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  The Media’s Middle East Burden
Look Past Built-in Bias
by Matthew Rojansky
[author, consultant] 12/1/06

In the Middle East’s longest running conflict, supporters of Israel insist the international press is hopelessly biased against them and in favor of the Palestinians.  They rightfully complain of headlines and photographs that consistently depict Israelis with guns and Palestinians in mourning, and almost never the other way around.  Yet there is no anti-Israel conspiracy among reporters on the conflict.   Rather, biased coverage results from the media’s limited access to images and information favorable to Israel.

Matthew Rojansky

The author was a Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a Public Relations Consultant for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. [go to Rojansky index]

Consider the endless cycle of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli retaliation, the bread and butter of international reporting in the region.  Images of armed Israelis and unarmed Palestinians figure disproportionately in the stock footage of the conflict.  From wire dispatches and the nightly news, we see clearly when Israeli tanks and troops move into Palestinian areas, but it would be tough to count more than a couple of instances when we actually see or hear from the armed Palestinians Israel claims to be fighting.

Palestinian fighters are absent from the coverage not because they don’t exist (there are over 40,000 in the West Bank and Gaza) but because they are far less visible than their Israeli adversaries.  Israel’s soldiers wear uniforms, hold and secure territory, speak freely to the press, and are  answerable to military and civilian authorities that actually publish detailed accounts and internal investigations of almost everything they do.  In other words, Israel’s army is media friendly, even when the media are not friendly to it.  

Armed Palestinians, on the other hand, mask their identities, move through hidden tunnels, fire from crowded hospitals, churches and schools, and then melt away in the ensuing chaos to avoid being arrested or shot.  As a result of these tactics, Palestinian fighters are never subject to media scrutiny except on their own carefully controlled terms.  A few brave witnesses have revealed how militants threaten, kidnap and kill their own countrymen who work as photographers and translators for the international press.  Even some foreign journalists themselves have suffered violence when they are suspected of reporting facts or taking pictures that could hurt the Palestinian cause.

When it comes to depicting the victims of Israeli-Palestinian violence, roles are reversed, and Israel’s victims are all but invisible to the press.  Within minutes of a deadly bombing in an Israeli city, authorities cordon off the area and hold back even the Israeli press.  Once an army of police, medics and volunteers have removed the dead and wounded, and have cleared the physical debris, any reporters still interested receive a colorless official statement on the number of victims, their condition, and what may be known of the attacker.  Again, when the dead are  buried, the press is intentionally kept out.  State policy reflects the intensely private nature of mourning in Judaism.  On rare occasions when government spokesmen invoke the imagery of individual victims or their grieving families, they are rebuked for being callous or manipulative.

Palestinian victims, on the other hand, are favorites for photo and video coverage, but not because their suffering is any different from that of their Israeli neighbors.  It is simply much more accessible to the press.  Palestinian authorities are known to herd journalists to the wreckage of Israeli missile strikes and home demolitions, where they are met by fuming neighbors and government spokesmen ready to tell their version of events.  When fighters or bystanders are killed in Israeli attacks, their funeral services become a spectacle for the entire community as well as the foreign media.  It is no surprise that fist-pumping, flag-waving processions bearing martyrs’ coffins through the  streets are organized by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade.  For groups that thrive on continued violence, the resulting media coverage of a nation’s vengeful fury is priceless.

In a tiny but immensely complicated corner of the world, where all factions deal in deception and violence, journalists must be uncommonly brave and dedicated just to report the daily news.  Yet reporters have a duty to go beyond the easy opportunities and well-worn themes of conflict in the Middle East to discover and convey the truth.  The public’s right to know and the cause of lasting peace demand no less. CRO

copyright 2006 Matthew Rojansky






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