Thursday, April 16, 2009

media biases

In the wake of a report of bias at the BBC, here's also an interesting report on bias in Swedish media.

If someone claims the US media as a whole is biased in favor of Israel -- honestly, I don't watch enough tv to know. The news I get online is different from how most people get their news. And the only news source I pay attention to in an unfiltered way is a public radio station. I tend to believe the US media is, on the whole, biased toward Israel, but that this is a simplification.

My concerns are more about why people think the media is biased. We know, for instance, that the biases of the reporters are not typically the same biases their editors have. Individuals have their individual biases. American reporters tend to share those biases common among Americans. But typically, in my experience, anti-Israel partisans portray it as a Jewish conspiracy. Strangely, all of those other biases disappear. What's frustrating about that is that we can't really talk about correcting the problem then. If the problem is identified as a group of people, the only solutions are either to cow those people into 'acceptable' views or to discriminate against those people in the field. And 'those people,' here, are Jews.

When it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there are undoubtedly many, many biases. There's the bias where Western media tend to focus on the conflict disproportionately because they recognize the names of the cities, just to name one. Not all of these biases are necessarily bad until they are compounded with a failure to adhere to strict journalistic standards. I don't mind if reporters have an instinct to side with underdogs, but I mind if they don't do their job well.

In the case of the BBC, the situation is significant, even though it deals with a small number of instances that weren't up to the BBC's own standards, because it deals with Jeremy Bowen, the first Middle East Editor. However, in a way the Swedish case is more interesting. It doesn't deal with particular cases that clearly cross any lines, but with the whole of the coverage.
RPM’s low-key and logically stringent criticism focuses on three points. First of all, the papers (with the exception of DN) failed in providing any explanation for the Israeli attack — instead making it seem as if an irrational and brutal war machine unleashed its fury on innocent civilians. Secondly, RPM criticizes the way the papers treat the issue of war crimes. He points out that the only case of war crime that was beyond any doubt — and even confessed, proudly, by those who committed it — even before the start of the operation, was the continuous Hamas shelling of Israeli civilians in the south. However, nearly all discussions on war crimes in the press focused on Israeli actions. Thirdly, the greater narrative into which the reporting was placed, was over all the Palestinian narrative of a poor, downtrodden people, victim of an aggressive colonial power.

RPM is careful to point out that he doesn’t claim that the coverage in these four papers was erroneous. He doesn’t know. The point is, however, that neither did the people who decided to publish. Nonetheless, they followed a publishing pattern that lead them in a consistent anti-Israeli direction. Even though there are very few examples where individual articles step over the line of what can be described as honest reporting, RPM stresses that the over-all coverage creates a picture that’s highly problematic.
Maybe there are also pro-Israel biases in these papers as well. But that doesn't mean these biases don't matter.

One particularly awkward bias that I think dominates more than anything: space limitations that preclude context and the sort of serious analysis that can avoid bias. A five-hundred and fifty-nine word piece (the number is from this piece, at the top of the NYTimes online right now) will invariably simplify. In a sufficiently complicated situation, that simplification requires bias.
In an interesting remark, Mr. Helin defended why his paper – Aftonbladet – wrote so little about Hamas’ role in the escalation of the conflict. He said that it’s obvious that Hamas is a terror organization that commits war crimes. Therefore it doesn’t have to be reported (ca 21:30 into the broadcast).
Scroll down here (a wonderful resource, btw), and watch Guy Raz (7 Dec 2006). Preceding tales of editors cutting mentions of antisemitism, he tells the story of the BBC's reporting on Kristallnacht. It was all of 20 seconds long.

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