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As you travel from West to East, Israelis go from being "soldiers" in the media to being "colonists."
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.