Greg Philo and Mike Berry (2004, London: Pluto Press)
Glasgow University Media Unit
This is a study of TV new coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of how this coverage relates to the understanding, beliefs and attitudes of the television audience.In producing this study out intention was not to ‘monitor’ the media or to criticise individual journalists. Our intention was to discuss the pressures and structures within which they work to show the effects of those on new content and to examine the role of the media in the construction of public knowledge. It is a very extensive study with an audience sample of over 800 people and a detailed analysis of TV news over a two-year period. This work also raises a series of important theoretical issues in mass communications.
The study suggests that television news on the Israel/Palestinian conflict confuses viewers and substantially features Israeli government views. Israelis are quoted and speak in interviews over twice as much as Palestinians and there are major differences in the language used to describe the two sides. This operates in favour of the Israelis and influences how viewers understand the conflict.
Some Major Findings:
1. There is a preponderance of official ‘Israeli perspectives’, particularly on BBC 1, where Israelis were interviewed or reported over twice as much as Palestinians. On top of this, US politicians who support Israel were very strongly featured. They appeared more than politicians from any other country and twice as much as those from Britain.
2. TV news says almost nothing about the history or origins of the conflict. The great majority of viewers depended on this news as their main source of information. The gaps in their knowledge closely paralleled the ‘gaps’ in the news. Most did not know that the Palestinians had been forced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948. In 1967 Israel occupied by force the territories to which the Palestinian refugees had moved. Most viewers did not know that the Palestinians subsequently lived under Israeli military rule or that the Israelis took control of key resources such as water, and the damage this did to the Palestinian economy. Without explanations being given on the news, there was great confusion amongst viewers even about who was ‘occupying’ the occupied territories. Some understood ‘occupied’ to mean that someone was on the land (as in a bathroom being occupied) so they thought that the Palestinians were the occupiers. Many saw the conflict as a sort of border dispute between two countries fighting over land between them.
3. Journalists gave different views on why there was so little explanation on the news. George Alagiah from the BBC stressed the problem of time: In depth it takes a long time, but we’re constantly being told that the attention span of our average viewer is about twenty seconds and if we don’t grab people – and we’ve looked at the figures – the number of people who shift channels around in my programme now six o’clock, there’s a movement of about three million people in that first minute, coming in and out.
Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 News also commented on how difficult it was to report in a controversial area: With a conflict like this, nearly every single fact is disputed, I think ‘Oh God, the Palestinians say this and the Israelis say that?’ I know it’s a question of interpretation so I have to say what both sides think and I think sometimes that stops us from giving the background we should be giving.
4. Because there was no account of historical events such as the Palestinians losing their homes, there was a tendency for viewers to see the problems as “starting ” with Palestinian action. On the news, Israeli actions tended to be explained and contextualised – they were often shown as merely “responding” to what had been done to them by Palestinians (in the 2001 samples they were six times as likely to be presented as “retaliating ” or in some way responding than were the Palestinians). This apparently influenced many viewers to blame Palestinians for the conflict.
5. In news reporting there was a tendency to present Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as vulnerable communities, rather than as having a role in imposing the occupation. But as the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has written, they have a key military and strategic function. They have been built on hilltops to give a commanding position and their occupants are often heavily armed. The Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, has pointed to its role in attacking Palestinians in attempts to seize land. Most viewers knew very little of this.
6. There was a strong emphasis on Israeli casualties on the news, relative to Palestinians (even though Palestinians had around 2-3 times the number of deaths as Israelis). In one week in March 02 which the BBC reported as having the most Palestinian casualties since the start of the intifada, there was actually more coverage on the news of Israeli deaths. There were also differences in the language used by journalists for Israelis and Palestinians – words such as ‘atrocity’, ‘brutal murder’, ‘mass murder’, ‘savage cold blooded killing’, ‘lynching’ and ‘slaughter’ were used about Israeli deaths but not Palestinian. The word ‘terrorist’ was used to describe Palestinians by journalists but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they werereferred to as ‘extremists’ or ‘vigilantes’.
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