by Mohammed Dajani
Much of what we know, believe, or think is affected by the news we read. The power of the press is reflected in the description of the press as the “fourth branch of government.” This description shows the enormous influence the press has on shaping public opinion and changing the behavior and attitudes of citizens and policymakers in the “information age”. In today’s world, news moves very fast, due primarily to satellites, the Internet, faxes, television, radio, mobile phones, newspapers, magazines, and other popular means of communication. Unfortunately, the price paid for passing along information with greater speed is that news coverage has become less thorough and less accurate.
Those who make the news depend on the media to spread their views and ideas to the public. Newsmakers rely on journalists to get their message out at the same time that reporters rely on newsmakers to keep them informed. When access to information is impeded and reporters’ freedom of movement and observation is restricted, news reporting is severely damaged. This will have a negative impact on the democratic system, since widespread access to information can be the greatest boon to democracy, increasing people’s political awareness and participation.
Ideally, the news should mirror reality. However, in practice, this is not the case. In his book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” By this, McLuhan meant that the way events are conveyed can be more important than the events themselves. In Palestine, news is conveyed through a media driven by the urge to make and promote a political stand, as opposed to providing a public service. This article attempts to answer the question: Does news reporting contain political or ideological bias and to what extent does that distort reality?
Post-Oslo News Reporting
In the post-Oslo, pre-Al-Aqsa Intifada days (September 1993-September 2000), news coverage of the symptoms and causes of potential conflict not only failed to prevent fighting from breaking out but may have accelerated it by widening the gap between the two peoples. Media coverage gave only skimpy attention to the burning political and economic challenges facing the Oslo peace process and coverage of complex problems was superficial. Peace news is not exciting; conflict, violence and tragic news have the drama that attracts attention and interest. Often, journalists’ political attitudes swayed their reporting. Reporting was systematically biased against the Oslo peace process. Rarely were stories presented in a “point/counterpoint” format in which the two opposing points of view (Palestinian versus Israeli) were presented, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. Sensitive issues were avoided, rather than confronted, and tension continued to mount until Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount sparked the second Intifada.
In the post-Al-Aqsa Intifada days (September 2000-present), the “conflict approach” to news coverage gave prominence to spreading violence. Violent news became “headline news” while “conciliation news” became “no news”. Palestinian press at high-profile events offered emotional reporting. This is in line with a culture that exhibits little tolerance for the views of others and has a tradition of monopolizing the truth.1 As the conflict with Israel continued to worsen, the two main newspapers distributed in the Palestinian Territories, Al-Quds, published in Jerusalem, and Al-Ayyam, published in Ramallah,2 became a valuable resource for Palestinians thirsty for news about the latest developments. Both papers focused on the civilian casualties, physical damage and destruction to property.
But sorting facts from emotional reporting and extremism may prove difficult. Press coverage, and in particular editorials, took a subjective look at Palestinian events. The news reporting, essays and photos published in the Palestinian press aimed to bolster Palestinian views3, to stir reactions against Israel and to drum up international support for the Palestinian cause. News reporters, like politicians, found it hard to be objective.
In general, Palestinian news coverage of the Israeli incursion of Jenin in April 2002 has been biased, emotional, exaggerated, inconsistent, sloppy, and jingoistic. This was not deliberate or malicious but rather was due to the lack of professional, well-trained, qualified reporters. Here we have a distraught public being “injected” with exaggeratedly emotional information, echoing the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Covering the news from Jenin camp, the Palestinian media reported what people suspected and feared, not what was actually happening.
Palestinian news coverage of what happened in Jenin was influenced by a number of different events:
1. Israeli reluctance to allow news teams access to the camp. The way news is collected from the field and what information is gathered determines what is later reported. In the first days of the event, Palestinian coverage of the news was restricted to the military confrontation between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters. The Israeli army forbade journalists, reporters and cameramen from approaching the camp for the first 10 days. They neither allowed nor facilitated the presence of media reporters (foreign, Israeli, or Palestinian) to Jenin refugee camp. A spokesman for the Israeli army stated that reporters were not allowed in the area for their own safety. Many journalists depended on the following sources for information:
(a) Communiqués issued by both sides.
(b) Sources belonging to the two sides who were close to the front.
