Bad news from Israel: media coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict
If you don't understand the Middle East crisis it might be because you are watching it on TV news. This scores high on images of fighting, violence and drama but is low on explanation.
The Glasgow University Media Group interviewed twelve small audience groups (a total of eighty five people) with a cross-section of ages and backgrounds. They were asked a series of questions about the conflict and what they had understood from TV news. The same questions were then put to 300 young people (aged between 17 and 22) who filled in a questionnaire. We asked what came to their mind when they heard the words 'Israeli/Palestinian conflict' and then what was the source of whatever it was. Most (82%) listed TV news as their source and these replies showed that they had absorbed the 'main' message of the news, of conflict, violence and tragedy, but that many people had little understanding of the reasons for the conflict and its origins. Explanations were rarely given on the news and when they were, journalists often spoke obliquely, almost in a form of short-hand. For example, in a news bulletin which featured the progress of peace talks, a journalist made a series of very brief comments on the issues which underpinned the conflict:
Journalist: The basic raw disagreements remain - the future, for example, of this city Jerusalem, the future of Jewish settlements and the returning refugees. (ITN 18.30 16.10.2001)
Such a statement requires background knowledge to be understood. 'Refugees' are cited as a key issue. Our main audience sample of 300 young people were asked where these Palestinian refugees had come from and how they had become refugees? Just 8% knew that the refugees were displaced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948. This was, in the words of the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, the result of a 'Jewish Military Offensive' designed to 'clear the interior of the future Israeli state' and involved the 'forcible expulsion of Arab civilians' (2000:30). Very few knew of this or that shortly after these events a major war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbours which occasioned more people to flee. Many of the refugees moved to Gaza (which came under the control of Egypt) and to the West Bank of the Jordan river (under Jordanian control). To understand the journalist statement the viewer would need to know that in 1967 Israel fought a further war with its Arab neighbours and in the process of this, occupied Gaza and the West Bank, thus bringing the Palestinian refugees under its military control. East Jerusalem, which has great religious and cultural significance for both Israelis and Palestinians was also occupied (taken from Jordan). These military occupations were bitterly resisted by the Palestinians, not least because Israel built 'settlements' all across the militarily occupied territories. This was much more than simply building houses and farms. As Avi Shlaim suggests they were part of a policy of exerting strategic and military control, by for example 'surrounding the huge greater Jerusalem area with two concentric circles of settlements with access roads and military positions' (2000: 582). The settlements were also built so that they could exploit the crucial resource of water in the occupied territories. It would not have taken long on the news to say that much of the Palestinian economy depended on water and that each Israeli now consumed three times as much water as a Palastinian. Our interviewees knew very little of such matters.
We analysed TV news coverage of the major 'intifada' (or uprising) by the Palestinians, which began in September 2000. We focused on the lunchtime, early evening and late night news on BBC1 and ITN, since these attract very large audiences. The bulletins from 28th September until 16th October 2000 (total of 89 bulletins) were transcribed and the number of lines of text which were devoted to different themes were counted (e.g. how many described fighting / violence, or peace negotiations or explanations of the conflict etc). Of 3536 lines of text in total, only 17 explained the history of the conflict. The key issue of water was barely mentioned. It was apparent that many people did not understand that the Palestinians were subject to a military occupation and did not know who was 'occupying' the occupied territories. On TV news, journalists sometimes used the word 'occupied' but did not explain that the Israelis were involved in a military occupation. It is perhaps not surprising then that many in the audience did not understand the nature of the 'occupation'. In the sample of 300 young people, 71% did not know that it was the Israelis who were occupying the territories. Only 9% knew that it was the Israelis and that the settlers were Israeli. There were actually more people (11%) who believed that the Palestinians were occupying the territories and that the settlers were Palestinian.
So why does the news not give proper explanations of the history and context of events?
