New Book: Bad News from Israel

‘This superb study is extensive in scope and scrupulously fair. It will be a landmark’ — Edward Herman

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Based on rigorous research by the world-renowned Glasgow University Media Group, this authoritative and well-referenced book examines media coverage - and media bias - of the current conflict in the Middle East and the impact this coverage has on public opinion. The following is a synopsis of Bad News From Israel.

This is a study of TV new coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of how this coverage relates to the understanding, beliefs and attitudes of the television audience. The work was undertaken with support from the Economic and Social Research Council whose help we would like to acknowledge. In producing this study out intention was not to ‘monitor’ the media or to criticise individual journalists. Our intention was to discuss the pressures and structures within which they work to show the effects of those on new content and to examine the role of the media in the construction of public knowledge. It is a very extensive study with an audience sample of over 800 people and a detailed analysis of TV news over a two-year period. This work also raises a series of important theoretical issues in mass communications. The main focus of the book is on giving a clear exposition of our methods and results, but the theoretical concerns are latent and there is a more detailed discussion of them in other work by the Media Group. (For a discussion of issues in popular culture and audience response, including the active audience, resistance and post-modern accounts see Philo, G. and Miller, D. Market Killing Pearson / Longman. 2001).

The study suggests that television news on the Israel/Palestinian conflict confuses viewers and substantially features Israeli government views. Israelis are quoted and speak in interviews over twice as much as Palestinians and there are major differences in the language used to describe the two sides. This operates in favours of the Israelis and influences how viewers understand the conflict. The study focused on BBC One and ITV News from the start of the current Palestinian intifada, the Glasgow researchers examined around 200 news programmes and interviewed and questioned over 800 people. The study is unique in that for the first time it brought senior broadcasters together with ordinary viewers to work in research groups, analysing how the news informs people and how it could be improved. Those taking part included George Alagiah and Brian Hanrahan from the BBC, Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 news, the film-maker Ken Loach and a large number of other broadcasting professionals and programme makers. (The study was part of a large research programme analysing views and audience understanding across a range of subject areas. Those helping and taking part also included: John Humphrys, Sue Inglish, Paul Adams, Nik Gowing, Sian Kevill, Alan Hayling, Evan Davis and Fran Unsworth from the BBC, Gary Rogers, Adrian Monck and Gaye Flashman from Channel Five News, Alex Graham from Wall to Wall Television, John Underwood from Clear Communications, Sandy Ross and Paul McKinney from Scottish Television.)

Some Major Findings

1. There is a preponderance of official ‘Israeli perspectives’, particularly on BBC 1, where Israelis were interviewed or reported over twice as much as Palestinians. On top of this, US politicians who support Israel were very strongly featured. They appeared more than politicians from any other country and twice as much as those from Britain.

2. TV news says almost nothing about the history or origins of the conflict. The great majority on viewers depended on this news as their main source of information. The gaps in their knowledge closely paralleled the ‘gaps’ in the news. Most did not know that the Palestinians had been forced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948. In 1967 Israel occupied by force the territories to which the Palestinian refugees had moved. Most viewers did not know that the Palestinians subsequently lived under Israeli military rule or that the Israelis took control of key resources such as water, and the damage this did to the Palestinian economy. Without explanations being given on the news, there was great confusion amongst viewers even about who was ‘occupying’ the occupied territories. Some understood ‘occupied’ to mean that someone was on the land (as in a bathroom being occupied) so they thought that the Palestinians were the occupiers. Many saw the conflict as a sort of border dispute between two countries fighting over land between them. As one viewer put it:

“The impression I got (from news) was that the Palestinians had lived around about that area and now they were trying to come back and get some more some more land for themselves - I didn�t realise they had been driven out of places in wars previously.”

3. Journalists gave different views on why there was so little explanation on the news. George Alagiah from the BBC stressed the problem of time:

“In depth it takes a long time, but we’re constantly being told that the attention span of our average viewer is about twenty seconds and if we don’t grab people - and we’ve looked at the figures - the number of people who shift channels around in my programme now six o’clock, there’s a movement of about three million people in that first minute, coming in and out.”

Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 News also commented on how difficult it was to report in a controversial area:

“With a conflict like this, nearly every single fact is disputed, I think ‘Oh God, the Palestinians say this and the Israelis say that�’ I know it’s a question of interpretation so I have to say what both sides think and I think sometimes that stops us from giving the background we should be giving.”

The book also examines other factors in production such as lobbying and public relations by both sides.

4. Because there was not account of historical events such as the Palestinians losing their homes, there was a tendency for viewers to see the problems as “starting” with Palestinian action. On the news, Israeli actions tended to be explained and contextualised - they were often shown as merely “responding” to what had been done to them by Palestinians (in the 2001 samples they were six times as likely to be presented as “retaliating” or in some way responding than were the Palestinians). This apparently influenced many viewers to blame Palestinians for the conflict, as in these comments from two 20 year olds:

“You always think of the Palestinians as being really aggressive because of the stories you hear on the news�I always think the Israelis are fighting back against the bombings that have been done to them.”

“I wasn’t under the impression that Israeli borders had changed or that they had taken land from other people - I thought it was more a Palestinian aggression than it was Israeli aggression.”

Some people disputed such views but they tended to cite alternative sources of information other than the television news.

5. In news reporting there was a tendency to present Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as vulnerable communities, rather than as having a role in imposing the occupation. But as the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has written, they have a key military and strategic function. They have been built on hilltops to give a commanding position and their occupants are often heavily armed. The Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, has pointed to its role in attacking Palestinians in attempts to seize land. Most viewers knew very little of this - one describes his surprise at learning that the settlements controlled over 40% of the West Bank:

“I had absolutely no idea it was that percentage�I saw them as small embattled and surrounded by hostile Palestinians - that’s entirely thanks to watching the television news.”

6. There was a strong emphasis on Israeli casualties on the news, relative to Palestinians (even though Palestinians had around 2-3 times the number of deaths as Israelis). In one week in March 02 which the BBC reported as having the most Palestinian casualties since the start of the intifada, there was actually more coverage on the news of Israeli deaths. There were also differences in the language used by journalists for Israelis and Palestinians - words such as ‘atrocity’, ‘brutal murder’, ‘mass murder’, ‘savage cold blooded killing’, ‘lynching’ and ‘slaughter’ were used about Israeli deaths but not Palestinian. The word ‘terrorist’ was used to describe Palestinians by journalists but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as ‘extremists’ or ‘vigilantes’ (BBC 1 lunch time news and ITV main news 5/03/02). TV News coverage influenced some viewers to believe most deaths had been Israeli as in these comments about the reporting of suicide bombs:

“I remembered it was the suicide bombers - they are the one who go in and take maybe a whole busload and I thought it would be more Israelis.”

And this is from a viewer who believed the Israelis had five times as many casualties as Palestinians:

“I would imagine it’s going to be more casualties on the Israeli side, but it’s purely from television - that’s where I get my info from.”

7. The journalists and researchers also looked at issues of cultural difference - They asked viewers if they ‘saw’ conflicts in terms of who they identified with? Do we sympathise immediately with people who look and sound like us and reject the views of people who look ‘strange’? The research showed that our perceptions of others are affected by such factors but the journalists wanted to know what they should do about it. Should they intervene to help audiences �see through� cultural difference by appealing to more universal values, e.g. concern for human suffering or loss � and should this be done in the name of balance? This is explored in a number of fascinating exchanges between journalists.

The book shows the crucial importance of TV news in informing public opinion and the powerful influence it can have on how we see and understand our world. It also shows how news can confuse and the book is a real attempt to reach for different and innovative approaches to improve the quality of news and deal with some of the most difficult issues that journalists have to face. The study also raises serious questions for broadcasters since they have a duty to properly inform the public in these and to maintain due impartiality in reporting all sides of the conflict. The absence of any proper historical context or explanation for the reasons underlying the conflict make it difficult for viewers to understand why it is so intractable and hinders the development of an informed public discussion on how it might be resolved.

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