(c) Eyewitnesses leaving the battleground surroundings.
All those sources may have an interest in portraying their enemy in the worst possible light.
2. Palestinian Authority eagerness to turn Jenin into an “Alamo episode.” Here the press was a willing partner; they aspired to make Jenin a symbol of resistance for the Palestinians.
3. Editors reluctance to report unfavorable information, data, or photos; the Israeli press reported that the Israeli army tried to help civilians by:
(a) Distributing food supplies.
(b) Providing oxygen and an Israeli electric generator to a Palestinian hospital.
(c) Transferring 83 sick and wounded people to hospitals in Israel.
(d) Sending technicians from Jerusalem Electric Company to repair the electric network in Jenin.
(e) Fixing drinking water pipes.
(f) Operating a water well that was broken.
No such news items were reported in the Palestinian press. Were they untrue? The Palestinian press portrayed the Israeli army as going out of its way to inflict as much senseless harm, injury, humiliation, suffering, property destruction and infrastructure damage as possible.
4. Editors’ reluctance to show photos of Israeli victims, since the public may interpret this as sympathy for the Israelis. While Palestinian deaths received much headline coverage, Israeli victims did not. There was no single picture of a mourning Israeli parent or child published in the Palestinian press following a violent attack on civilians. Rarely would the Palestinian press inform its readers about the human stories of Israeli victims, their photos, their name, their background, etc. The images Palestinians saw of suicide attacks on Israeli civilian targets were highly dehumanized - remains of the destroyed bus or rubble of the building bombed. Israeli victims were faceless and anonymous.
5. Reporters’ willingness to use unreliable sources, which turned out to be wrong. For example, they initially reported an exaggerated number of victims in Jenin, quoting an official Palestinian source. This led to increased public concern and allowed rumors to spread. As a result, the number of Palestinians killed in Jenin refugee camp dropped from 5,000 to 3,000 to 500 to 300 to 100 and, eventually, to 52, nearly half of whom were military fighters.
In studying the mechanisms of choosing language and descriptions to report on each event, we found that Palestinian newspapers carefully chose their language and their descriptions in order to give the event its emotional dimension. They played with words and used photos and editorial cartoons extensively to influence Palestinian, Arab and world public opinion. They were emotional and, at times, inaccurate when describing events in Jenin. In general, they failed to give people the true picture of what was happening.
1.Use of Numbers for Victims. Palestinian newspapers gave an exaggerated and vague number of victims. For example, they said tens or hundreds, rather than using exact figures. This led to increased public concern and rumors about a new “holocaust” taking place in the Palestinian territories.
2. Use of Humanitarian Stories. In describing Palestinian suffering, Palestinian newspapers used highly emotional humanitarian stories describing the victimization of families to draw world sympathy to their cause.
3. Use of Photos. Palestinian newspapers used graphic photos of dead people, which normally the press would avoid publishing. They also used photos of demolished homes and children, women and old men suffering and in pain. In contrast, not one single photo was printed in any Palestinian newspaper of an Israeli victim of Palestinian violence.
4. Use of Comparative Descriptions. In one quotation, the sight of the Jenin camp was compared to “Berlin in 1945.”
5. Use of Nationalistic Slogans. The Palestinian press highlighted Palestinian military resistance against the invading Israeli army as something patriotic; they described the events in heroic terms (e.g. slogans, flags, songs, poems, pictures of martyrs). One headline read: “Residents of Jenin Camp Swear: We shall never forget.” They used emotive descriptions to note the heroism of the fighters (e.g. cruel resistance) and to describe the victims (e.g. massacre, collective killing, etc.).
6. Use of Israeli and International News Stories. They selected stories or editorials from the Arab, Israeli and international press that would enforce the Palestinian public’s views.
The Palestinian press covered events in Jenin more intensively than any other single occurence during the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank. For months, the newspapers wrote about it, whereas coverage of violent Israeli actions in areas such as in Nablus, Hebron, and Gaza were limited. One reason for this may have been the media’s efforts to inspire the creation of a heroic legend.
1. What you read in the papers is not necessarily what happened. News reporters and newspapers are not perfect. Disinformation, unfounded accusations and distortion, as well as factual information and accurate reporting, are printed in the press or transmitted by television and web sites.
