A review of: Greg Philo and Mike Berry, Bad News from Israel, Pluto Press, 2004, 340 pp.
Many people criticize the news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is easy to suggest that news coverage of this contentious issue is biased, but it is significantly more difficult to clearly articulate one’s objections. Most criticisms in the form of letters-to-the-editor are of limited use because they refer to selected news items; although editors may acknowledge this criticism, it is mostly ignored. To exert pressure on news organizations so that they will take notice, it is necessary to go beyond the piecemeal critique. What is necessary is to obtain a behavioral critique from a broad analysis of news coverage and how this coverage affects the understanding of an issue by a large segment of the population. Such a critique cannot be ignored by news organizations, and it will likely be more effective in eliciting a corrective response. Because Bad News from Israel addresses the insidious pro-Israeli dominant perspective of most major media, it is an important book.
The book is divided into three parts: an overview of what the media should cover, how the media covers the issue, and what understanding an audience derives from this news coverage. The first section is an historical overview of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is a very well written and researched general overview of the history of the region; ideally, one would hope that the news coverage should make an audience aware of this history. The discussion of the history of the region sets the stage for the second section of the book, a “content analysis” of news coverage. Here the authors document general patterns arising in the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. They have taken a large body of news media output, mostly British TV news, and sought to classify broad patterns of exhibited dominant perspective. The last section deals with “audience studies”, a study of various focus groups to determine their general knowledge of the Israel-Palestine conflict. For a large segment of the population, the TV is the primary source of information, and it is therefore important to research focus groups to determine how this TV-news/information translates into an understanding of a given issue. In particular, it is of interest to determine an audience’s overall knowledge of an issue, how they interpreted events, and even whether they were interested in the issue at all. The results of the audience studies are very important and clearly the most valuable section of the book.
Philo and Berry analyzed the output of BBC, ITV and some Channel 4 news (all British TV) over key selected periods during the second intifada. Some of the TV-news output is compared to that available in other media, e.g., newspapers, and then a detailed analysis was undertaken of the TV-news content. The content analysis proves that “accounts carry with them assumptions about cause, responsibility and consequences that connect directly to wider social values.” In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the conclusion is that most of the BBC or ITV news is Israeli-centric, it favors the Israeli narrative, it often justifies Israeli actions. At the same time, the BBC or ITV invariably distort and slight the Palestinian condition and the reasons for their struggle.
The content analysis looked at simple quantitative measure of the news output to find:
“There is no evidence from our analysis to suggest that Palestinian views were given preferential treatment on the BBC. The opposite is in reality the case.”
The news from the area was also analyzed qualitatively, and several patterns of an Israeli-centric bias in the news coverage are given. For example, BBC news tends to present most Israeli violence as “response” or “retaliation”, and thus justifying its violence against Palestinians. Invariably, the BBC reportage adopted the Israeli rationale and justifications. The language when describing violence against Israelis is markedly different than when referring to violence against Palestinians. The former tends to use emotive language, e.g., “atrocity”, “horrific”, etc., but for the latter the language tends to be exculpatory of Israeli action and uses a sedate, almost inert, language. The key findings in this section have to do with the scarcity of context, e.g., there are minimal references to the origins of the conflict or to the reasons the second intifada broke out. Remarkably enough, Philo and Berry also document some BBC news accounts that are factually incorrect, i.e., even BBC journalists aren’t clear about the history of the region. If journalists are mixed up, then it is no wonder that an audience may be confused too.
The groups interviewed for the book are shown to have a dismally low level of knowledge of the situation in the Middle East. In 2001, only 4% of a British student sample knew that Palestinians had been driven from their land. Similarly, few had any knowledge of the link between the wars of 1948 and 1967. Some respondents thought the “conflict” had to do with a border dispute; most didn’t know who was occupying whom, or what was the nationality of the settlers. Of particular interest was the perception by a significant segment of the focus groups that many more Israelis than Palestinians had died during the second intifada. These results are indicative of the overall population’s knowledge of an important conflict, and it suggests that the major media in the UK have failed their audience.
Of chickens and eggs…
The BBC produces news that is often referred to as “snippets” or “bang-bang” stuff. News editors actively discourage their journalists from doing “explainers” stating that their audience only has a “20 second attention span”. Using this rationale major news organizations consistently “dumb-down” their output, they argue that there is no market for more meaningful news, and they have a very low patronizing opinion of their audience. An often-heard refrain by the media is that there is a “chicken and egg problem”. News editors suggest that if there were more demand for meaningful news then they would supply it. And audiences often state that they would watch more news if it were more meaningful. Philo and Berry have an answer for this conundrum. An important finding of the book is that context-less news turns an audience off, or conversely, the more understanding an audience obtains from news, the more interested in the news coverage they will be. In other words, dumbing down of news coverage will inevitably lead to an alienated and less informed public. The alternative is the virtuous cycle where contextualized news coverage will yield audiences seeking to obtain more news and information. Philo and Berry’s book is important to make this case, and demand better news coverage for a range of issues. Although the book is based on the British experience, its lessons are universal, and it should be a must-read for an American audience too.
In order to have a meaningful democracy it is necessary to have an informed body politic. If the media don’t educate their public to have a better understanding of key issues, then there are grounds to demand remedial action. This book is an important contribution to what eventually will be an important debate in our societies regarding the role of the media, and news coverage in particular.
Paul de Rooij is a writer based in London who maintains a regularly updated data sheet on "coalition" military casualties in Iraq: The Military Death Toll While Enforcing the Occupation of Iraq. He can be contacted at: email@example.com (NB: all attachments will be automatically deleted). ©2004 Paul de Rooij
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