Some college students have no reservations about bashing Israel.
Israel’s critics have used their First Amendment rights for years, especially when it comes to expressing opinions in a college newspaper. The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I) has had to be careful with what it chooses to publish, especially in light of the recent controversy on campus over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the fall of 2003, a Daily Illini columnist, Mariam Sobh, included a false quote in one of her columns. The quote consisted of violent and false statements that portrayed then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as wanting to wipe out the Palestinians, according to the Daily Illini Web site. Sobh didn’t acknowledge the inaccuracy until April of 2004.
The Daily Illini editor and U of I junior Kathleen Foody said that the conflict is the paper’s biggest concern because students on both sides have staged demonstrations and protests. She also said that when these students read an article in the paper that upsets them, they complain about it immediately.
“We have to be really careful to balance both opinions and not take what people say for granted,” Foody said. “People tend to hyperbolize when they feel strongly about something, and as an editor it is my duty to point things out. If it isn’t factual, we aren’t going to print it.”
Foody said the biggest difficulty with editing a college newspaper is covering current events in a balanced way that readers would perceive as unfair. Editors run the risk of offending a lot of people, especially at a bigger school like U of I.
“Many [students] have cultural ties to Israel, either by faith or nationality, so you don’t want to turn them off to anything else you have to say,” Foody said. “You have to make sure you are presenting everything in a fair light so your readers can feel like they can trust you and that you aren’t trying to advocate one side over the other.”
When Foody edits stories that mention the conflict, she is sure to go over them with a “fine toothed comb,” she said. She verifies each fact with the reporter and checks where he or she received the information.
Andrew Mason, junior opinions editor of the Daily Illini, chooses which columns and letters that students write to the paper should be published. He said that the previous opinions editors had an informal rule that columns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be original, not overly offensive and “exceptionally good.”
Letters to the editor are fact-checked heavily, Mason said. In a semester, Mason said he receives about 12 letters on the conflict, and that the paper didn’t print many of them because a majority were from IlliniPAC or Students for Justice in Palestine.
“They would be at each other’s throats, rhetorically speaking,” Mason said. “I can see the viewpoints of each side and each side is neither 100 percent right or wrong, but people sometimes argue in bad blood. You should take what they say with a grain of salt.”
During the past couple of years, the pro-Israel community has changed, said Eli Wald, former president of IlliniPAC. When he was in office, Wald met with the Daily Illini editorial board on a frequent basis. Eventually, new staff came to work for the paper and things changed for the better, he said.
“A lot of [the anti-Israel rhetoric] at this point is non-intentional but ignorance,” Wald said. “A lot of the Daily Illini staff will ask Palestinians to write about Israel, and these reporters aren’t well-versed enough to know what is going on to make it factually correct.”
There are obvious implications when college newspapers portray Israel in a negative light, Wald said.
“The college campus is a breeding ground for the future leaders of America, so if my college is exposed to something that can threaten the positive U.S.-Israel alliance, I guess that is what’s at stake,” Wald said. “There’s always the risk that people are being deceived by the media or with people’s alternative motives.”
Foody suggests that if student readers are upset with stories about Israel in any college newspaper, they should write a letter to the editor and tell the paper why they think the article was unfair.
“If you are just kind of ranting, then it’s not to say that your letter isn’t going to be printed, but it won’t be taken seriously by everybody else,” Foody said. “If you are trying to convince the middle man, take a factual approach instead of just expressing your own opinions.”