Overcoming Media Bias in Telling the Story about Israel: A Primer

Gary Kenzer

A key aspect to the Mideast struggle today is the manipulation of media to influence public opinion.

  • Are acts of violence directed against civilians termed “terror”? If not, does this conform to the media’s policy regarding other areas of conflict around the world?
  • In reporting violence, is the sequence of events clear, as to which side was attacked and which side retaliated?
  • Is sympathy being elicited for one side of the conflict, through the portrayal of its victims in humanizing terms (e.g. including personal information like the victim’s name, age, familial relationship, or profession)?
  • Though both sides blame each other for perpetrating the violence, is one side portrayed as the more violent aggressor?
  • Are the perpetrators of violence described in passive or active terms?
  • Does the media attempt to give justification for an act of violence—e.g., for reasons of poverty, frustration, or national liberation?
  • Are suicide bombers and collaborators included in Palestinian casualty counts? Are casualty counts expressed unqualified, or is a distinction made between combatants and civilians?
  • Is “equal time” granted to both sides of the conflict, or is one side given preferential treatment—hence lending more weight and credibility to that side’s position?
  • When one side makes a claim, is the other side given a chance to refute, or does the claim stand unchallenged? Does one side usually “get the last word”?
  • Does the media quote dissenting or extremist opinions within each camp, or does the media only quote moderate voices that parrot the leadership’s line?
  • Does the headline skew the story by failing to identify which side was the aggressor and which side the victim?
  • Photos and captions: Are these pertinent to the story, or do they diverge from the main story and garner out-of-context sympathy for one side or the other?

Seven Violations of Principles of Media Objectivity

With the media playing such an important role in Mideast events, here are some tools to ensure that you’re more than just a passive player in the process.

Since the outbreak of violence in the Middle East with the Second Intifada and the wars in Lebanon and in Gaza, much concern has been raised about media bias. And as is becoming painfully clear, a key aspect to the Mideast struggle today is the manipulation of media to influence public opinion.

Why is the media biased? It could be they are intimidated by Palestinian strongmen into covering only the “positive” side, while Israeli democracy permits more open coverage of the Israeli position. Or it could be that it’s more exciting to root for the underdog. Or it could be that the world applies a double-standard of morality to Israel.

How can readers discern the truth between the lines? Listed are common methods employed by the media—intentionally or not—to influence public opinion. By being aware of these methods, we can avoid becoming a pawn in the media war.

Violation #1: Misleading Definitions and Terminology

By using terminology and definitions in a way that implies accepted fact, the media injects bias under the guise of objectivity.

Example: The New York Times subtly altered its reference to the Temple Mount, which unbiased historians have always acknowledged was the site of two Holy Jewish Temples. In apparent deference to Palestinian leaders who claim that no Jewish Temple ever stood on the Jerusalem hill toward which Jews have prayed for millennia, the Times began appending the phrase to include “which the Arabs call the Haram al Sharif.”

Then, a few weeks later, the Times referred to “the Temple Mount, which Israel claims to have been the site of the First and Second Temple.” It was no longer established historical fact, but a mere “claim.” Then, in a subsequent article, the Times described Israeli troops as having “stormed the Haram, holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem, where hundreds of people were at worship.” No mention whatsoever of its status as the “Temple Mount” or the single holiest Jewish site.

Violation #2: Imbalanced Reporting

Media reports frequently skew the picture by presenting only one side of the story.

Example: The media presents a speaker from one side of the conflict that merely ratifies the opposing viewpoint. For example, under the guise of “balanced reporting,” the media is fond of quoting Michael Lerner, a California rabbi who called Prime Minister Barak’s policies “racist” and “oppressive,” refered to the IDF as “barbarous” and “brutal,” and accused Israeli citizens of perpetrating “classic Russian pogroms on Palestinian civilians.”

Violation #3: Opinions Disguised as News

An objective reporter should not use adjectives or adverbs, unless they are part of a quotation. Also, the source for any facts and opinions should be clear from the report, or alternatively it should be stated that source is intentionally undisclosed.

Example: A Los Angeles Times editorial cartoon depicted an Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall, with the stones of the wall forming the word “hate.” The caption read: “Worshipping their God.”

In defense, L.A. Times artist Michael Ramirez pointed out that that a second man in the cartoon (who was sprawled on the ground and much less noticeable) was actually a Moslem praying. Unfortunately, the kaffiyeh which would identify him as a Moslem is practically invisible. Furthermore, Ramirez was unable to explain why the chosen venue of “hate” was the Western Wall, a site sacred only to Jews, which has never been a place of Moslem prayer. (Following reader protest, the Los Angeles Times altered its cartoon, deleting the unique Herodian frame around the Western Wall stones, to make it look more like a generic wall.)

Violation #4: Lack of Context

By failing to provide proper context and full background information, journalists can dramatically distort the true picture.

Example: A BBC photo depicts two Palestinians, hands tied behind their backs, and kneeling on the ground. Standing over them is an Israeli soldier with a rifle pointed at their heads.

There is no context identifying this photo, just the benign caption “Tension has been high around the Jewish settlements.” But who are the Arabs in this photo? Did they just murder Jews in cold blood? Or were they innocently buying bread at the local market? BBC does not say. And why is the soldier pointing the gun? Is he guarding dangerous prisoners until reinforcements can arrive? Or is he about to blow off their heads at point-blank range? BBC lets the implication stand for itself.

Violation #5: Selective Omission

By choosing to report certain events over others, the media controls access to information and manipulates public sentiment.

Example: Ever since the violence began, media outlets routinely refer to the Intifada as being “sparked by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount.” This is despite the admission by Palestinian Minister of Communications Imad el-Falouji that the Palestinian Authority pre-planned the outbreak of violence.

Violation #6: Using True Facts to Draw False Conclusions

Media reports frequently use true facts to draw erroneous conclusions.

Example: Many articles report that “hundreds of people have been killed, the vast majority Palestinians.” This is an indisputable fact, yet without qualifying these figures, the reader is led to the false conclusion that Israeli soldiers are the aggressors and have used excessive force.

Violation #7: Distortion of Facts

In today’s competitive media world, reporters frequently do not have the time, inclination or resources to properly verify information before submitting a story for publication.

Example: The New York Times, Associated Press and other major media outlets published a photo of a young man, bloodied and battered, crouching beneath a club-wielding Israeli policeman. The caption identified him as a Palestinian victim of the recent riots—with the clear implication that the Israeli soldier is the one who beat him.

In fact, the bloodied “Palestinian” depicted in the photograph was Tuvia Grossman, a 20-year-old Jewish student from Chicago, studying in Jerusalem. And the assailants were not Israelis, but members of a Palestinian mob who beat and stabbed Grossman mercilessly for 10 minutes. And the infuriated Israeli policeman with a baton was deterring the Palestinians from finishing their lynching.

It is clear that we have much work to do to help advocate for Israel through the media. When we read something that does not tell the whole picture about Israel in our community, or in another country, it is still a matter of concern. We must be actively a part of the solution wherever this bias occurs. In today’s world of instant technology, we must use it to our advantage to stay informed and motivated, acting as one. This may be difficult, but if we unite, media bias against Israel will be overcome. ♦

Gary Kenzer, National USA Executive Director of HonestReporting, has been in Jewish communal services for well over 20 years and has lectured nationally at educators conferences. He can be reached at [email protected].
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HaYidion Israel & Zionism Education Spring 2009
Israel & Zionism Education
Spring 2009