Monday, September 7, 2015

Can We Trust the Reporting of News Agencies Vis-à-Vis the Arab-Israel Conflict?

Guest Post by Chris Goff

Dark Waters{This is a guest post by author and journalist Chris Goff.  Goff has a new thriller coming out in about a week, or so, entitled Dark Waters that takes place in Israel and is, as they say, a true "page turner."  I read the book and intend to write about it as well this coming weekend.  It's a fun ride and I definitely recommend it.  I think that it will make Dershowitz jealous. - Michael L.}

The short answer? No. But understanding why requires taking a closer look at how the media works.

When I visited Israel in 2001, the circumstances were stressful. We were there getting alternative medical therapy for our eleven year-old daughter, who at the time was extremely sick. Originally there for six weeks, we ended up staying two months. Our time there served as the catalyst for my international thriller, DARK WATERS. As my daughter began to get stronger, we explored Tel Aviv, then moved outside to visit Haifa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Masada, Tiberias and the Dead Sea. Venturing out took a lot of resolve. In 2001, Israel experienced over 40 suicide bombings, including a car bombing in Tiberias involving a vehicle we had parked close to when visiting the marketplace that morning. It was the first time I had ever been afraid to leave the house, go to the movies, eat at a restaurant or ride a city bus.

It was December 6, 2001, after I was home, that I encountered my first experience of unreliable reporting on the Arab-Israel conflict. A Palestinian suicide bomber had blown himself up outside the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv killing twenty-five people. My daughter and I used to sit on the sea wall in front of the disco, listening to the music and watching the sea lap at the beach. It was a place filled with young people out to enjoy the night, to make friends, to dance. The news reporter spoke of how it was thought that the suicide bomber had chosen his target based on the number of Israeli soldiers known to frequent the disco. As though that somehow justified the violence? He then supported his claim by extrapolating that since all Israeli citizens were required to serve in the IDF that everyone in the discotheque could be viewed as an Israeli soldier or soon-to-be soldier. A bit of stretch. The majority of those killed that night were young teenage girls well under the age of eighteen.

Forty years ago, in my first class at the University of Colorado, we learned the basic tenets of ethical journalism: truth and accuracy; independence; fairness and impartiality; humanity; and accountability.  A sizable order! And while they still teach the same principles today, they tend to serve more as guidelines than rules. I would also venture to say most journalists feel they follow the tenets. Reporters still fact-check. But often they only present one version of the truth, and therein lies the problem.

The lines get a little blurry when it comes to the last four tenets. It's no secret that most of us perceive there is media bias. The best breakdown I've found detailing this phenomenon comes from a Student News Daily blog article  that lays out the various types. There's bias by omission, where the reporter leaves one side out of the equation; bias by selection of sources, where the sources cited support one particular view over another; bias by story selection, where the reporter highlights additional news stories coinciding with his agenda; bias by placement, which lends weight to a the story by where it appears; bias by labeling, where certain sources are tagged or labeled, with other sources are never identified; and bias by spin, when a reporter slants the tone of the piece by making subjective comments. "Creative nonfiction," where a reporter uses story form to impart facts in a colorful, thought-provoking manner, lends itself especially well to bias. A story also tends to end with a moral, providing a natural pathway for reporters to place their own personal spin on the telling.

News reporting is big business these days. The competition is keen and reporters have had to adjust to the times. With the onset of the internet and social media, more papers are going under, while more and more consumers pull their news from specialty sources and blogs and information is quickly disseminated around the globe. As consumers, we have been conditioned to receive our news in sound bites, and reporters are expected to deliver information in smaller, more consumable pieces. Tasked with entertaining their audience, reporters turn to sensationalism to grab attention, exploiting even the less exciting news bites for some type of intrinsic value. And, as in all good business, the news venue caters to the consumer. If feedback says the audience likes a particular-type of story or a particular slant, the reporter does his best to deliver.

On April 3, 2002, we watched on the news as Palestinians took refuge inside the Church of Nativity and the IDF rolled their tank into Manger Square and pointed its cannon at the Door of Humility, where inside 200 monks provided refuge and care to 120 Palestinians. At least, that's the way it was presented. There was no initial mention that the Palestinians were suspected militants fleeing arrest, or that they were suspected of having ties to the terrorist organizations sponsoring the rash of suicide bombings plaguing Israel, or that the IDF operation itself was in response to a bombing during Passover Seder that killed 23 mostly elderly vacationers. Instead, with graphic, emotionally-ladened photographs, the reporter painted a picture that tugged at the heartstrings of millions of Americans and brought us back clambering for more.

