In recent months, various American and other Western media outlets have been accused of bias from activists, academics and journalists for their coverage of Israel and Palestine following the wave of support for Palestinians that gained traction after a bombing campaign in Gaza and expulsions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem went viral on social media in May.
“The problem with coverage on Palestine [is that] it’s all covered as ‘escalating violence.’ None of those stories wrote the problem of this displacement as part of this on-going ethnic cleansing campaign that has existed for generations,” Abdallah Fayyad, journalist and columnist for the Boston Globe, told MediaFile.
Fayyad stressed that it’ll take a “collective responsibility” from journalists throughout the industry to cover Palestine fairly, because of the history of bias in U.S. media. Headlines from popular media outlets such as The New York Times, CNN and Reuters have been under increased scrutiny due to their lack of contextualization, Fayyad said.
Greg Shupak, a professor of media studies at the University of Guelph in Toronto and author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media, said the selective word choice and passive language can affect the way an article is received by readers. He dubbed these ways in which events are written about as “linguistic gymnastics.”
One example Shupak mentioned is from a tweet from The New York Times in 2018 which reads, ‘sporadic rifle fire from the Israeli side of the Gaza border made clear that the Palestinian protests could elicit the sort of response that killed 20 people a week ago.’
Sporadic rifle fire from the Israeli side of the Gaza border made clear that the Palestinian protests could elicit the sort of response that killed 20 people a week ago https://t.co/ajma6qnRDV
— New York Times World (@nytimesworld) April 6, 2018
“That’s 30 words and it still doesn’t get across the really crucial information here, which is that Israel killed 9 Palestinian protesters. Instead, they conceal that with this very long, awkward sentence,” Shupak said.
A more recent example can also be seen in a The New York Times article from May that made circles around Twitter for including a paragraph which read, “More than 67 Palestinians, including 16 children, have died since the start of the conflict on Monday…The rockets fired by Hamas and its Islamist ally, Islamic Jihad, killed at least six Israeli civilians.”
Hamas "killed" Israelis but the Palestinians just "died"?
Who caused the Palestinians to "die," @nytimes?
All my journalism professors told me write in the active voice, to identify the agent of the action. I guess when it comes Israel-Palestine, those rules don't pertain. pic.twitter.com/UbFZavjcg0
— Yara Elmjouie (@yelmjouie) May 14, 2021
Some Twitter users pointed out that the use of the passive language when describing the deaths of Palestinians results in a failure to accurately assign culpability to those responsible—who is, in this case, the Israeli military.
Shupak said the media will also pick “arbitrary starting points,” to describe their stories. He said they will cover events without including the context which led up to the conflict, and by saying violence just erupted after a certain event is inaccurate, as Israeli violence is a “permanent feature” of Palestine.
Experts also point to the media’s description of Israeli violence as a response to Palestinians as another malpractice. The effect of the word ‘response’ is that it gives permission to whomever is responding to the violence to act as they see fit, said Shupak. He said their framing of the violence fails to accurately describe the power dynamics in the region.
As Maha Nassar, a professor of Middle Eastern and North African studies at the University of Arizona points out, “One side is the occupier, and the other side is the occupied. One side is a state with a powerful military. The other side has no state and has no military.”
Ah yes, @nytimes. Famous for their balanced coverage of #Palestine. https://t.co/S55Ip1LPm8 pic.twitter.com/SgwKQpV6ou
— Assal Rad (@AssalRad) May 14, 2021
“Occupation, apartheid—there are simple definitions for each, and they should be used to describe reality instead of being politicized,” said Anwar Mhajne, a professor of political science, gender, religion and Middle Eastern politics at Stonehill College.
Being attentive to linguistic choices extends beyond writing an actual article; it’s also about who journalists interview, the kind of questions they ask, and having people from the region who can help explain the cultural context, Mhajne said. She explained that interviewing only English-speaking individuals is also a problem and that in order to obtain the proper cultural context, journalists and media agencies need to also work with translators to get the full story.
Sa’ed Atshan, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College, said cultural context isn’t the only thing missing from media coverage of Palestine: Palestinian voices are often left out of stories from the region. In order to provide fair coverage, Atshan said that there needs to be more openness for op-eds submitted by Palestinians, as well as articles citing and referencing Palestinians, and inviting Palestinians on air for live interviews.
Though some Western media outlets have worked to improve their coverage of Palestinians by publishing more humanizing stories about Palestinians or by interviewing actual Palestinans, Atshan said, “it is safe to say that the mainstream corporate media coverage in Western states like the United States—and more broadly, North America, even including Canada, and in many parts of Europe—has contributed to the systemic silencing and demonization of Palestinians.”
As a result of the coverage patterns highlighted by experts, there have been calls from both the general public and journalists across the industry, demanding change in Western media’s coverage of Palestinians.
On June 9th, American journalists published an open letter criticising the narrative and the language generally used in American media, calling on journalists to “tell the full, contextualized truth without fear or favor, to recognize that obfuscating Israel’s oppression of Palestinians fails this industry’s own objectivity standards.”
As of this week, 514 journalists across the U.S. have signed the letter so far. No major media organizations have covered the letter, with the exception of Fox News that published an article titled “Anti-Israel journalists blasted as ‘propagandists’ for stunning letter.
Canadian journalists also wrote a similar letter to newsrooms across Canada asking for more nuanced and contextualized reporting on Palestine. The letter denounced Canadian style guides for banning the use of the word “Palestine.”
Since the letter was published, several Canadian journalists faced negative repercussions for signing it. Many were called into meetings with their respective newsrooms to discuss the letter, and at least three were confirmed to be taken off of coverage for the region.
Fayyad argues that there’s a fear factor when it comes to writing about Palestine, due to the tangible examples of journalists getting reprimanded or fired for speaking in support of Palestine. Fayyad said that there is a soft line between journalism and activism, with journalists expected to limit their activism online, but when it comes to supporting Palestine, the line is more strict, with less tolerance for journalists who come out in support of Palestine.
“There needs to be a reckoning in the industry about how to improve this coverage,” Fayyad said. “Editors should ask themselves questions about what stories they’re picking up, reporters should ask themselves why they’re framing stories in a certain way—they should think about the language that they’re using.”
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