An MIT study analysed 33,000 New York Times’ articles during the First and Second Intifadas to show how Orientalist bias against Palestinians manifests in US news coverage.
A cursory glance at various Western media outlets this month on the latest round of Israeli aggression against Palestinians has, more often than not, revealed ongoing bias or false equivalencies in the framing of their coverage.
Headlines have frequently reduced Israeli efforts to seize the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to “evictions”, the Israeli raid on Al Aqsa Mosque and its aftermath as “clashes”, and Israeli bombardment of Gaza with euphemisms like “conflict” and “flare-up”.
This attempt to ‘both sides’ the coverage by using neutral and passive language ultimately ends up working to obscure the power differences between one of the most heavily militarised states in the world and a population who are victims of a 54-year-long occupation.
Editorial standards have been passed by outlets like Deutsche Welle that censor journalists from using terms like “colonialism” or “apartheid” when reporting on the Israeli government’s crimes.
There have also been reports of journalists pulled from covering Gaza because they called for newsrooms to “include historical and social context, reporters with knowledge of the region, and, crucially, Palestinians voices.”
For Nadim Nashif, executive director of 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights non-profit, western coverage has remained overtly biased towards Israel.
“The political alliance and support coming from the US administration and other government bodies in the west, including the mainstream media establishment, are still covering Israel in a very sympathetic light and not objectively looking at the facts on the ground,” Nashif told TRT World.
“There is no equal coverage and a blatant dismissal of the pain, damages, oppression and in many ways dehumanisation that Palestinians are experiencing on top of the inequalities of daily life here,” he said.
Parsing anti-Palestine bias in the New York Times
Long the newspaper of record in the US, the New York Times has had a chequered history of anti-Palestinian coverage.
During the 2014 war between the Israeli military and Palestinians in Gaza, the Times published an article headlined “Israel Says That Hamas Uses Civilian Shields, Reviving Debate”, which apparently was a reference to the hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli attacks, without any question as to who was responsible for killing them.
Another headline that also ran in 2014 after an Israeli airstrike killed several Palestinian football fans read “Missile at Beachside Gaza Café Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup,” only to be amended later after massive blowback on social media.
There is evidence to suggest that news headlines have a measurable impact when it comes to influencing the general public, and in the case of Israel-Palestine, misleading headlines during the 2014 war in Gaza were rampant across the US media landscape.
Fast forward to 2021, and a similar conclusion is reached by a new case study published last week titled ‘The New York Times Distorts The Palestinian Struggle’ by Holly M Jackson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Tracking changes in news coverage bias, Jackson shows how anti-Palestinian bias has persisted in the Times’ coverage by analysing its articles during the First and Second Palestinian Intifadas, both periods in which Israeli violence far exceeded that committed by Palestinians.
Deploying machine learning methods to analyse over 33,000 articles, Jackson focused on bias in the language of the Times’ reporting through two linguistic features. First was to identify whether actions by Israeli and Palestinian groups were being described in the active and passive voice. Second was to classify the objectivity and tone of language used.
The content analysis conducted across 16,000 articles during the First Intifada (Dec 1987 – Sep 1993) threw up some revealing results.
Around 40 percent referenced Palestinian groups or individuals, while nearly 93 percent referenced Israelis. About 12 percent of all references to Palestinians used violent language, as opposed to 5.9 percent for Israelis.
Meanwhile, Palestinians were referred to in the passive voice 15.7 percent of the time, while the passive voice was used only 6.4 percent of the time to describe Israelis.
“The use of passive voice de-emphasizes or hides those perpetrating such negative action on Palestinians; this has the rhetorical effect of minimizing the responsibility of Israeli aggressors in causing Palestinian suffering,” Jackson wrote.
She highlighted during this period that the Times’ stable of reporters were filled with those with known prejudices like Thomas L Friedman and Joel Brinkley, who framed their articles by elevating Israeli perspectives alongside blatant anti-Palestinian sentiment.
Headlines surveyed for bias dredged up editorials like “Israel and Arab Neighbors Must Bend a Little; No More Palestine” and “Israel Has Controlled Little of Palestine”.
