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Funeral Writes

April 14, 2002|ORI NIR | Ori Nir covers Israel's Arab minority for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz.

TEL AVIV — Aviva Nahmani didn't want to be interviewed for national television. At least not right at that moment. Just an hour earlier, at her son Naveh's bar mitzvah, a suicide bomber had blown himself up, injuring several of her family members, some of them severely. The 36-year-old woman was now pacing in the emergency room of Bikur Holim hospital in downtown Jerusalem, punching her cellular phone, trying to gather information on the medical condition of her loved ones, scattered in hospitals around town.

But a young, eager television reporter kept cajoling her, coaxing the stunned woman to speak to her. Unable to muster enough resistance to fend off the reporter, Nahmani agreed. The interview made for great television.

This kind of victim badgering didn't used to be part of an Israeli journalist's job. But since the fall of 2000, when Palestinians launched an intense campaign of bombing and shooting attacks inside the Jewish state, the Israeli media have gradually dropped many of their self-imposed inhibitions. Today we are all expected to be, if not as crass as that television reporter, at least sufficiently immune to tragedy to bring back the goods.

Reporters at Ha'aretz newspaper where I work recently received a memo from the head of the news department titled: ''Obituaries of Terrorism Victims.'' The memo advised us to be fresh and interesting, to stay reserved, avoid cliches and not to get carried away with relatives' grief.

Reading the memo, I realized something: In this past year, we have all become obituary writers. We cover death. Over and over again.

As deadly terrorism becomes routine, so does its coverage. We rush to cover a suicide bombing in the morning, positioning ourselves as close as possible to the carcass of a bus where bodies are still trapped. We rub shoulders with the squads of ultra-Orthodox Jews who volunteer to collect body parts (often with tweezers and tiny zip-lock bags). Having visited the site, we run to hospitals to look for eye-witnesses, relatives or lightly injured survivors who are not in shock. Then on to the homes of the people who were killed, to gently ask for photos and gather ''fresh and interesting'' material for an obituary. The next morning we cover the funerals. There have been more than 70 suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israeli civilians in the past year and a half.

Covering terrorism has become an enormous challenge for Israeli reporters and editors. Everything has been said. Almost everything has been shown. With each attack, television crews zoom in a little closer on victims. Close-ups of bleeding people, once considered taboo, are now commonplace. Tight shots of ambulance interiors, as rescue crews try to revive victims, have become routine. The names of those killed are broadcast within hours, much faster than ever before. An endless stream of hollow words fills the airwaves as TV reporters and anchors must pad live reports that start with news flashes and continue for hours. Radio stations, desperate for something fresh, no longer bother to screen those who call in with eyewitness reports.

The coverage of terrorism here has become rough and crude and relentless. Like everyone else who responds to terrorist attacks--security forces, medics, body-part collectors, insurance agents--reporters have become skilled, inured and frighteningly fast. News of an attack airs on the radio minutes after an explosion. Camera crews race to hospitals to be there before ambulances arrive and get live footage of victims being wheeled into emergency rooms. TV producers receive footage from camera crews at a bombing site or a hospital and air it without prior screening. Often, the cameramen are amateurs who happened to be in the area, with their camcorders, and rushed their rough footage to national television. This rush to air any relevant material recently resulted in a television station showing the body of a partially naked woman on a stretcher. Another bombing victim, shown on television sobbing hysterically as rescue crews rushed her to an ambulance, said in an interview recently that she felt violated twice: once by the terrorist and again by the press.

The routine causes a strong sense of deja vu a well-known enemy of fresh and creative reporting. Recently, following a shooting attack in downtown Jerusalem, a television reporter interviewing a merchant realized that he had interviewed the man after another attack, several weeks earlier. The interviewer and interviewee giggled for a moment at the bitter irony, then went on with the interview. Reporters now look for repeat casualties. Being injured only once no longer makes for a thrilling story.

Blood has been shown. Now editors want to show bloodier photos. In early March, as reporters were waiting to interview Mrs. Nahmani at Bikur Holim hospital, one of the photojournalists received a message from his editor on his pager. "I want as many pics of injured babies as possible," it said.

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