Missing In Action


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 low on explanation.

A new study by the Glasgow University Media Group shows the effect of this on public understanding. The group interviewed 12 small audience groups (a total of 85 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).

We asked all of these people what came to their mind when they heard the words “Israeli/Palestinian conflict” and what its source was. A small number of people had direct experience (two individuals) and listed accounts from relatives as what had come to their minds. But most (82%) listed TV news as their source and to a lesser extent newspapers were also named. The replies showed that they had absorbed the “main” message of the news, of conflict, violence and tragedy.

But the research also showed that many people had little understanding of the reasons for the conflict and its origins. It was apparent that this lack of understanding (and indeed misunderstanding) was compounded by the news reports. Explanations were rarely given on the news and when they were, journalists often spoke obliquely, almost in a form of shorthand. For example, in a news bulletin that featured the progress of peace talks, an ITN journalist made a series of very brief comments on the issues which underpinned the conflict: “The basic raw disagreements remain – the future, for example, of this city Jerusalem, the future of Jewish settlements and the returning refugees. For all that, together with the anger and bitterness felt out in the West Bank, then I think it’s clear this crisis is not about to abate.”

There are several elements in this statement that require some background knowledge. “Refugees”, for example, are cited as a key issue. The main audience sample of 300 young people were asked where the Palestinian refugees had come from and how they had become refugees. Eighty per cent replied that they did not know.

To understand the journalist’s comments, the audience would need to have the information that Palestinian refugees were displaced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948. Shortly after, in May 1948, 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).

In 1967 Israel fought a further war with its Arab neighbours and in the process 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.

As Avi Shlaim suggests, the settlements 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”.

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 Palestinian. Our interviewees knew very little of such matters.

The group 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 September 28 until October 16 2000 (a total of 89 bulletins) were transcribed and the number of lines of text that were devoted to different themes were counted. Of 3,536 lines of text, 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, along with the rest of television, exists in a very commercial and competitive market and is concerned about audience ratings. In this respect 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 the history and origins of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This is that to explain these or to refer to them as underlying 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 of the origins of the conflict and of the controversial aspects of the occupation would operate in favour of Israel.

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.

There were many examples of the Israeli viewpoint being adopted by journalists. Palestinian bombings were frequently presented as “starting” a sequence of events which involved an Israeli “response”. 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”.

In another 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… “. On Channel 4 News a journalist reports that: “the Israelis had carried out this demolition in retaliation for the murder of four soldiers”.

The extent to which some journalism 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.” A news journalism which seeks neutrality should not in fact endorse any point of view, but there were many departures from this principle.

The analysis found words such as “murder”, “atrocity”, “lynching” and “savage cold-blooded killing” were used only to describe Israeli deaths. Terrible fates befell both Israelis and Palestinians but there was a clear difference in the language used to describe them.

For example, on October 10 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”. In the Guardian 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 noteworthy. This is especially so since in this period, at the beginning of the intifada, nearly 10 times as many Palestinians had 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. 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; for example, a lethal attack by a helicopter gunship was described using the phrase “Israel wielded a big stick”. More severe criticism emerged from Israel itself, when Shimon Perez, the Israeli foreign minister, was reported in October 2001 as trying to “rein in” the Israeli army, which was accused of deliberately seeking to wreck a cease-fire 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. Connections back to how the present intifada began, when Ariel Sharon walked through the most holy Muslim sights, producing widespread protests, were rarely explored. 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”, but it was not suggested at this time that the actions of the army might be linked to a political agenda (ie 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” had measurable effects on some public understanding. As one 18-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.”

· Professor Greg Philo is research director of the Glasgow University Media Group. His research will appear in Developments in Sociology, published next month by Causeway Press.

 

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