In her book, STONEWALLED, Sharyl Attkisson, an ex-CBS reporter, raised the idea that a general cultural change has occurred within journalism whereby reporters too often go along with the powers that be, whether they're corporate, political or other special interests.  A good example of this is the media's handling of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's reference to the Holocaust when he cited his opposition to the Iran Deal. Regardless of whether or not he crossed the line in invoking a reference to the Holocaust, it didn't take any time for the news media to pull the focus away from his opposition to the brokered deal. As if choreographed, the media immediately compared his remark to those of Donald Trump's, spinning the story to be about the myriad contenders for the Republican nomination rather than allowing Huckabee's remark to fuel the debate on the important, controversial issue of whether or not the Iran Deal is in the best interests of our country and the world.

And if journalists are swayed by outside interest, I'm sure the same can be said for individuals. Just like Pavlov's dogs, if we are constantly presented with information biased toward a specific point of view, we will likely begin to accept that perspective. For those of us living in the United States, that means we are more apt to be exposed to left-leaning perspectives. An American Trends Panel Survey conducted in 2014 and published in the Washington Post  showed that the majority of survey responders leaned to the left of center and that news stations (CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC) and newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post and USA Today) leaned even slightly further left than the average responder.

So where does Israel fit in all of this?

Currently the left-leaning media leans away from Israel, and the same might be said for the rest of the world. Writer Zack Beauchamp stated in a recent Vox article that the latest BBC World Service poll showed that "most countries have a pretty dim view of Israel's influence on the world."  After doing some digging, I discovered that the poll covered the years from 2012 to 2014 and was composed of answers from 24, 542 people across twenty-two countries.  With the world's population currently exceeding seven billion, it appears likely there's a margin for error. Yet, the BBC poll is presented as definitive proof that support for Israel is dwindling.

Is it any wonder, then, that nearly every article I found on the 2012 Gaza-Israel Conflict from major news media sources began with statements similar to this one from an ABC News via World News report published July 31, 2014?  The ABC News report first cites heavy shelling by Israel Defense Forces that "left much of Gaza City damaged." Factual, but could be construed as leading readers to empathize with the citizens of Gaza. The next paragraph opens with, "The conflict broke out on July 8, when Israel launched 'Operation Protective Edge' in response to Hamas launching rockets toward Israel." Again, while the sentence acknowledges that Hamas launched rockets first, the order and tone of the presentation left me—and I would imagine most readers—with the initial impression—that Israel started the conflict. The next sentence states, "Since the conflict began, 1,423 Gazans have died and 8,265 have been injured while 59 Israelis have died, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry and IDF, respectively." Again, while I'm sure these are accurate numbers, the manner of presentation leads the reader toward the conclusion that Israel is a mighty force pummeling a weak and defenseless victim.

So is there a fix?

Israel faces a tough challenge. Few Americans can understand the vulnerability Israel feels surrounded by so many Arab countries that have pledged to eradicate its people. Fewer still understand the intricacies that exist in the relationships between the multiple factions of Jews, Christians and the Israeli-Arabs residing there. I didn't, until I spent two months living in Tel Aviv. Then, you have to take into account the media images we see on our televisions, and in our newspapers and magazines. We're shown photographs of cute Palestinian children standing atop bombed out rubble, pictures of IDF soldiers guarding a wall that separates families, or pictures of Israeli settlers holding fast to land they've been ordered by their own government to vacate—because those photos are sensational and evoke emotional response. Applying individual biases, many Americans see a young boy in need of help, or are reminded of the Berlin Wall, or of our own problems struggling to sort out U.S. immigration policy.

The way I see it, Israel has limited choices. First, it can simply wait for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction. It's bound to happen at some point as the issues we're faced with in the Middle East continue to escalate. Second, Israel can work to improve its image. In social studies classes across America, kids are being taught about "presentism," defined as "an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences."  To illustrate, children are shown a picture of a soldier with a gun near the heads of a young boy and his mother, evoking negative feelings toward the soldier. Pan out and show the whole picture, and we see the soldier is actually standing guard over the boy, his mother and a group of villagers as other soldiers pass out food and water. Somehow Israel needs to work with the media panning out on the photographs, putting a new spin on its image and showing more of the positives—perhaps by highlighting areas where Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, live together and thrive.

