WUJS- Media Bias and Israel
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Media Bias and Israel
There are a number of ways in which the media can be biased against Israel. Media bias ranges from blatant unfairness to very subtle processes that journalists themselves might not be consciously aware of. Israel activists often spend a lot of time attempting to fight media bias, an activity that must start with a proper understanding of the forms bias in the media takes.
Confused causality presents a situation or event as if it were caused by another event when it wasn’t. By attempting to make an audience believe that one thing was caused by another, blame for the caused thing is shifted onto the supposed cause.
A good example of confused causality comes from media reporting of Palestinian suicide attacks. One can read journalists reporting that a suicide bombing that killed innocent civilians followed an Israeli military attack earlier in the same day. It is clear that operationally it would be impossible for a suicide bomber to be planned as a response to something that happened earlier the same day. However, pro-Palestinian journalists can give the impression that a suicide bombing is caused by prior Israeli actions, thereby attempting to remove blame from the terrorists, and place it on the victims.
Confused causality can work to make certain events seem inevitable. Presenting actions that might otherwise be judged negatively as ‘necessary’, or ‘inevitable’, attempts to shift the blame to those who "caused" the action.
This has been used prominently in Palestinian defenses of terror attacks. Some pro-Palestinian journalists represent Palestinian terrorism by saying that Palestinians need to defend themselves against "Israeli brutality". These journalists attempt to present terrorism as the only available option, that is, as necessary, or in effect caused by Israeli actions. When terrorism is presented as a necessary evil, it is judged less negatively, as those carrying it out are seen as doing what any 'normal' person would do. The blame lies with those who ‘forced’ them to take this action: i.e. the Israelis. This however conceals the fact that there is always a choice, and that terrorism is never the only possible response.
A variation on the problem of 'confused causality' is the removal of agency from reporting. Instead of trying to shift the blame for a terror attack back onto the victims ("following an Israeli assassination of Hamas activists, a suicide bomber in Jerusalem…") journalists sometimes report events as if nobody actually caused them to happen ("a bomb went off in Jerusalem, killing…").
Confused causality is very powerful, because it can manipulate people into attributing blame for terrible events on the wrong people.
A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words
Pictures, whether on TV or in a newspaper, carry a far stronger impact than words.
Pictures can be used in a number of different ways to create bias. In some instances an article or item can be perfectly balanced, but if the accompanying pictures only represent one perspective then the reader or viewer will feel sympathy for that perspective. This obviously happens at a simple level - there is a big difference between accompanying an article with pictures of Israeli tanks or of a blown-up Israeli bus. At a more subtle level, audiences can view a violent demonstration from the perspective of violent Palestinians, and so see armed Israeli soldiers, or from the perspective of Israelis, and so see a huge number of violent demonstrators, throwing rocks, burning tires, and perhaps even wielding guns.
Sometimes the pictures used to accompany an article may not match the words at all. In one notorious example, a picture of a teenage boy, bleeding and confused, was used in the New York Times. The caption suggested that the boy was a Palestinian, who had been attacked by Israeli troops. It later emerged that he was an American Jewish yeshiva student. Mostly photographs are not included in so blatantly biased a way. It is rare to catch the media making such an obvious mistake. More often pictures will simply not match a story fairly. A general background piece on negotiations may be accompanied by pictures of Israeli tanks, instead of pictures of the negotiating teams, creating the unfair impression that Israel uses tanks to get her own way in negotiations.
Pictures also can carry different relative strengths. For example an article might be accompanied by two photographs, one a head shot of the Israeli Prime Minister and one of an injured Palestinian child in a hospital bed. In terms of pure balance a picture is shown "from both sides", but the power of the pictures is very different.
What's in a Word
Words can be selected from amongst possible alternatives to create a certain impression. There are generally a number of ways of telling a story, and the exact words chosen create value associations for the audience.
The most obvious selective use of value-laden words in describing the situation in Israel are those chosen to label the various groups, individuals, and places involved. Consider the difference between describing somebody as a 'terrorist', 'freedom fighter', 'militant', or 'activist'. Words can be applied in clearly biased ways - consider the differences between reporting firing on the 'settlement' of Gilo, the 'Jerusalem suburb' of Gilo, or on Gilo 'in the West Bank'. More subtle examples might include 'incursion', 'invasion' or 'operation' in the West Bank, or 'assassination', 'murder', or 'preventative killing' of terrorists (or 'freedom fighters', or 'militants').
Word selectivity goes far beyond the labels chosen for groups and places. The language surrounding these labels can also be well chosen to reflect specific viewpoints. Consider the difference between 'flexible Arafat to listen to Israeli demands', 'pressured Arafat to listen to Israeli demands, and 'bullying Israel forces Arafat to listen'. There are always a number of possible ways to tell a story, and the specific words that journalists choose reveal their attitudes, and their biases.
