ISRAELI, PALESTINIAN WEBSITES COMMENT ON MEDIA ACCURACY
The Electronic Intifada website homepage, with a home address in Chicago, shows a small boy, throwing a rock, facing a huge tank that dwarfs him in size and power.
The Israel Behind the News, which lists its address as the “Israel Resource News Agency in Jerusalem”, features a clickable banner inviting browsers to “Send pizza and Hannuka DONUTS and say thank you to our Israeli soldiers.” Beneath the banner are two snapshots of smiling men in Israeli Army uniforms, with the caption, “Our newly drafted sons of the editor and web master, Noam Bedein and Elisha Kuchar.”
These sites are a few among many that allege media bias in the coverage of conflict in the Middle East — detailing particular cases of bias by individual journalists and media outlets, and ways that viewers can serve as watchdogs against them.
Western journalists say they do thier best, but some disagree
American, and even Israeli, journalists allege that they make incredible efforts to be unbiased in their coverage — despite a myriad of challenges. They say that they are objective in their coverage and some of their employers even have strict policies regarding word usage in reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The US media is noticeably more hesitant to report aspects of the conflict,” says Nigel Parry of Electronic Intifada, “or be seen to reporting too much of the daily destructiveness of Israel’s occupation. In the European press, journalists are less afraid of writing critical, investigative pieces about Israel.”
Parry cited several publications that he feels do a good job reporting on the conflict, including two British newspapers: the Independent and Guardian. He described their reporting as “clear and unambiguous.”
Tamar Sternthal of CAMERA — which is stands for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and has a post office box in Boston — generally preferred American media coverage over European reporting.
“As far as Middle East coverage goes, the American press is much more fair and accurate than the European press,” she said.
Sternthal named James Bennet of the New York Times, Charles Radin of the Boston Globe, Martin Fletcher of NBC News, and Jennifer Griffin of Fox News as “examples of journalists who are pretty consistently accurate and balanced.”
Sternthal added that, “While not perfect, the Associated Press seems to do a much better job than the competing wire services.”
Michael Carney, an editor in Reuters Washington D.C. office, covered Jerusalem for Reuters in the summer of 2001. He said that since Reuters provides news to a variety of clients around the world, “you have to truly be balanced or as balanced as you can possibly be.”
As part of its Editorial Policy, which is available on the Reuters website, Reuters does not use terms like “terrorist” or “freedom fighter”, other than in a direct quote attributable to a third party. Reuters states that “we do not take sides and pay particular attention to all our coverage of this extremely sensitive region. We attempt to reflect in our stories, pictures and video the views of both sides.”
Carney gave the example that he would use a word like “gunman” instead of “terrorist”. After he files a story, he said he knew that clients like The Jerusalem Post and The Jordan Times would likely add their own different perspectives to his story. The Jerusalem Post may refer to the “gunman” as a “terrorist” and The Jordan Times might include “occupied Jerusalem” in the story, he said. It’s Reuters job to give the facts, and then allow clients to do what they want with it, he said.
Sternthal said not all errors and misrepresentations in the media indicate a bias, but “once a journalist or news outlet is informed of the error and provided with hard evidence, and yet is still unwilling to correct a report, it is quite likely that bias is involved.” She added that some news outlets or journalists with consistent problems in their coverage (factual errors, omissions, misrepresentations, etc), which tend to slant towards one side, are also most likely operating on a bias.
Parry said Electronic Intifada determines bias “when there is obvious editorial interference in what should be a straight news story, use of convoluted terminology to avoid hard realities, (and) when journalists don’t tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Bias — or easy access?
Wes Pippert served as senior Mideast correspondent for UPI wire service from 1983-1986, covering Israel and the war in Lebanon. He said the more accessible side in a conflict will be the side that gets better coverage and in his experience, that was the Israeli side.
He said that the Beit-Agron building, located in Jerusalem, is the equivalent of the National Press building and the Israeli Army occupied the entire second floor, when he worked there. That meant that the Israelis were easy and quick to get information from, he said, with government spokesmen speaking perfect English. Although journalists relied too much on the official government source, he said, it was still familiar in the Western sense and easy to navigate.
On the other hand, Pippert said there was no comparable spokesperson for the Palestinian viewpoint. The Palestinian information structure was less organized than the Israeli one, he said, and cultural differences were more pronounced and made getting accurate information more difficult.
For example, Pippert said if he received a release from the Israeli Army stating that a “terrorist” had thrown a Molotov cocktail at a bus, killing two civilians, then he’d later get a “scratchy” call from the Palestine Press Service saying that a “freedom fighter” had thrown the Molotov cocktail at the bus and killed 25.
Inaccuracy as a cultural difference?
He attributed the discrepancy in the death count as a cultural difference, saying that sometimes Palestinians “exaggerated to make a point.” Their reasoning was that if you exaggerated, then the listener could understand how they were feeling, Pippert explained. Hence, he said that even when Palestinians provided Western reporters with information, they would be a bit skeptical about it, due to these cultural differences. He said “reliable Palestinian information” was hard to get.
