Lies through statistics: Harriet Sherwood’s master class in shoddy journalism

On May 23rd, we commented on a Guardian report by Harriet Sherwood titled “Palestinian Paralympians visit Jerusalem holy site”, May 21st, about disabled athletes from Gaza (who are going to compete in the Paralympics in London this summer) visiting the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

However, this was anything but a ‘feel good’ story about sport transcending politics or a humanitarian decision by Israel to allow citizens of a state whose government literally seeks their destruction to enter their capital.

Nobody familiar with Sherwood’s crude Israeli caricature could possibly expect the story to be framed in such a morally intuitive fashion.

The narrative pivoted from a sports human interest story to anti-Israel agitprop when Sherwood quoted a paralympian Hatam Zakut who said:

“We consider ourselves representatives of all disabled athletes in Gaza. Thanks to the Israelis, there are a lot of us.”  

Adding to Zakut’s vague charge, Sherwood wrote:

“[In fact] tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are disabled as a result of Israeli military operations.”

As we noted at the time, Sherwood provided no source for this wild figure, of “tens of thousands”.  

We noted additionally:

  • Per a UN report, there were an estimated 600 Palestinians disabled as a result of injuries sustained during Cast Lead.
  • A report by the Gaza Ministry of Public Works and Housing, in August 2009 (seven months after Cast Lead), placed the total figure of all disabled Palestinians in Gaza – for all reasons – at 19,763.  (Another study, by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts the total number of Gaza’s disabled at 38,000) [emphasis added].

We concluded that Gaza government statistics do not even attempt to break down the total number of disabled caused by IDF military operations and thus the number which Sherwood cited is both inconceivable and clearly not supported by any available evidence. 

Apparently, following emails to Guardian editors by CiF Watch (and some loyal CiF Watch readers) the Guardian revised Sherwood’s essay and has now added this statement:

“This article was amended on 25 May 2012. The original said “tens of thousands” of Palestinians in Gaza were disabled as a result of Israeli military operations. A 2011 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics survey puts the number of disabled people in Gaza at 38,000, but does not give a breakdown of how many were disabled as a result of Israeli military operations.”

The original passage in Sherwood’s report which claimed that “tens of thousands” of Palestinians are disabled (as a result of Israeli military operations) now reads “thousands“,  a lower number which itself is not, per their own update, based on empirical data.

But here are the broader points:

  • Sherwood made a completely unsubstantiated claim (without a source) about the number of Gazans disabled as a result of IDF operations, claiming ‘tens of thousands’.
  • We (and CiF Watch readers) called Sherwood out on her shoddy journalism.
  • The Guardian couldn’t back up Sherwood’s claim and dramatically revised her figure downward to ‘thousands’, using – at best – a highly spurious statistical inference based on one report on the number of Palestinians disabled from Cast Lead. In fact, the UN report on the number of Palestinians disabled as the result of Cast Lead (600) cited, which appears to be the statistical basis for the Guardian’s revised figure of “thousands’ disabled by IDF military ops, is, itself, highly questionable. The NGO B’Tselem issued a definitive report in 2012, listing the total number of Palestinians “seriously” injured during the war as 350. While they never used the term “disabled” as such, it would certainly seem intuitive that a “serious” injury would necessarily include those with long-term or permanent disabilities. 
  • The Guardian’s new language admits that “a 2011 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics survey…does not give a breakdown of how many were disabled as a result of Israeli military operations.”
  • The Guardian is essentially admitting that it has no idea how Harriet Sherwood came up with the ‘tens of thousands’ figure in her original report and, further, that the question of how many Palestinians in Gaza are disabled as the result of wars in against Israel is, at best, highly speculative.  

Even by the Guardian’s appalling standards, Sherwood’s May 21st report represents an egregious example of shoddy, unethical advocacy journalism. 

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