Pride of Place
Certain parts of a news item attract more attention than other parts. The most obvious example is the headline, or a newscaster’s summary of the main news. The first paragraph of an article, and introduction to a TV news item are also particularly important. The introduction and start of a news piece are tremendously important in setting the tone of the article.
For example a headline such as "Israel Shells Palestinian TV Station" might lead on to a discussion of the fact that no one was hurt, the reasons Israel took this action, and the problems caused by Palestinian Authority incitement, but the damage to Israel's position is done in the headline.
Even the phrasing of individual sentences can be important. One naturally stress certain parts of a sentence. This is why the order of phrases is important. Many sources that are biased against Israel will always report Israeli reactions first, regardless of whether the big news story is in what provoked an Israeli response. Consider the difference between "Following a suicide bombing in downtown Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli forces shelled a police station in Ramalah" and "Israeli forces shelled a police station in Ramalah today, after a suicide bomb yesterday in Jerusalem."
Unequal representation occurs when two sides in a conflict are given unequal exposure in a story. In its most blatant form only one side is quoted and only one side’s views are reported.
One way of checking for unequal representation is to count the lines in a newspaper article, or count time on TV or radio. When representatives of one side are given more space, bias might be present. However quantity alone does not guarantee equality. The type of content can also have a bearing on the weighting of the story.
Sometimes, although both Israel and Palestinians are represented, one side can be more personalized than the other. Personalizing arguments allows audiences to empathize with one side, and support their position regardless of the facts. This can happen, for example, if a report includes a clip of an army officer in uniform speaking at an IDF military press conference and then a clip of a Palestinian mother crying at her child's hospital bed, calling for peace. Israeli mothers also cry for peace after terror attacks that kill their children, but the media can often 'conveniently' forget this.
A further example of unequal representation is often exhibited on TV (or radio) news program. In an item about the conflict the announcer might say "Israeli spokesmen said…" and then report their words, thus ensuring that no Israeli voice is heard, and that no Israeli face is shown. The program might then cut back to the news anchorperson, who might go on to say that "on the line from Jericho we have Abdel Ahmed from the Palestinian Authority", and conduct an interview with him. Even if the Palestinian spokesperson doesn't speak long, the fact that their voice is personalized and that they are given the opportunity not merely to make a bland statement but to respond and modify their comments to fit the moment, ensures that the representation is unequal in their favor.
Out of Context
Israel often suffers in the media from a lack of context. This may be because the reporter is biased against Israel or because the nature of the media means that complicated background does not work well. In either case this phenomena can be seen each time Israeli kills a terrorist leader and the media fails to explain who the person is, and what they were planning to do. Similarly, Israeli reprisal attacks are often reported without an explanation of the terrorism that precipitated them.
Reporting something out of context leads to the failure to provide the background information which might allow audiences to understand the event. An action reported out of context can seem morally wrong, even when it is justified by other events.
Sometimes the inclusion of information can remove an item from its proper context. This ‘smoke screening’ can obscure the real issues. For example, reporting that an army shell landed "in Bethlehem, not far from the site believed to the birthplace of Jesus" creates the impression that Israel is reckless in her disregard for important Christian sites and lives, and as such is an enemy of the West. Even though there might have been no question of either religious oppression, or of the site itself being hit or targeted, this impression is created by the inclusion of superfluous information.
Errant Equivalence is the drawing of a comparison between two situations, actions, or concepts, which are actually very different from each other. Equivalence is intended to make an audience think that two things are essentially the same as each other; when a speaker uses equivalence they attempt to make something seem better or worse than it is, by exploiting the audience's prior conceptions.
A good example of Errant Equivalence is found in the Palestinian charge that Israel's targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists is itself "terrorism". This charge is designed to make the Israeli policy seem as bad as Palestinian terrorism, by comparing two things that are very different morally, as one targets innocent civilians and the other targets those planning to carry out violent attacks.
Another example of Errant Equivalence in action is the extravagant claim that Palestinians are the victim of a “holocaust”. This claim, offensive to Holocaust survivors, tries to gain sympathy for Palestinians by transferring some of an audience's natural sympathy for Holocaust survivors to Palestinians. Attempts are made to draw similarities between two situations, when it is quite clear that there is no systematic and deliberate plan to kill all Palestinians.
Errant Equivalence works by linking concepts that ought not to be linked or compared; this is also essentially how 'Name Calling' works. We can understand Name Calling as unsubtle Errant Equivalence.
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