Opinion: Media bias and Israel-Palestine

LONDON, U.K. — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to stop building Jewish homes in Arab east Jerusalem and the West Bank has become a major obstacle to peace talks with the Palestinians and severely strains relations with President Barack Obama's administration. That's a simple statement of fact.

But depending on which country you live in, the way the news media present these facts can make them seem quite different.

Most American newspapers and broadcasters refer to the Jews who build and inhabit these homes as “settlers,” a term usually used to describe hardy folk who are creating homesteads on virgin land.

At the other end of the spectrum, Arab media in the Middle East often call them “colonists,” which implies that they are foreigners taking over other people's land.

Both terms reflect biases that distort almost all reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But between the two extremes, there are gradations of bias as you travel from West to East.

I currently live in middle-of-the-road Britain, which by American standards seems pro-Palestinian, even though there is still some affection for Israel here.

Across the English Channel, the French press seems more stridently pro-Palestinian, perhaps a reflection of the country's large Muslim community and the fact the French government, which was once Israel's most enthusiastic supporter and arms supplier, abruptly turned its back on the Jewish state in 1967.

Germany's media are more nuanced. The history of the Holocaust has made Germans careful about what they say about Israel. But much of the Italian press, on the other hand, strongly supports the Palestinian cause. And the bias becomes stronger in countries that are closer to the Middle East.

Jewish organizations in America often see blatant anti-Semitism in European media coverage of Israel, and also spend considerable time and effort trying to maintain Israel's image in the American media. That effort pays off and affects the terminology used by American journalists.

I was once told by the person who was editing a piece I wrote about Israel that the ugly thing Israel was erecting between the Israeli and Palestinian populations should be called a “security barrier” and not a “wall” (which it obviously is).

In fact, most American and British media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict uses loaded words that reflect a distinctly anti-Arab bias.

A detailed study conducted in 2002 by Glasgow University showed that in British television news, Palestinians are called “activists,” “militants,” “extremists,” “assailants,” “gunmen,” “bombers,” “terrorists,” “killers,” “assassins,” “fundamentalist groups,” “attackers,” “self-styled Palestinian martyrs” and “fanatics.”

Israelis are “soldiers” or “troops” and even when an Israeli group tried to bomb a Palestinian school, thery were not “terrorists” but “vigilantes.”

The Glasgow study of media coverage also showed a high degree of ignorance and misunderstanding about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. A group of American college students was asked, “Who is occupying the occupied territories and what nationality are the settlers?” Fairly simple questions, but only 29 percent knew the correct answers. The Israelis are both the occupiers and the settlers.

Some thought the Palestinians occupy the occupied territories, but the Israelis are the settlers. Others thought the Israelis occupy the occupied territories but the Palestinians are the settlers. A smaller number thought the Palestinians were both the settlers and the occupiers. The rest simply could not answer.

The study pointed out that the Americans questioned were journalism and media students and some had even done projects on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. So their answers clearly overstated the public's level of knowledge about the Middle East.

In Britain and America, television news is still the main source of information on world affairs for most of the public. The authors of the study noted that television coverage of the Middle East usually depicts violence and provides very little context.

Events in the Middle East since the study — especially the 2008 Israeli assault on the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip — may have hurt Israel's image in both America and Britain, but I doubt that the public is now any better informed.

The study concluded that the lack of understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leads to a lack of interest. One British television viewer complained, “Every time it comes on, it never actually explains it so I don't see the point in watching it. I just turn it off and go and make a cup of tea or something.”

Tom Fenton is GlobalPost's media correspondent.