Chris Goff is the author of DARK WATERS (September 15, 2015; Crooked Lane Books), an international thriller set amid the Israel-Palestine conflict. A former journalist, she is also the author of the critically acclaimed ecologically-themed Bird Watchers mysteries, and has served as board member for the Mystery Writers of America. For more:


  1. Interesting post. Thank you!

    I wouldn't be surprised if the BBC poll was accurate. Along with other media organisations, they've worked very hard to help create that picture. And still continue to do so.There's no reason to believe that will change. None.
    It's not possible for Israel to work with the media organisations you listed above, those organisations have no incentive - or desire - to try and provide more balanced and informed coverage of Israel as a country or the Israel /Palestine conflict. As you point out, those organisations are largely run and staffed by people with a similar left-leaning worldview. Why would they change tack?
    There is media that doesn't cover Israel in this way, but it tends to be "conservative" leaning and has a limited reach. The major networks and liberal newspapers are infinitely more influential.

    Similarly, the universities are very unlikely to want to work in partnership with Israel. There's every reason to believe that the universities will become even more entrenched in their anti-Israel stance.And the schools, too. I can't see any possibility of that changing. If anything, it's the other way. The need to demonize Israel gets greater all the time.

    It can simply wait for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction. It's bound to happen at some point ...

    I don't think there's any reason why that has to happen. The worse the situation gets in other countries, the more demonised Israel gets. And Jews.
    Maybe the really difficult take-away from all this is that everything will get worse. Depressing, I know. But almost certainly realistic.

    1. The point you raise about the universities is an interesting one. Again, it's a common knowledge that the majority of educators, like the majority of media, are left-leaning and it becomes a battle to insure our children receive a balanced education. It's with great hope we send our children to school believing they will come out critical thinkers, individuals able to look at the facts and make wise decisions. Too often they become indoctrinated by the philosophies of their teachers. I do feel hope, however. As the mother of six children, who have all graduated from college, I find my kids and their friends are more skeptical of what they're being told and more interested in figuring out where they stand as individuals. It's not always in my camp, but it's always with thoughtful consideration. It can make for lively debate, and sometimes we must agree to disagree. Still, I am confident that these young people will not just accept the rhetoric, but will continue to explore new ways of approaching problems and discourse. A positive sign for the future.

    2. Christine,
      that's good to know. Really. I expect it helps a lot if children have parents who let them know there is such a thing as "debate."
      So much of the academy seems to believe that a spectrum of opinion is a bad thing and that genuine debate should be shut down. It's the opposite of what university should be.
      The schools are pretty bad, too.

  2. Ahh, so Dark Waters was inspired by personal experience in some measure.

    I did not realize.

    Terrific piece, Chris. Perhaps I will address it more fully tomorrow.

    1. Thanks for posting it, MIke. I'm glad you liked DARK WATERS. I'll look for your post on the book.

  3. Occam's Disposable Razor tells me the answer is fairly simple. European and American society, media and political thought leaders are generally and casually antisemitic. They always have been and they always will be. And its expression is limited by time and place and the conventions and norms of polite society then and there. England for example, it's become fashionable to be publicly antisemitic just as one would like or dislike any other public vogue. In the US similarly its acceptable in polite society to say obnoxious things about Jews just as it is to say obnoxious things about any other targeted minority such as blacks, Mexicans, drug addicts, the homeless or anyone else. It's ok to say it.

    The existence of Israel or the news or public diatribes about Israel never created antisemitism, it merely revealed it.

    So the question you have to ask yourself is, what do you to confront an ancient unmovable hatred that will never abate. They don't hate what you do, they hate that you exist. If Israel imploded tomorrow and caved to 105% of every single idiot demand that popped into the heads of the senior staff of the BBC, what do you think would happen? Would they clap you on the shoulder and welcome you to the brotherhood of gentlemen? Of course not. They'd come up with an hundred more things they hate about it and demand you surrender to.

    1. I would have to agree with that.
      It is an "unmovable hatred."
      Trying to fight it with rational argument is fruitless. As Trudy says, if you gave them everything they say they want, it would not just not be enough, they would probably be even more full of hate. It is irrational . It always has been.

    2. I think you are being over-pessimistic. The spectacle of Europe being torn apart might cause some rethinking among the bystanders.

      But my online experience does line up with what you say about rational argument. It doesn't work.

      I tend to take a hardline, unyielding stance in such discussions. That doesn't help. No one on the other side ever concedes even the smallest point.

