It will come as no surprise to learn that journalists in the Middle East share an interest in sensationalism with their colleagues covering domestic issues. The most egregious examples come from television re-porters whose emphasis on visuals over substance encourages facile treatment of the issues.
For example, when NBC’s correspondent in Israel was asked why reporters turned up at Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank they knew were being staged, he said, “We play along because we need the pictures.” The networks can’t get news-worthy pictures from closed societies such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Libya, so events in Israel routinely make headlines while the Arab world is ignored.
Israel often faces an impossible situation of trying to counter images with words. “When a tank goes into Ramallah, it does not look good on TV,” explains Gideon Meir of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
The Media “Sure we can explain why we are there, and that’s what we do. But it’s words. We have to fight pictures with words.”
The magnitude of the problem Israel confronts is clear from Tami Allen-Frost, deputy chairman of the Foreign Press Association and a producer for Britain’s ITN news, who says “the strongest picture that stays in the mind is of a tank in a city” and that “there are more incidents all together in the West Bank than there are suicide bombings. In the end, it’s quantity that stays with you.”
One cause of misunderstanding about the Middle East and bias in media reporting is the ignorance of journalists about the region. Few reporters speak Hebrew or Arabic, so they have little or no access to primary sources. They frequently regurgitate stories they read in English language publications from the region rather than report independently. Media outlets also often rely on stringers – local Arabs who help them find stories – whose biases are often interjected into the coverage. When they do attempt to place events in historical context, they often get the facts wrong and create an inaccurate or misleading impression.
In fact, Jews were prevented from visiting their holiest shrine. This is a critical historical point that helps explain Israel’s position toward Jerusalem. The press often makes factual mistakes that place Israel in an unfavorable light.
For example, in October 2015, MSNBC aired graphics similar to those used in anti-Israel propaganda that suggested Israel destroyed the country of Palestine. One of the network’s broadcasters, Martin Fletcher, said the map and analysis were “dead wrong” and the network subsequently apologized for using maps that were “not factually accurate.”
In one remarkable example, a Finnish journalist filed a factual report, but then lashed out against those who used it because it conflicted with her bias. Aishi Zidan of Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat reported that a rocket was launched from the backyard of the main hospital in Gaza City (which also served as the Hamas headquarters).
This was one of the rare cases where a journalist documented how Hamas used Palestinians, in this case hospital patients, as human shields. When the story was publicized, she criticized the pro-Israel media because it distracted from her goal of covering the “Palestinian civilians who were victims of war.”
Though rare, a handful of other journalists also reported examples of Hamas using human shields. Financial Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief John Reed, for example, saw “two rockets fired toward Israel from near al-Shifa hospital, even as more bombing victims were brought in. Similarly, Peter Stefanovic of Australia’s Channel Nine News tweeted: “Hamas rockets just launched over our hotel from a site about two hundred meters away. So a missile launch site is basically next door.”