Why do so many journalists peddle the lie that Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel?

Why do so many journalists erroneously claim or suggest that Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital?

This question is inspired by years of repeatedly prompting corrections at various media outlets – some, interestingly, not unfriendly to Israel – to this same error. The latest example involves an article at the Independent (‘Uber’s car-sharing service banned in Israel in latest legal setback for taxi firm, Nov. 27) by Ben Chapman. 

The claim can be seen in our tweet to the Indy journalist.

Yesterday, we complained to Indy editors about the error, and the sentence was amended this morning. The words in the sentence “in the Israeli capital” was replaced with “in Tel Aviv”.

It has been argued by some that passages like the one above are not in fact misleading, as most foreign embassies are in indeed located in Tel Aviv. However, foreign governments place their embassies in Tel Aviv, not because they believe it is the Israeli capital, but because of diplomatic considerations related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  Of course, journalists are not bound by such diplomatic considerations, but by journalistic ethics (in the UK, the Editors’ Code) which demand that they avoid misleading readers and publishing erroneous information. 

The fact is that Israel designates Jerusalem as its capital.

As a Daily Mail correction last week prompted by this blog stated:

“While foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, Israel designates Jerusalem as its capital“.

Whilst explicitly claiming that ‘Tel Aviv is the capital’ is one form of the error, more often journalists will make the claim more implicitly, by simply using Tel Aviv as a metonym for the capital, as we see in this passage in a Times of London article in November (later corrected).

But, even such implicit claims are equally misleading because, regardless of how any editor or journalist feels about Israel’s designation of its capital, the fact is that Israel’s seat of government (including the Knesset, Supreme Court, Prime Minister’s Office and most government ministries) is located in Jerusalem.  Decisions of the Israeli government almost always come from officials in Jerusalem.  Using Tel Aviv in this context as shorthand for the capital runs contrary to the most basic journalistic demands involving the “Where” in the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

Unsurprisingly, one of the more egregious example of such misinformation was found at the Guardian in 2012, when the readers’ editor actually amended a photo caption which initially had (“wrongly”) stated that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital.

Yes, they were truly telling journalists, in their official Style Guide, that Tel Aviv IS the capital of Israel.

However, shortly after that “correction”, the Guardian was forced to amend their Style Guide when the Press Complaints Commission (precursor to Independent Press Standards Organisation) ruled that it is wrong to tell readers that Tel Aviv is the capital.

In 2015, the BBC similarly ‘corrected‘ a report which “falsely” claimed that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital.

Also noteworthy in the genre of editorial somersaults to avoid dealing with the issue of Jerusalem was a 2015 BBC Weather report in which Jerusalem was the only city that wasn’t paired with a country. Instead, the word “null” appeared where the country should have been.

Though British news outlets including the Guardian will almost always correct such false claims when we bring it to their attention, they still usually refuse to write the word “Jerusalem” in this context. So, if a passage originally claimed that “Tel Aviv decided….”, the correction will not say “Jerusalem decided….”, but rather “Israel decided…”.

Here’s an example, in a recent UKMW prompted correction at the Guardian.

So, what motivates such obfuscations?

It’s complicated, but we believe that journalists who make such errors generally fall into two categories:

  1. Genuine Ignorance: those who truly believe that Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital.
  2. Ideology: those who know on some level that Tel Aviv is not the capital of Israel and that Jerusalem is the seat of government and Israel’s designated capital, but they operate within a media echo chamber which believes that journalists acknowledging such facts are parroting the pro-Israeli view of the conflict.

The second category is much more worrisome than the first, as it represents a broader UK media pattern of what we call ‘advocacy journalism’: the belief held by many reporters that they have a moral duty (in the spirit of ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the powerful’) to advocate on behalf of Palestinians and give credence to their narrative, a duty which transcends their ethical responsibilities as professional journalists to be objective and tell the truth.  

This distorted understanding of their professional responsibilities, we believe, more than any other single factor, drives such falsehoods about Tel Aviv, and media bias and inaccurate reporting about Israel more broadly.

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