Telling the Palestinian story: An uphill battle against Western media bias
This article is part of The New Arab's States of Journalism series, a sustained exploration of freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and global media landscapes. Read more of the series' articles here.
The basic principles of Western journalism are to perform the function of a watchdog, holding people in power to account and providing professional, accurate news coverage and insightful commentary to the public.
But Western media seem to have failed in honouring both principles when reporting on Palestine.
Palestinians have been in the news for decades, yet it seems that only occasionally do journalists and news organisations get their story right.
Professional coverage of the Palestinian question would improve the quality of news available on the marginalised, if not outright distorted, Palestinian narrative.
"Even using the word 'Palestine' is still prohibited by editorial policies in some international newsrooms"
Globally recognised journalistic values of accuracy, fairness, and balance, if applied to the Palestinian context, would guarantee a more truthful representation of both the Palestinians and Israel.
Increasingly though, the media is being held accountable by activists who want to see more professional reporting on the Palestinians.
For example, media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine showed how differently military occupation is treated when the occupier is Russia and not Israel. Such differences include editorial policies, framing, the selection of facts, and language choices.
Changing the narrative
In December 2021, the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) published a document on best practices to report on Palestine.
Some basic recommendations were to include Palestinian voices and use the framing of Israel’s decades-long military occupation to report on news events, which are common sense approaches.
The fact that they even needed to be presented as guidelines reflects how the report’s authors believed they were not being adhered to in most coverage.
In June 2021, 500 American journalists called on their fellow journalists and editors to change their coverage of Palestine.
They started their letter with this statement: “For decades, our news industry has abandoned those values [professional journalism] in coverage of Israel and Palestine. We have failed our audiences with a narrative that obscures the most fundamental aspects of the story: Israel’s military occupation and its system of apartheid.”
Similarly, in May 2021, 2,000 Canadians - including media professionals, lawyers, and academics - signed an open letter decrying the lack of nuanced coverage of violence against Palestinians during the Gaza war.
The letter pointed out that even using the word “Palestine” is still prohibited by editorial policies in several newsrooms across Canada.
Amid a growing chorus of journalists in North America frustrated over the lack of accuracy in covering Palestine and Israel, the pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA sent an open letter to the Los Angeles Times.
In it, the group expressed “grave concern” over the fact that nine of the newspaper’s journalists signed the above-mentioned “anti-Israel” letter in June and attempted to undermine the ethical motivations of the journalists while professionally delegitimising them.
"Newsrooms in the West have repeatedly been accused of prioritising Israeli sources, adopting pro-Israel terminology, and refraining from exposing Israel's actions through the systemic use of the passive voice"
For years, pro-Israel lobbies and organisations including media watchdogs – such as MEMRI, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Media Reporting in America (CAMERA), and Honest Reporting – have publicly and privately employed pressure on the Western media to secure more favourable coverage of Israel while shielding its policies from criticism.
This has often included labelling critical news coverage as anti-Semitic. One of the goals is to dominate the narrative by delegitimising and discrediting journalists and news organisations who challenge the official Israeli discourse.
By doing so, other journalists may be dissuaded from providing fair, contextual, accurate, and inclusive reporting on Palestine.
Recently, however, a more diverse set of voices have held newsrooms accountable when it comes to the quality of their reporting on Palestine and Israel. They include news organisations, journalists, NGOs, celebrities, and social media users worldwide.
Editorial and newsroom biases
Researchers, analysts, and commentators warn that editorial choices often whitewash Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, obscure the great power asymmetry between the parties, and exempt Israel from any responsibility for its actions.
In turn, Palestinians are dehumanised and their suffering obscured.
For instance, terms like ‘clashes’, ‘violent escalation’, and ‘tensions’ are examples of tropes that are frequently used by mainstream Western media agencies, including Reuters, The Associated Press (AP), The New York Times (NYT), The Guardian, and others, when Israel uses violence against Palestinians.
Newsrooms in the West have repeatedly been accused of prioritising Israeli sources, adopting pro-Israel terminology, and editorially refraining from exposing Israel’s actions through the systemic use of the passive voice, which conceals the identity of the perpetrator.
When on the rare occasion that news coverage on Palestine is fair, and the pro-Israel narrative ceases to dominate, pressure starts to mount on editors and journalists who may well bend in the face of accusations from lobby groups and media watchdogs.
For example, American broadcaster NBC removed their correspondent in Gaza, Ayman Mohyeldin, after he reported on an Israeli attack which killed four Palestinian children playing on a beach in 2014.
The unexplained removal was revoked and the journalist was reinstated in Gaza as a result of the public backlash on social networks.
In a more literal attack on the international media, on 15 May 2021, Israel bombed and destroyed a tower block in Gaza which housed the offices of both the AP and Al-Jazeera after alleging that Hamas military intelligence was operating in the building.
These claims were then amplified by pro-Israel media and supporters, who in effect blamed AP for the destruction of their own office and put pressure on AP’s perceived objectivity.
Shortly after, Emily Wilder, a news associate at the Associated Press, was fired in late May 2021 after right-wing media criticised her and AP over the journalist’s college pro-Palestinian activism.
"When a pro-Israel narrative ceases to dominate, pressure starts to mount on editors and journalists who may well bend in the face of accusations from lobby groups and media watchdogs"
Some suspect her firing was collateral linked to the mounting pressure from right-wing groups on AP’s reputation following the accusation about their Gaza office, for which Israel has not provided any evidence.
Wilder said she was assured by an AP editor that she would not face any consequences for her activism, before being called again to say she was being fired immediately.
Similarly, several Arab employees of the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Arabic service were fired in early 2022 after allegations that they had expressed anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views in social media posts and articles.
This led to an internal probe into the organisation and its global partners which resulted in a report which cleared the broadcaster of charges of “structural anti-Semitism”. The journalists who were fired were not given a chance to defend themselves against the report’s findings before it went public. DW was criticised for using its reporters as a “scapegoat”.
Journalists whose contracts are terminated on these grounds often face organisational and professional isolation. When claims of anti-Semitism are made it has a chilling effect on journalists, editors, and news organisations, as in the case of both AP and DW.
Furthermore, conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism further undermines reporting on Palestine, hindering the platforming of Palestinian voices or reporting accurately on Israel’s policies against Palestinians.
In the end, the strategy of targeting or intimidating journalists and editors over their coverage of Palestine and Israel arguably leads to self-censorship, as it raises the professional stakes of ethical reporting on Palestine, in turn silencing critics and mobilising sympathisers of Israel.
Critical news coverage is vital in ensuring news organisations are accountable to the public for their reporting.
For the public, the basic skills of news literacy are also essential to navigate the abundance of news sources, differentiate between narratives, and critically engage with news content.
It is also critical in terms of news consumption for an individual to be able to make their own decisions about what news sources they follow and what to share or criticise, in turn gaining an understanding of how their own biases could impact their assessment of the news.
Literate news users are certainly capable of noting the absence of the Palestinian narrative from international coverage of Palestine, and the prominence of Israeli sources over Palestinian ones.
They should continue then to question the language, image, and framing choices of news organisations and journalists, in the hope that the Palestinian story will finally be told in an accurate and humanising way.
Dr Abeer Al-Najjar is a Palestinian academic specialising in media criticism, accountability, and critical literacies. She served as the Dean of Jordan Media Institute from 2011-2012 in Amman and is on the editorial board of Journalism Studies and The International Journal of Communication.
Follow her on Twitter: @abeernaji