How media bias serves Israel's occupation

How media bias serves Israel's occupation
Opinion: Dr Anwar Mhajne dissects the impact of the biased, yet pervasive media narratives that skew audiences' understanding of Israel-Palestine.
5 min read
02 Jun, 2021
'This biased framing has long plagued US media coverage of Israel-Palestine' writes Mhajne [Getty]

As the battle for Palestinian liberation unfolds on the ground, it also plays out in newsrooms across the world; a wrangling over narratives, pictures, and headlines, that all shape global public opinion.

In this context, language, terminology, and emphasis are essential ingredients that can either clarify or mislead audiences. And omitting or sanitizing words such as "siege" and "occupation" is a political choice.

The framing of the recent events in Israel-Palestine, especially in American news media, is critical to understanding the politics of the Palestinian struggle, because it shapes public opinion and often reflects US foreign policy. 

For its part, Israel has long recognised the importance of controlling the narrative about the conflict, as is evident in the efforts of the Hasbara - or propaganda operation - led by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy. The Hasbara is Israel's effort to "explain" its own version of events, which casts Israeli political moves and policies positively while discrediting Palestinian narratives.

Aimed mostly, but not exclusively, at western political elites, opinion-makers, and publics, Israel's government agencies - including the Ministry of Tourism, the IDF, and the Foreign Ministry - as well as NGOs, lobbying groups, private citizens, students, and bloggers, all engage in Hasbara efforts.

"There is a history of extreme bias against Palestinians, a bias that is alarmingly relevant today"

In this war of narratives, Palestinians have to deal with media coverage - mainly from western countries - that underplays or misreports the situation. A recent MIT study used machine learning methods to analyse over 33,000 New York Times articles covering Palestinians and Israelis during the First and Second Intifadas.

The results showed a history of extreme bias against Palestinians, a bias that is alarmingly relevant today.

New York Times headlines in recent weeks have also been dogged with ambiguity and bias. One recent headline reads, "More Than 30 Dead in Gaza and Israel as Fighting Quickly Escalates."  The article seems to neglect mentioning that the dead consist of 28 Palestinians, and two Israelis.

According to Jackson's MIT study, a significant number of the headlines try to equalise the violence and promote a "both sides narrative", by using terms such as  "Israel-Hamas Fight" or "Gaza Conflict" or "Israeli-Palestinian Strife."

While this biased framing has long plagued US media coverage of Israel-Palestine, it is worth mentioning some minor improvements in the Times' recent coverage. On 22 May, it published an article entitled "Life Under Occupation: The Misery at the Heart of the Conflict," which tells the stories of ordinary Palestinians coping with the Israeli occupation. And on 26 May, the paper of record dedicated its front page to a collage of photos of the children - 67 Palestinians and two Israelis - killed recently, alongside the moving headline, "They Were Only Children." 

However, the vicious backlash that ensued tells you all you need to know about the resilience of pro-Israel narratives in the US: On 28 May, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman tweeted: "I am cancelling my subscription to NYTimes. I grew up in America on the NYT- I delivered the NYT to my classmates - I learned civics - democracy and all the news "fit to print" for 65 years but no more. Today's blood libel of Israel and the Jewish people on the front page is enough."

Such misrepresentations are not exclusive to The New York Times. German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle recently tweeted "Palestinian health officials in the Gaza Strip say 20 people, including nine children, have been killed in fighting with Israel." This headline - and others like it - suggest children died fighting Israel, when in fact they were killed by Israeli airstrikes targeting the homes of civilians.

The AP, too, ran the headline "Rockets kill 2 Israelis; 26 die in Gaza as Israel hits Hamas", which is problematic for its use of an active voice to describe Israeli deaths while using a passive voice to describe Palestinian victims of Israeli airstrikes. 

Israeli media has also been especially misleading and participates in incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute 21% of the population. Voices of Palestinian citizens of Israel on Israeli TV are marginal. When these Palestinian stories are revealed on screen, hosts often attack and ridicule their narrative. The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation's interview with Rami Younis, a journalist and activist from Lod, is just one example.

"The inadequate representation of Palestinians in Israeli media has severe implications for the integration of Palestinians into Israeli society"

Multiple activists on Twitter have critiqued all-Jewish panels on Hebrew news outlets discussing Arabs, Arab society, coexistence, and racism, without including a single representative of the Arab community.

And Israel's right-wing Channel 20 fired a reporter last week after he lamented that the rocket attack from Lebanon, which struck a northern Arab town, "unfortunately [it] did not lead to a lot of deaths". Initially, the news station sided with the reporter and claimed it was a mistake, but pressure from left-wing MKs and activists eventually forced their hand.

Considering how essential the media is in shaping public opinion, the inadequate representation of Palestinians in Israeli media has severe implications for the integration of Palestinians into Israeli society.

In an unprecedented move last week, the left-wing Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, - a day after the New York Times - dedicated its front page to the 67 Palestinian children Israel's airstrikes killed in Gaza. While this is progress, it won't change the narrative in mainstream, right-wing media in Israel.

The issue of representation bias on the part of the media when it comes to telling Palestinian narratives and points of view has been around for many years. Western coverage largely echoes the Israeli and Hasbara-endorsed narrative of violence and "terrorist" Palestinians. Such a framing only reinforces the abusive power dynamics of Israel's occupation and discriminatory policies against Palestinians.

Without a public that is educated about media bias, or a media industry that holds journalists, as well as news outlets accountable for their reporting, achieving a sustainable peace will remain out of reach.

Dr Anwar Mhajne is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. She is an Umm Al Fahem native but moved to the United States in 2011 to pursue her MA and later her PhD. Anwar is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Stonehill College, MA.

Follow her on Twitter: @mhajneam.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.