Additionally, there was a systematic attempt to highlight petty disputes between Palestinian groups or contradictions in their leaders’ strategy to frame Palestinians as irrational and disorganised.
From over 17,000 articles during the more deadly Second Intifada (Sep 2000 – Feb 2005), Jackson found that nearly 50 percent referenced Palestinians, while around 93 percent did the Israelis.
Almost 16 percent of all references to Palestinians employed violent language, while 11.7 percent did the same for Israelis.
As with the First Intifada, Palestinians were still referred to using the passive voice twice as often as Israelis, 12.6 percent compared to 6.3 percent respectively, and passive references to Israelis had a more positive tone and were identified to be more objective.
While there was a holdover from the Times’ roster of writers who covered the First Intifada, new voices emerged like pro-Israel Opinion columnist David Brooks, but also a slight tilt towards balance with Palestinian journalist Marwan Bishara enlisted as a regular guest writer.
Examples of biased headlines included Brooks’ 2005 op-ed “What Palestinians?” which amounted to nothing more than a racist rant; and Steven Erlanger’s impassioned article titled “Teenage Suicide Bomber Kills 3 in a Market in Tel Aviv” that appeared in the international news page as an ostensibly objective report.
Overall, Jackson’s results reveal what she says is a “disproportionate anti-Palestinian sentiment” in addition to “many Orientalist techniques – such as decontextualization and selective reporting – that even state-of-the-art content analysis methods cannot yet identify.”
The implication of this inherent bias is significant considering the US’s vital role in sponsoring Israel through financial and military aid, and the chain of influence between news coverage, public opinion and foreign policy.
Jackson’s case study finds renewed relevance considering the violence that has occurred this month, arguing that recent New York Times’ headlines on the raids and airstrikes conducted by Israel “is marked by ambiguity and bias”.
An example is Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner’s “More Than 30 Dead in Gaza and Israel as Fighting Quickly Escalates,” on May 11, which failed to clarify that 28 of those killed were Palestinians. Other misrepresentations include “Israel-Hamas Fight”, “Gaza Conflict” or “Israeli-Palestinian Strife”. Deaths of Palestinian children have found no mention in their headlines; instead, one reads: “Gaza Rocket Finds a Rare Gap in Israeli Armor, and a Boy Is Killed”.
“In 2021, the New York Times continues its legacy of Palestinian erasure,” Jackson concludes.
Ad in today’s NYT, purchased by “The World Values Network” ... pic.twitter.com/0zlzt2MOVn— Alexandra Mondalek (@amondalek) May 22, 2021
This pattern of bias and distortion of the Palestinian struggle of course goes beyond just the New York Times, as a 2018 study '50 Years of Occupation' by Canadian data analytics firm 416Labs illustrated.
The study analysed nearly 100,000 news headlines about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the US press over the last five decades from five major publications – the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune – employing Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques to identify frequently recurring terms and word sequences in their coverage.
Overall, 416Labs analysis concluded there was a clear slant toward the Israeli point of view at the expense of Palestinians.
Can social media turn the tide?
Despite this history, there have been meaningful changes in US media coverage in recent years, driven primarily by social media. There is also increasing evidence for Israel becoming a divisive issue within US politics, with several progressive politicians applying pressure against Israeli policies from within the Democratic Party.
But as we have seen during the latest round of attacks, what is otherwise a crucial lifeline for Palestinians to amplify their stories to the world, social media platforms have continued to favour the Israeli narrative thanks to technological and political connections at the highest level, Nashif points out.
“There is cooperation between Israeli politicians and social media companies, especially with the Israeli cyber unit,” he said, adding that the cyber unit puts in thousands of takedown requests of predominately Palestinian and pro-Palestinian content, even though there is no legal due process to support it.
In the past two weeks alone, 7amleh documented the deletion of nearly 500 Facebook and Instagram posts that condemned the recent expulsion of Palestinians.
“This has accumulated to a pronounced bias against Palestinian content which in turn suppresses the Palestinian narrative on social media, limiting freedom of speech and freedom of expression for Palestinian voices.”