. 15, the New York Times reported that Col. Golan Vach, the commander of Israel’s national search-and-rescue unit, found a murdered mother and child, and that “the head of the baby was severed from the torso of the burned remains.”

On Oct. 15, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported from the military base housing the corpses of murdered Israelis that, “According to the people involved in handling the bodies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s description of beheaded babies is accurate.”

On Oct. 16, ABC News reported that a “senior Israeli official” referenced the existence of images of beheaded babies.

On Oct. 20, The Daily Mail quoted a Col. Rabbi Haim Weisberg, working from the military base identifying the remains of Israelis, as saying: “We have babies with their heads cut off. Bodies without hands, without legs, without genitals.”

Also on Oct. 20, The Media Line reported that Chen Kugel, who runs the National Center for Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, described beheaded babies:

“Kugel also explained that the age range of the victims spans from 3 months to 80 or 90 years old. Many bodies, including those of babies, are without heads.

“Asked if they were decapitated, Kugel answered yes. Although he admits that, given the circumstances, it’s difficult to ascertain whether they were decapitated before or after death, as well as how they were beheaded, ‘whether cut off by knife or blown off by RPG,’ he explained.”

Each of these reports preceded Poynter’s fact check. Each tells us more than any journalist or spokesperson who was unable to confirm the atrocities in the first days after the villages were recaptured. None are reflected in the piece.

A good-faith fact checker would account for these reports. If they insist there are compelling reasons to disbelieve Dr. Kugel, Rabbi Weisberg, Yossi Landau and each of the news reporters responsible for the above stories, they would lay that out as well. But to ignore these accounts, to falsely report that there is no corroboration, or falsely suggest army spokespeople didn’t mention beheadings?

Poynter might also consider revisiting the issue to explain away subsequent coverage: France 24’s Oct. 27 report quoting Col. Vach, who recounted, “I saw a decapitated baby. I took it up with my hands and I carried it, and I put it in the body bag. I personally did it.” Or USA Today’s Oct. 31 report that “a group of 200 forensic pathologists, anthropologists, radiologists and other experts from Israel, the U.S., Switzerland, New Zealand and elsewhere … reported on Oct. 16 that victims of the Hamas attack were executed, bound and burned alive, and others were found decapitated—many of whom were babies.” Or Sky News’s Nov. 5 post noting, “Images seen by Sky News show … a child beheaded.”)

Hamas committed countless atrocities during its Oct. 7 massacre. Among the thousand-plus civilians slaughtered, there is evidence that the Palestinian attackers shot, stabbed, beheaded, burned and raped civilians of all ages. The multiple reports of decapitated babies moves the needle only so much. But in the aftermath of the attack, a cottage industry of fact-checks like the one published by Poynter has flourished. Many commit the same journalistic sins—latching on too tightly to confusion about numbers, clinging too eagerly to spokesmen and journalists who weren’t in a position to confirm accounts of the atrocities, all while ignoring the breadth of evidence.

Not all of those raising questions are considered credible fact checkers. Poynter and PolitiFact believe themselves to be. They owe readers an editors’ note apologizing for the sloppy and misleading fact check.

Originally published by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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