    3. At the moment outside Westminster, people are shouting "Refugees in, Netanyahu out!"

      These are the same people who have been claiming that it is fine for Corbyn to have met and shared a platform with every terrorist organization you can think of; not to mention calling them " Honoured friends." Apparently this is because to make peace you have to "engage.". Just not with the Israeli prime minister, it seems.

      Meanwhile, a leading Swedish think-tank has nominated Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister for the Nobel Peace Prize.

      Two excellent articles in that link.

    4. If Corbyn acquires real power there will in fact be pogroms in Britain. Good old fashioned semi-state-sponsored pogroms like the Middle Ages. You will see a return of Edward I's Edict of Expulsion of the Jews like in 1290.

    5. I tend to agree with Randall that the spectacle of what's happening in Europe is causing people to rethink their positions. It's changing the dialog on immigration issues in the U.S., which isn't a bad thing. During WWII lots of countries, including the U.S., denied Visas to Jews because of immigration quotas. Perhaps if we looked at why they were fleeing Europe we wouldn't have been so quick to turn a blind eye.

      And I also found Randall's statement that he tends to take a hardline and "that doesn't help" very telling. For years it's been my position we need to find a different way to hash out peace accords and agreements in the Middle East. As children, most Westerners are taught to compromise. It's how we resolve most of life's conflicts--in families, schools, at work, through the justice system. The Middle Easterners I know seem to stand tougher on their convictions of what is just, right and fair. It's different from my way, but not wrong. It's just the way most of them approach conflict. Case in point (though on a much smaller scale than hardline issues) my dear friend Moshe, raised on a kibbutz in Israel, believes his daughter's boyfriend was disrespectful the last time he was at the house. He believes he and his wife, Sandra, are owed an apology. The boyfriend believes that Moshe is being unreasonable. Until there is an apology, the daughter is not welcome to bring the boyfriend to the house. It has now been nearly four years since the daughter has been home. My position would be to call a truce, let the past be the past, and establish new ground rules going forward. For Moshe, that's untenable. So, for now, until they find a way for everyone to save face, there will be no resolution. But that doesn't mean they should stop trying to find one. Sometimes it helps to understand where someone else is coming from. Sometimes it changes nothing.

    6. k,
      Funny how 75% of those refugees are male. Apparently third world women are much tougher than their men.

    7. Christine,
      I think during the Second World War, governments knew what people were fleeing, or at least enough of it, they just didn't want to take Jews in. That includes the US, I think it is fairly well documented that FDR had enough information to act should he have wished to.

  4. What will surprise people is that it will not require 'Camp of the Saints' numbers of refugees to implode Europe. It will not take ceaseless waves of 10's of millions. Europe being Europe takes delight in impoverishing itself to maintain all those souls who wash ashore. Germany is spending 7 billion Euros on the 300,000 they have today with a commitment to take another half million each and every year forever. And then they have children and so on. You're talking only a few years to tally up hundreds of billions of Euros to maintain an illiterate uneducated ungrateful populace of people who feel violently entitled. Germany's birthrate is near zero but it takes a generation to education and train an entire population to take the place of all those high skill jobs the Germans are famous for..

  5. Sorry about the delay in my response... it's been that kind of a year!

    I thik that I want to address this:

    "if we are constantly presented with information biased toward a specific point of view, we will likely begin to accept that perspective."

    That's the bottom line, folks.

    The BBC and the New York Times pride themselves on their alleged objectivity, but we all know that neither outlet is bias-free and both tend to drive the discussion in an anti-Israel manner.

    The major media throughout the West has absorbed the Palestinian Narrative of perfect victimhood.

    Given thirteen hundred of years of Jewish persecution at the hands of Islamic Supremacists I find this morally repugnant.

    1. They aren't just anti-Israel, they are anti-Jew. As pointed out by Nick Cohen in
      "What's Left?" many BBC commentators are fairly hysterical when it comes to their views on Jews. Some of that is straight down the line anti-Semitism and some of it is their - much shared - obsessional hatred of America, and their belief that Jews control America. That is far more important than you tend to acknowledge. It dominates the political landscape. It is absolutely mainstream.

    2. Their hatred for America is unhinged. It is the bedrock of their worldview. Just as it is for the American Left. It's not possible to overstate it.

  6. "...we all know that neither outlet is bias-free and both tend to drive the discussion in an anti-Israel manner."
    That's a generous way to put it.

  7. They spread hate. It's as simple as that.