2. Access to events is directly related to the quality of the news. The more access a reporter has to events, the better the coverage.
3. Much of what we read reinforces our beliefs and convictions. Any news item seeking to change our minds or our beliefs will be confronting not just a political prejudice but a cultural one. The more evidence that is accumulated against our point of view, the more we cling tenaciously to it. To us, they are cruel; to them, we are evil. There was no need for hard evidence for the Palestinians to believe that the Israelis committed widespread atrocities in Jenin. Any evidence accumulated against the Israelis only reinforced people’s beliefs and convictions.
What Needs to be Done
Editors and reporters should take heed of the following:
1. Be aware of the potential harm each news item might have for the news audience. Thus, think in terms of accuracy, objectivity, clarity, prominence, and honesty in reporting the news. Inaccurate, biased and vague reporting, as well as efforts to de-legitimize “the other”, threaten the credibility of the newspaper. A reporter should distance himself from his people and culture in reporting the news because bias produces a negative perspective, stereotypes and dishonest views.
2. Banish highly emotional terms such as “massacres”, “catastrophe”, “hell”, “disaster”, etc. from headlines to avoid harmful ripple effects resulting in tragic consequences. Editors and reporters should anticipate that such terms have the power to intensify public fear, cause panic and could result in flight or incite violent revenge.
3. Filter and tone down stories of high drama and violence that may cause public anger and concern. The lynching of two Israelis arrested in the city center of Ramallah was fueled by photos published the day before in the local press of a Palestinian tortured and killed by fanatical Israeli settlers.
4. Keep in mind “the public’s right to know” when covering the news. Not reporting an event because it “humanizes the other” or conflicts with public beliefs will do more harm than good.
5. Choose news sources very carefully as the information and data they provide will be reported in today’s press and become tomorrow’s history. This carries special significance in times of conflict or crisis.
6. Build up competency by attending training workshops and seminars. Good news reporting depends on the competence of the reporters and journalists.
7. Decrease the emphasis on conflict and discord in covering the news and increase the emphasis on stories of conciliation, forgiveness and tolerance.
The Palestinian print media have played a significant role in shaping the history and politics of the Palestinian people and they continue to provide the most thorough information about political issues. Nonetheless, public confidence in news coverage by the print media is on the wane. One may attribute this declining interest to a growing lack of confidence and faith in the media, due to accusations of media bias and distortion, media control, as well as politicization, and over-emotional reporting.
The domination of the Palestinian media by a few individuals means that: (a) citizens do not have access to multiple points of views; and (b) the quality of news coverage is reduced. These problems are compounded by a culture, as well as a political and educational system, that does not encourage citizens to think critically, and does not tolerate citizens who publicly voice opposing views or constructive criticisms. This has caused many Palestinians to be concerned about the future of democracy in the future State of Palestine.
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* Based on the study entitled “Media Images of the Other in Israel and the Palestinian Territories: Covering One Another During the Second Intifada”, conducted by Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with Prof. Mohammed S. Dajani, The Sartawi Center for the Advancement of Peace at Al-Quds University, and sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation.
1 Without enforcing any official censorship, it will be nearly impossible for a Palestinian to publish in any daily newspaper today an editorial on taboo topics, such as supporting the US war on Iraq, condemning suicide bombing, advocating abortion, exposing corruption within the PNA, or calling for the end of the Intifada.
2 In the Palestinian Territories, there are three daily newspapers in circulation: Al-Quds published in Jerusalem, Al-Ayyam and Al-Hayat al-Jadida, published in Ramallah. The first two were selected for the study because of their wide circulation in the Palestinian Territories. In a public opinion poll on Palestinian attitudes towards politics conducted by Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre in October 1999, Al-Quds newspaper got the highest ratings in terms of readers (57.3 percent) and the highest ratio of confidence (59.4 percent). Al-Ayyam followed far behind. It is no surprise that the Palestinian newspapers are no New York Times or Washington Post.
3 The average Palestinian newspaper reader glances at headlines, looks at the photos, and reads the editorial cartoons. The editorial cartoons published in the Palestinian press reflect an anti-Israeli, anti-American, anti-Arab, anti-Oslo bias while, on the other hand, they reflect a pro-Intifada, pro-Iraqi, pro-reform, pro-Arafat tendencies.