One reason is that the news, exists in a very commercial market concerned with audience ratings. Pictures and action dominate and it is better to have great pictures of being in the middle of a riot with journalists ducking stones than to explain what the conflict is about. There is a second perhaps more crucial reason why the TV newsrooms do not dwell on history and origins of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This is that to refer to them as under-lying the violence could be very controversial. Israel is closely allied to the United States and there are very strong pro- Israel lobbies in the US and to some extent in Britain. It is clear that a lack of discussion on the news of the origins of the conflict and the controversial aspects of the occupation would operate in favour of Israel. For example, Israel prefers to stress the attacks and bombings made upon it and the anti-semitism of some Islamic groups, rather than to have the legality of its own actions subject to public debate. The settlement policy is widely regarded as illegal in International Law and this has certainly been the view of the British Government. Some newspaper reports consistently refer to the settlements as 'illegal' but this is not done routinely on television news. Without the discussion of origins and causes, we are left with accounts on the news of day to day events, in which it can appear that the 'normal' world is disrupted only when the Palestinians riot or bomb. This is of course the view of the Israeli government and the news tended to oscillate between this and the view that violence was perpetrated by both sides in a 'cycle' of 'tit for tat' killings. The Palestinians believe that they are resisting an illegal and violent occupation. From the Israeli Government view the Palestinian militants are merely terrorists to whom they are 'responding'. There were many examples of the Israeli viewpoint being actively adopted by journalists and built into the structure of coverage. Palestinian bombings were frequently presented as 'starting' a sequence of events which involved an Israeli 'response', as in:
"Dozens of Palestinians and Israelis have been killed in a relentless round of suicide bombings and Israeli counter-attacks." (BBC2 Newsnight 22:30 13/12/01)
On Radio 4 it was reported that "Five Palestinians have been killed when the Israeli army launched new attacks on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for recent acts of terrorism." (07:30 06/03/02)
In another extraordinary exchange on BBC Radio 4, David Wiltshire MP, was asked "What can the Egyptians do to stop the suicide bombers - because that in the end is what is cranking up the violence at present?" He replies, "Well that is one view, the Israeli view?" (17:00 01/04/02)
On Channel Four News a journalist reports that: "the Israelis had carried out this demolition in retaliation for the murder of four soldiers." (10/01/02)
The extent to which some journalism simply assumes the Israeli perspective can be seen if the statements are 'reversed ' and presented as Palestinian actions. The group did not find any reports stating that 'The Palestinian attacks were in retaliation for the murder of those resisting the illegal Israeli occupation.' The incursions by Israeli forces into Palestinian towns in April 02, occasioned heavy loss of life and much International criticism. On BBC Radio 4 news they were described using the phrase 'there is a determination to carry on until the job is done' (9/4/02). Would Palestinian attacks be described in this fashion? A news journalism which seeks nuetrality should not endorse any point of view, but there were many departures from this principle.
The analysis found other differences in the manner in which Palestinians and Israelis were described in news reporting. Words such as 'murder', 'atrocity', 'lynching' and 'savage cold-blooded killing' were only used to describe Israeli deaths but not those of Palestinians. Terrible fates befell both Israelis and Palestinians but there was a clear difference in the language used to describe them. This was so even when the events being described had strong similarities. For example, on 10th of October 2000 it was reported that Arab residents of Tel Aviv had been chased and stabbed. This was described on ITN as "angry Jews looking for Arab victims" (ITN 18.30 10.10.2000) In the Guardian (10.10.2000), these events were described as a pogrom. The reports on television news were extremely brief but two days later when two Israeli soldiers were killed by a crowd of Palestinians there was very extensive coverage and the words "lynching" and "lynch mob" were very widely used. This difference in the use of language is note-worthy. This is especially so since in this period, at the beginning of the intifada, nearly ten times as many Palestinians had in fact been killed as Israelis. The news, on the occasions when it did give figures, stated that more Palestinians had died than Israelis, but only 30% of our sample of 300 young people believed this to be so. The same number believed either that the Israelis had the most casualties or that casualties were equal for both sides.
There were a number of other imbalances in the way in which the two sides were reported. Israelis spoke twice as much on television news as Palestinians and there were three times as many headlines that expressed the Israeli view as that of the Palestinians. The TV news did feature some criticism of Israel particularly for using 'excessive force', but it was clear from our work that such criticism was sometimes muted e.g. a lethal attack by a helicopter gun ship was described using the phrase 'Israel wielded a big stick' (BBC1 1800 4/10/00). More severe criticism emerged from Israel itself, when Shimon Perez, the Israeli Foreign Minister was reported in October 2001 as trying to 'reign in' the Israeli Army which was accused of deliberately seeking to wreck a ceasefire by opening fire on protesters.
The notion that there are powerful forces within Israel who do not wish there to be any peace settlement was rarely explored on television news. This seems also to have forgotten how the present intifada began when Ariel Sharon walked through the most holy Muslim sights, producing wide spread protests. On the first day four Palestinians were reported as shot dead and 150 wounded.
In our research in October 2000, we found that some television news did report that Israeli soldiers were 'showing absolutely no restraint, firing live ammunition into crowds from twenty metres' (ITN 18.00 22.10.2000). But it was not suggested at this time that the actions of the army might be linked to a political agenda (i.e. to stop the peace process). In contrast the view put forward by the Israeli Government at the time that Yasser Arafat was encouraging violence for political ends - was widely reported and discussed on TV news.
The lack of explanation on the news about the origins of the conflict plus the differences in the manner in which both 'sides' were presented had measurable effects on some public understanding. As one eighteen year old in a focus group commented:
"You always think of the Palestinians as being really aggressive because of the stories you hear on the news. I always put the blame on them in my own head." (25/05/01)