On October 17, The New York Times reported on an explosion at a hospital in Gaza City, leading its coverage of claims by Hamas government officials that an Israeli airstrike was the cause and that hundreds of people were killed or injured. The report included a large headline at the top of the Times website.
Israel later denied being at fault and blamed an errant rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, which in turn denied responsibility. Other American and international officials said their evidence indicated that the missile came from Palestinian fighter positions.
Initial accounts from The Times attributed the claim of Israeli responsibility to Palestinian officials, and indicated that the Israeli army said it was investigating the explosion. However, early versions of the coverage – and the notoriety it received in headlines, in news alerts and on social media channels – relied heavily on Hamas’ claims, and did not make it clear that these claims could not be immediately verified. The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how reliable the account was.
The Times continued to update its coverage as more information became available, reporting on disputed claims of responsibility and noting that the death toll may be lower than initially reported. Within two hours, the headline and other text at the top of the site reflected the scale of the explosion and the dispute over responsibility.
Given the sensitive nature of the news during the expanding conflict, and the high profile promotion it received, Times editors should have paid more attention to the initial exposure and been clearer about what information could be verified. Newsroom leaders continue to examine procedures for the largest breaking news events — including the use of the largest headlines in a digital report — to determine what additional safeguards may be warranted.
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