However, he said that Western media realized with the 1987 Intifada that they were not able to cover both sides equally and began hiring Palestinians as stringers. This allowed for better coverage and created a new group of Palestinian journalists who were accustomed to Western media practices, he said.
Parry agreed that during the first Intifada, about 15 years ago, there was a lack of skilled Arab-American commentators and articulate spokespeople for the Palestinian cause.
“The first Intifada saw the rise of Hanan Ashrawi in the media, the sole Palestinian — never mind Arab American —spokesperson that met acceptable standards from the point of view of a public relations professional,” he said.
With the second Intifada, which started in 2000, Parry said there are now a few key spokespersons for the Palestinian perspective who are excellent, but other issues affecting American support of Palestinians also come into play — like cases of “American news anchors signaling to their audiences who to support.”
Electronic Intifada works to combat bias by offering alternative media, critiquing existing media, and offering information that journalists may not have, while also helping some journalists with contacts for stories, Parry said.
Parry also said the Internet and alternative media have played a part in making the pro-Palestinian cause more prominent with the media in recent years, by engendering letters to editors, as well as op-ed pieces. The website’s content can also be reused on other sites that do not have the resources to develop it themselves.
CAMERA has been around longer. Founded in 1982, with the site founded sometime in the 90s, it started as a grassroots effort “to combat a prevalent problem in the media,” Sternthal said. Sometimes CAMERA sends a private communication to a reporter, editor, or producer, and in other cases the response is more public, like posting an item on the web site.
“In the most extreme cases, we have taken out advertisements in major media outlets such as the New York Times,” she says. “We also issue email alerts to members of our letter-writing team, providing them with talking points and contact information so that they may submit letters-to-the-editor.”
Parry also noted that Palestinians can be at a cultural disadvantage, which can negatively affect them in news coverage.
“There is a tendency in the US to see Israel as “people like us”, and the Palestinians as the other,” he said. “A large part of this impression is formed from the media, as well as existing cultural prejudices. This societal trend is of course reflected in the media.”
Negative media stereotyping of Arabs mostly originates from Hollywood and popular culture, he said, but added that “journalists and media organizations who should know better, the Arabs for not challenging these representations as vigorously as they should have, and groups who commit acts of terrorist violence in the name of Arabs — all share responsibility.”
Cultural differences can work to Palestinians’ advantage
Yet, American journalist Jay Bushinsky, who was the first Israel Bureau Chief for CNN and currently a newspaper columnist and radio reporter, noted that cultural differences can work to the Palestinians’ advantage in coverage and cites ways that Israelis are at a cultural disadvantage. He said that news coverage can be very event driven and Palestinians have demonstrations and funerals that fit that media need. Additionally, he said that Palestinians can be viewed as more exotic, and therefore more interesting, subjects to cover and come off as underdogs and the weaker party, which draws sympathy.
Bushinsky also said that Israelis can come off as more gruff and impatient, while Arab hospitality involves being greeted warmly, served tea or coffee and being told stories about “what really happened.”
He said that in Jewish culture, death is also not supposed to be seen, so when Israelis are killed, the bodies are removed quickly, before the news media arrives. Israelis also make it tough to get through, he said, which stunts coverage, while there is more free access in Palestine and a tendency to keep the horror intact, in terms of the scenes of death.
Israel is an open society with free expression, Bushinsky said, while Palestine is a controlled society, where one must feat being called a traitor or voicing a dissenting opinion. Yet, the Palestinian side also has less control of information, with tipsters to the media and such, he said, which means that details from Palestinians come in to journalists, while it is slower dealing with the Israeli Army, which keeps “checking.” Details aren’t provided by the Israeli side until the story is old, Bushinsky said.
Pippert also dealt with access issues with the Israeli Army and said the only way to cover the war in Lebanon, in terms of access and security, was to go with the Israeli Army.
“We would generally go in for a day in a convoy,” he said.
That confined the journalists in a large part to whatever the Israeli Army wanted to show them, he said. Another issue was that Pippert was unable to speak Arabic and was unable to talk to the locals, he said, although Palestinian stringers began to alleviate that problem.
Balance can be hard — but not impossible
Although he notes “his biggest failure” as not covering Palestinians better due to structural and cultural barriers, he says he sought to be fair in his reporting. He also said that working for UPI for 27 years taught him “to give both sides an accurate voice,” whether is was covering domestic U.S. politics or international conflicts.
“You develop a discipline of being fair,” he said.
While the main concern among the Israeli and Palestinian websites is focused on good, accurate coverage, particularly of their particular side, there has been debate on whether or not journalists can help affect peace in the coverage of conflict — and if they should.
“It is not a journalist’s responsibility to promote peace and understanding. It is a journalist’s responsibility to report the truth,” Sternthal said. “At some point during the last few decades a dangerous trend of advocacy journalism has developed in which “justice” rather than truth has become the objective of many journalists.”
Parry disagreed and said he felt that journalists can naturally contribute to peace.
“The way to do it is by reporting as accurately and forthrightly as they can about the nature of war and conflict so that those of us who only read/see their reports can make informed decisions,” he said.