A story of conflict: coverage of fighting in the Middle East has brought war to many newsrooms

There’s one thing top editors and executives at major media outlets in North America seem to agree on: No area of international reporting receives more scrutiny - and more complaints — than coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Fights are waged over every sentence and word,” said Bruce Drake, vice president of news for National Public Radio. NPR receives thousands of e-mails every month about its Middle East coverage.

The same is true for The Associated Press headquarters in New York. Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said her organization hears daily from critics who, she added, “always have a point of view.”

Drake, Carroll and other media representatives say complaints were loudest after coverage last April of Jenin inside the Palestinian Authority, but the level of feedback from Middle East coverage remains higher than from any other ongoing story. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an emotional dispute for many Americans, and supporters on both sides are quick to find fault with the media’s coverage.

“There are times when we have received hundreds of e-mails in a day,” said Matt Furman, a spokesman for CNN. “They’ve come close to shutting down individual (e-mail accounts).”

Many of the e-mails are exactly the same, part of a larger organized campaign. And many of the criticisms aren’t based in fact; emails often allege that a media outlet missed a story when it was actually reported.

“You can get a headline that doesn’t really capture the complexity of a story or a story that can go 10 or 12 paragraphs without getting to the other side of the story or a person’s denial of something in the story,” said Michael Getler, ombudsman for The Washington Post.


News organizations get it from both sides. Israeli supporters accuse them of being pro-Palestinian, and Palestinian supporters claim the news has a pro-Israeli slant.

“For the media, this is an interesting situation,” said Yahya Kamalipour, communications professor at Purdue University-Calumet. “Regardless of how they report the situation, someone is going to be happy and someone is going to be unhappy.”

Watchdog organizations have sprung up on both sides of the conflict. Groups such as ElectronicIntifada.net, Palestine Media Watch and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FMR) allege a pro-Israel bias in the news, and they claim that the Palestinian point of view is underrepresented. On the other side are groups such as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA), which claims the news has a pro-Palestinian bias.

How can different groups view the same news reports so differently? There are common complaints that come from either side of the dispute.

The pro-Israeli side generally:

  • Objects to the use of the word “militant” over “terrorist” in some stories.
  • Claims there is no moral equivalence to deaths resulting from suicide bombings as compared to deaths from Israeli retaliation.
  • Says charges of Israeli Defense Forces atrocities often are accepted uncritically and are corrected only reluctantly, if at all.
  • Claims reaction stories and analyses are more likely to have pro-Palestinian sourcing.

    The pro-Palestinian side typically complains about:

  • Alleged under-reporting of Palestinian deaths compared to Israeli deaths.
  • One-sided use of the word “terrorist” in describing Palestinians (but not Israelis), as well as the use of the word “retaliation” to effectively excuse some Israeli actions.
  • Lack of context in reporting — specifically the failure of news reporters to reference a long-standing Israeli occupation:
  • An alleged willingness to accept that it is the Palestinian side that is not committed to a successful completion of negotiations.

    Perhaps the most bitter complaint is over coverage of deaths; pro-Palestinian groups claim that Palestinian deaths are less likely to be reported than Israeli deaths. FAIR examined National Public Radio coverage of the conflict during a six-month period in 2001 and found that 62 Israeli deaths (out of an actual tally of 77) and 51 Palestinian deaths (out of a total of 148 killed during the period under review) were reported.

    “That means there was an 81 percent likelihood that an Israeli death would be reported on NPR, but only a 34 percent likelihood that a Palestinian death would be,” FAIR said in a November 2001 report.

    ElectronicIntifada.net also cites examples where deaths resulting from Israeli measures seem under-reported as compared to deaths resulting from suicide bombings inside Israel or attacks on settlers in Occupied Territory, which Israeli spokespersons sometime refer to as “disputed territory” or “administered territory.

    Purdue University-Calumet’s Kamalipour agrees that Palestinian deaths are under-reported.

    “When an unfortunate incident takes place — let’s say a Palestinian is killed by an Israeli — that doesn’t appear on the front page;’ said Kamalipour. “But on the other hand, when Israelis are attacked and killed by Palestinians, we do see that.” Nevertheless, Kamalipour said more content analysis of Middle East coverage is needed. Comparing coverage is difficult, however, because it’s impossible to control all the variables from story to story.

    Many news organizations have begun including a running tally of both Palestinian and Israeli deaths since the start of the current intifada (Arabic for revolt or rebellion) at the end of their coverage. About 1,800 Palestinians and 600 Israelis had been killed as of late November, according to Newsday.

