Media Bias? Depends Who You Ask

Photo by Melissa Gerr
Photo by Melissa Gerr

With virtually every media outlet in the world covering the current fighting between Israel and Hamas, consumers, media savvy or not, are inevitably barraged with a variety of news reports, articles and photos that may paint very different pictures.

Has media coverage been fair, truthful and balanced? That depends on who you ask.

Some say reports lack context and an understanding of history, some say the media sympathizes with Palestinians because of the tragic visuals from Gaza and others say the Palestinian side is underreported.

“Both British and American media appear to be either confused by or ignorant of both facts and context, both nuance and history,” Kenneth Lasson, a writer and professor of law at the University of Baltimore, said via email. “There is a general lack of fairness and balance.”

Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the electronic media rarely talks about context, which presents a problem as consumers are provided with more detail and more perspectives.

“I think that more coverage is focused on Gaza, and that has presented Israel with a problem that it’s learning to deal with,” Abramson said. “It’s not as balanced as it should be. It’s hard to understand what Israel’s been going through in the 66 years of its existence.”

Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland College Park who covered the Middle East during his reporting career, said he doesn’t see any ideological bias in the media. He suggests that the American media may be more sympathetic to Israel because of more cultural affinity with Israelis than Palestinians.

“I feel like the news media in the U.S. at least has kind of presented both of those sides, has presented Israeli officials, Hamas deliberately embedding families to create a propaganda victory, and they give voice to the people of Hamas who are making the case that it’s civilian massacres,” Feldstein, who once worked on a kibbutz in Israel, said.

But Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), said equal camera time doesn’t mean good coverage.

“Fairness doesn’t mean you give 50 percent of the quotes to Hamas, fairness means fairness to the subject matter being covered,” he said. “Balance or objectivity is substantive. Did you get to the heart of the matter? Because in the end, the question was accuracy, or truthfulness.”

There are many factors at work shaping the current situation and the media coverage, some acknowledged and some not acknowledged by the media, sources said.

With Israel being a democratic state with a free press, there are “hundreds, or thousands,” of press, Rozenman said, leading to a saturation in coverage the public doesn’t get with “arguably more important world conflicts,” he said, such as the situations in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. But recent media coverage of other conflicts, especially the situation in Ukraine and Russia, may have overshadowed coverage of the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict prior to Operation Protective Edge, Feldstein said.

“Gaza is the latest wrinkle, but the sort of back and forth between Israelis and Palestinians has gone on for so long,” he said. “I think most Americans are confused and ignorant about it.”

There are also reports of the press being intimidated by Hamas while covering Gaza, with the Times of Israel reporting that journalists have been questioned and threatened after witnessing Hamas gunmen preparing to shoot rockets from civilian structures and fighting in civilian clothing.

When that coverage gets out, Rozenman said, there a few things that would help put stories in context.

“Israel is not occupying Gaza. Israel withdrew completely from Gaza nine years ago and that’s when the rockets started. It was the Palestinian public who elected Hamas in 2006,” he said.

While there are significantly higher numbers of Palestinian casualties, Rozenman said those numbers aren’t often framed by the fact the Palestinians don’t have bomb shelters, red alerts, the Iron Dome anti-missile system or tanks, partly because Hamas used its concrete building materials for tunnels into Israel.

“Israel looks like the invader if you have a two-dimensional framework,” he said.

But Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that does information research and advocacy to promote human rights in the Palestinian territories, takes a different view, at least of Israeli news media.

“The Israeli media doesn’t really report the damage that our own side is causing the civilian population in Gaza,” she said. “It’s bad news journalism because Israelis are constantly being fed a false reality that leads Israelis to believe nothing is wrong with our actions. And then Israelis are shocked at the response of the international community to our actions.”

But Rozenman said those numbers are skewed by Hamas, who told Palestinians on social media to refer to all casualties as civilians and gave other instructions on how to shape the media environment. He doesn’t trust the numbers of civilian casualties provided by Gaza health officials, and said most casualties have been males who are combatants between ages 16 and 60, and even more so between 40 and 60. If Israel was indiscriminately shelling the Gaza civilians, he said, the casualties would be more representative of the Gaza population.

The imbalance in Israeli and Palestinian casualties poses a problem that can affect what some news outlets focus on, Feldstein said.

“You have two warring factions here. [The media is] covering both sides, but on the Israeli side Iron Dome is pretty much protecting the Israelis and there are much less casualties,” he said. “It isn’t as visual and compelling, where on the Gaza side you have very visual carnage.”

Regardless of the context, the visuals may win the public attention in the end.

“If Hamas is willing to sacrifice innocent families to score a propaganda victory, then even if news media gives that argument to the Israelis, it’s going to be drowned out by the emotion of grieving, crying, funerals and burials,” Feldstein said.

Lasson would like to see journalists ask “tough but thoughtful questions,” he said, such as what critics of Israel envision as a more appropriate response to rocket attacks, why hasn’t the United Nations and other international entities expressed similar distress at killing women and children elsewhere in the world, and are there Palestinians protesting Hamas, among others.

“This is very much a war of good versus evil in a civilized word, much as it was in World War II between the Allies and Nazi Germany,” he said via email. “There is little, if any, moral equivalency here. Journalistic integrity should be able to penetrate the truth, and not be consumed by the fear of being ‘politically incorrect.’”

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