Studies continually show strong pro-Israel bias in western media

Mohamad Elmasry's picture

Western media has repeatedly failed to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a fair and balanced manner

CNN journalist Jake Tapper opened a recent interview with Human Rights Attorney Diana Buttu with the following two-part question: “Why is Hamas launching rockets into Israeli population centers and are any other Palestinians trying to stop them from doing so?”

Tapper’s question - which lays onus on Hamas and other Palestinians and ignores the enveloping context of Israel’s siege on Gaza - is both telling and predictable. Mainstream western media outlets are, by and large, infused with a pro-Israeli ideological bias that colors nearly all mainstream Western reporting on Israel-Palestine.

Israel is assumed to be good, peaceful, and like ‘us’. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are backwards, violent, and foreign. These are the assumptions that most western news outlets start with, and questions like Tapper’s follow naturally. One can easily imagine the media uproar if it were Hamas that struck a disabled center with a rocket, or killed 18 members of the same family, or four kids on a beach.

Studies show that when Israel does commit atrocities, they are often justified by western news outlets, and sometimes altogether suppressed. As journalist Amena Saleem reported last August, BBC News instructed its reporters to positively spin stories about Israeli violence in Gaza during a November 2012 operation that killed about 200 Palestinians after Israel broke a ceasefire with Hamas.

If Tapper, the BBC and other western journalists strove harder for the kind of realistic and balanced reporting they claim to pursue, they may, instead, be asking why Israel has blockaded Gaza for eight years and created what the United Nations’ John Holmes called “a large open-air prison” and British Prime Minister David Cameron called a “prison camp.”

Or they may ask why - according to the world’s leading academic experts - Israel consistently blocks legitimate peace initiatives, leads the world in United Nations resolutions violations, and has broken all of the recent ceasefire agreements with Hamas, including in the most recent episode of violence. Or inquire about how Israel has created apartheid-like conditions as part of its 47-year illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, and, in so doing, has pursued a policy of collective punishment on defenseless Palestinians.

The media would almost certainly be obliged to point out that the Palestinians have neither a state nor a military and that since the year 2000, they have made up 87 percent of all deaths and 92 percent of all child casualties in the Israel-Palestine “conflict”. They may also report that Israel and the US continue to be virtually the only nations in the world to vote against an annual UN resolution on “Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine”.

But owing to this widespread pro-Israel ideological bias, issues of Palestinian suffering go largely unmentioned in western reportage. Contributing to the ideological bias is a lack of sourcing balance. A media monitoring group, Palestine Center, recently analyzed CNN’s reportage of Israel’s eight-day attack on Gaza in November 2012. It revealed that a total of 45 Israeli officials were interviewed by CNN, compared to just 20 Palestinian officials. An ongoing, but incomplete, analysis of this year’s violence by the Palestine Center shows that this is happening once more. Between 30 June and 9 July, CNN interviewed a total of 17 Israeli officials, but just one Palestinian official.

There is an extensive body of literature on US media coverage of Israel-Palestine.  Nearly all of the studies point to the same thing: Israeli perspectives are highlighted and legitimated, while Palestinian perspectives are marginalised.

According to Northwestern University’s Mardy Dunsky, western coverage lacks context and fails to address root causes of the conflict. Dunsky calls this “the bias implicit in the absent” and argues that the lack of context explicitly favors Israel.  

A long list of other studies also bear out imbalanced western framing of the conflict.

A 2003 study by Matt Viser published in the International Journal of Press/Politics found that the New York Times personalised Israeli deaths, largely ignored Palestinian deaths, and relied heavily on Israeli sources. A 2001 study by Seth Ackerman showed that National Public Radio covered 89 percent of Israeli child deaths and only 20 percent of Palestinian child deaths. Washington State University’s Susan Ross similarly studied New York Times editorial coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, finding that Israelis were presented as victims and Palestinians as aggressors.

A 2007 book by scholars Howard Friel and Richard Falk likewise showed that New York Times coverage marginalised the Palestinian perspective and largely ignored Palestinian deaths. The study also found that Israeli deaths were covered prominently and described Israel-perpetrated violence as self-defense. A systematic study of the BBC by Professor Leon Barkho revealed the tendency to “undermine Palestinian casualties.”

In a study I published in 2009 in the Journal of Middle East Media, I found that New York Times and Chicago Tribune coverage of the second Palestinian intifada was highly skewed in Israel’s favor. Specifically, Israeli violence was justified and legitimated with ‘self-defense’ and ‘war’ frames, while Palestinian violence was condemned with ‘aggression’ and ‘criminality’ frames. My study examined a period during which Palestinian deaths represented about 80 percent of all deaths in the conflict. I also found that the newspapers relied far more heavily on Israeli sources than Palestinian sources.

The list of studies uncovering a pro-Israel ideological bias is much longer than the abbreviated list I’ve presented here and I have not even mentioned the bias in the so-called right-wing press.

Within the next 18 months, a series of academic studies will likely be published examining western news coverage of the current crisis. Barring unforeseen and dramatic changes in the dominant western journalistic paradigm, the results will almost certainly show that - some balanced reporting notwithstanding - Western coverage prioritised and elevated Israeli life over Palestinian life.

With so much scholarly work critically assessing US media coverage, and given the critical coverage of Israel that can be found in the Israeli press, one is left to wonder why western press outlets continue to perform so poorly when covering this important story. 

- Mohamad Elmasry is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama. Previously he was Assistant Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at The American University in Cairo (AUC). His work has appeared in the Journal of Middle East Media, the International Communication Gazette, the Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research, International Journal of Communication, Global Media Journal, Political Violence @ a Glance, Al Jazeera English, openDemocracy, The Immanent Frame and Jadaliyya, among other publications.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo Credit: Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry (AFP)