Reversing Reality: Newspaper Coverage of Israel and Palestine
By Sarah Weir
Recently, the Bay Area-based organization, If Americans Knew, conducted statistical studies of two local newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. The results showed a consistently inaccurate and highly distorted picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the news coverage of both papers. In every category examined, Israeli deaths were covered at far higher rates2 to 25 times greaterthan Palestinian ones.
The San Francisco Chronicle gave readers a false sense of parity between Israelis and Palestinians by reporting nearly equal numbers of deaths on both sides despite the fact that Palestinians are being killed at a rate three to four times greater than Israelis.
The San Jose Mercury News, analysis revealed, actually inverted the death rates in its front-page headlines.
The fact that the media has been criticized by partisans on both sides of the issue has made it difficult for the largely non-aligned American public to evaluate the quality of the reporting they receive on this issue. For this reason, If Americans Knew has begun issuing report cards on media coverage of this critically important conflict. The studies, which examine six-month time periods, are based on quantitative criteria, in order to refute any charges of subjective interpretation.
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was inaccurate at every level examined in our study of its reporting during the first six months of the current uprising (Sept. 29, 2000 through March 31, 2001).
The death of an Israeli was nearly three times more likely to receive prominent coverage than was a Palestinian death. Of 251 articles, only 12 provided readers with cumulative death totals, and none gave cumulative injury totals. Only three articles (or 1.2 percent) mentioned U.S. aid, and none provided full, accurate information on this American connection to the conflict.
Perhaps our most disturbing finding, however, was the Chronicles coverage of what may be the most tragic category we studied, childrens deaths. The Chronicle reported 150 percent of Israeli childrens deaths in headlines and/or lead paragraphs (one teens death made it into three headlines). Only 6 percent of Palestinian childrens deaths received such prominence in the Chronicle.
During the period studied, 93 Palestinian children were killed (thus constituting 27 percent of all Palestinian deaths). The largest single cause of death was gunfire to the head. (Detailed information can be found at www.rememberthesechildren.org.) These 93 deaths generated only six headlines.
During the same time period, four Israeli minors had been killed. They also generated six headlines.
In other words, Israeli childrens deaths were covered at a rate 25 times greater than Palestinian childrens deaths. Thus, while the killing of an Israeli child was prioritized above the killing of an Israeli adult, the killing of a Palestinian child was de-prioritized. The Chronicles coverage of Palestinian childrens deaths was only one-sixth that of its coverage of all deaths.
Readers of the San Francisco Chronicle, therefore, had no way of knowing that Palestinian children were being killed week after week after week, month after month, at a disturbingly high rate84 childrenbefore a single Israeli childs life was lost, before a single suicide bombing targeted civilians.
San Jose Mercury News
Our two studies of the San Jose Mercury News (which examined coverage during April 2002 through March 2003) found a similarly consistent pattern of distortion at every level examined.
I expected to find some bias, said Karen Maleski, analyst of the San Jose Mercury News and a longtime reader of the newspaper, but I was blown away at what I discovered. I had no idea it was this blatant.
During the twelve month period studied, San Jose Mercury News front page headlines not only inverted the reality of which group was dying in greater numbers, it then doubled this inversion.
Although Palestinians were being killed at a rate averaging three times greater than Israelis, the Mercury News front page featured Israeli deaths at a rate six times greater than Palestinian ones.
On average, the San Jose Mercury News gave prominent front-page coverage to 71.5 percent of Israeli deaths, and to only 4.3 percent of Palestinian deaths.
The American Connection
As did our study of the San Francisco Chronicle, our most recent six-month study of the San Jose Mercury News examined how often the American connection to this conflictU.S. taxpayer dollarswas reported.
American taxpayers give Israel over $10 million per day (thorough and detailed analyses place this number at $15 million per day). This is far more tax money than is given to any other nation on earth. The gargantuan amount of U.S. tax dollars sent to Israel is a profoundly integral factor in this conflictknown to Israelis and Palestinians alikeand gives Americans an intimate connection to this region. Yet, very few Americans are aware of this fact.
Our studies indicate why Americans are so poorly informed about this use of their tax money. As mentioned above, only 1.2 percent of San Francisco Chronicle articles mentioned U.S. aid. Similarly, the San Jose Mercury News mentioned such aid only twice (of 175 articles), or in 1.1 percent of relevant articles.
Neither newspaper informed its readers fully and accurately about the total amount of their tax money that goes to the region.
If Americans Knew is undertaking these media studies both to help readers evaluate the reliability of their news sources on this critical issue, and to help news media improve the accuracy of their coverage. Accordingly, we have attempted to meet with the staffs of both papers to present our findings, answer questions directly, and describe additional worrisome patterns.
To date, San Francisco Chronicle editor Philip Bronstein has not returned our calls. The newspapers readers representative, Dick Rogers, wrote in an e-mail that his job was not to defend the newspaper, and he has refused to set up a meeting with Chronicle editors. Rogers termed the report incendiary.
Earlier, a pro-Israel group contending that Chronicle coverage was pro-Palestinian had been granted a long meeting with eight top Chronicle editors. Their complaints received news coverage and an apology.
Several San Jose Mercury News editors and staff members did meet with us following our first report. Upon hearing our findings, executive editor David Yarnold suggested that the time period was somehow responsible for the distortion. We pointed out that the report covered the second and third quarters of 2002i.e., half a year.
Next, he suggested that our data were wrong. We gave him our tally sheet and requested that he inform us of any mistakes so we could correct the report. He has yet to get back to us. A Stanford journalism professor, however, has independently confirmed our findings.
When we requested a meeting to present our second report, an assistant at the Mercury News phoned to tell us the editors did not feel it was needed.
We are deeply disturbed by our findings. We believe that Americans, citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, need full and accurate coverage of all issues, particularly one as critical as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Distorted reporting can be expected to result in distorted decisions. Only when Americans are accurately informed will they be able to wield their extraordinary power with the wisdom that a safe world and the future require.
The reports can be viewed in full at www.ifamericansknew.org. Groups in Connecticut and Utah are currently undertaking similar studies of their local newspapers. We urge anyone interested in performing such media analyses to contact us, so that the data can be correlated and gathered into a nationwide report.
Sarah Weir is projects director of If Americans Knew,