    “We report every event in which lives are lost, both Israeli and Palestinians;’ said Sally Jacobsen, AP international editor. “We try to put each case in the proper context, with the necessary balance and emphasis:’

    The emphasis is what often brings complaints from critics on either side. But editors defend their placement of stories, especially the front-page coverage of Palestinian suicide bombers.

    “The suicide bombings tend to be more stark;’ said John Stackhouse, foreign editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto. “They’re more shocking to our readers.: Stackhouse added that the suicide bombings are the newest element of the conflict — and that’s part of what defines news.

    Phrasing has also led to many complaints about news coverage. For example, The Globe and Mail does not generally use the word “terrorist or “terrorism ” in describing suicide bombings. That policy has angered Jewish groups in Canada, said Stackhouse. And readers on the other side have their own qualms.

    “They (Leftists) have taken up the Palestinian cause,” Stackhouse said. “They say when we refer to ‘retaliation’ that immediately reduces the magnitude of what is happening:’

    The case against the word “retaliation” is that it allegedly ascribes a motive to Israeli actions and tends to paint them as defensive, when much of the world sees Israeli actions as part of a policy to maintain control over occupied territory.

    Another example: The Arabic word for the suicide bombers is “shaheed,” or martyr, and this is the word used throughout the Arab and much of the Muslim world. Stackhouse said the word “shaheed” is used in quoted material and backgrounders, but the paper sticks with “suicide bomber” in its own reporting.

    The British Broadcasting Company, through its Web site (www.bbc.com), often reports on Israeli demolitions in the West Bank, settler activity and other actions that have earned it an anti-Israel label in some quarters. But the BBC has also posted a detailed chronology of the suicide bombings, mostly committed by Hamas supporters. The news organization also routinely notes that Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and Islamic Jihad reject any peace with Israel. The BBC has detailed the execution-style murders of hundreds of alleged Israeli collaborators inside the Palestinian Authority in recent years, a phenomenon almost completely ignored by the American mass media. All this challenges any simplistic notion that the European press is more anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian than the American media.

    No media manager interviewed for this article acknowledged modifying coverage as a result of criticism, but several said they constantly review and evaluate their coverage.

    “The criticism does tend to keep you focused, which is not a bad thing,” said Bill Shine, a Fox News network executive producer.


    Critics on both sides call for more context in Middle East coverage. Pro-Palestinian critics expect stories to include a recap of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank after the Six Day War in 1967, also known as the June 1967 War. Nigel Parry and Ali Abunimah of The Electronic Intifada, for example, have complained about the failure of most media to routinely include a tagline that it is a 35-year-old occupation Palestinians are revolting against.

    In this sense, such critics are calling for the conflict to be reported from what scholars call a “just wars of national liberation” perspective.

    In a recent release, FAIR said: “When Israel’s internationally uncontested status as an occupying power in Palestinian lands is omitted from the media’s coverage, Palestinian rock-throwing is made to look like random aggression, and Israel’s use of lethal weaponry can be portrayed as a legitimate response to provocation’

    But the call for context can be a two-edged sword. The fact that Israel had fully or partly withdrawn from up to 40 percent of Palestinian land on the West Bank and Gaza and that most larger Palestinian cities were under Palestinian administrative control by 1999 — before the current intifada began — is almost completely missing from any reporting today. Indeed, specific terms of the so-called Oslo Agreement and several interim peace agreements signed by Israelis and Palestinians between 1993 and 1998 are all but forgotten history.

    And some pro-Israeli spokespersons point out that the war against Israel predates the 1967 occupation, demanding that the conflict be reported from what scholars call a “Jewish survival” perspective.

    Including more context in daily coverage of a running story is a real challenge to journalists, though. “It’s hard to put a lot of history into a 16-inch story,” said Mike Getler, ombudsman for The Washington Post.

    To help clear up misunderstandings and to deal with demands for more context, NPR has taken the extraordinary step of posting transcripts of all its coverage on www.npr.org.

    “In many instances where I have engaged … a writer in an exchange, it turned out the writer did not listen to NPR,” said NPR’s Bruce Drake.

    The Washington Post, too, invites critics to review its coverage over time. David Hoffman, foreign editor, said many readers just don’t appreciate the time, effort and resources his organization (and others) put into Middle East coverage.

    “We have far more coverage of Israel and the Palestinians than, say, Turkmenistan,” he said.

    Abe Aamidor is a staff writer at The Indianapolis Star and has taught journalism at Indiana University-Bloomington and Butler University. This article appeared in The Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.