In the Crossfire of the Media Wars: Bias, Propaganda, and the Role of the Journalist

By Alison Sargent

When Sreenivasan Jain of the New Delhi-based network NDTV and his crew filmed a rocket being assembled and fired outside their Gaza hotel room during the renewed conflict between Israel and the Palestinian armed resistance group Hamas in the summer of 2014, they knew they had an exclusive video. They also knew that making it public would come with serious risks.

Credit: CC flickr user woodleywonderworks

Credit: CC flickr user woodleywonderworks

The conflict had escalated in early July when the Israeli military began airstrikes on Gaza in response to Hamas’s launching of dozens of long-range rockets, like the one Jain had just filmed. The first temporary ceasefire went into effect at 8a.m. on the morning of August 5, just minutes after Jain filmed the rocket launch. By that time the conflict had already killed over 1000 Palestinians and over 60 Israelis. The unbalanced casualty toll had elicited serious international criticism of Israel, while Israel maintained that its actions were justified by the security threat posed by Hamas.

Airing the footage, Jain knew, could provoke Israel and eventually help them target a retaliation attack. It could also incite Hamas to seek reprisals against Jain’s crew and other journalists in the area. There was also a chance he could be misattributing the rocket to Hamas, whose members rarely display any kind of identifying markers.

After careful consideration and a five-hour precautionary wait, NDTV aired the footage. Soon thereafter the Israeli Defense Forces shared the video on its social networks, and Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu showed it at a press conference. As Jain had feared, their exclusive video was being used by the Israeli government for political purposes.

Lauded by some as truth-telling heroes and denounced by others as lying traitors, Jain and his colleagues are among many who found themselves caught in propaganda’s crossfire last summer as the Gaza media war raged. While media bias itself can indeed be an issue in the coverage of contentious topics like the Israeli-Hamas conflict, accusations of media bias seem to have become one of the propagandist’s greatest tools.

At the time Jain’s rocket launch video aired, a common narrative circulating through Israeli and pro-Israel media was that neutral international sources were delivering outrageously biased coverage of the conflict. These claims were based largely on a lack of images of Hamas fighters in general and of the rocket launches in particular. Intimidated by Hamas, the theory went, mainstream media outlets were self-censoring themselves, fulfilling Hamas’s desire not to be portrayed committing acts of war.

But then the Israeli government, rather than seeing Jain’s video as proof that many international media outlets were doing everything they could to cover all sides in a messy conflict, used the video in an “I-told-you-so” moment to discredit mainstream media from the Guardian to the New York Times.

Forced to enact damage-control, Jain sent out a tweet defending his neutrality as a professional and published an essay on NDTV’s website describing in detail the decision-making process behind the choice to air the video. He now concludes that he and his team had fallen victim to the “final risk associated with stories like this—one that often keeps journalists awake at night…that our report could end up serving the goals of propagandists.”

This is no longer just a risk, it’s a regularly proven reality. As soon as new information or a piece of reporting hits the Web it gets re-contextualized by social media circles and the cheers and the bias accusations begin.

Yet whether it’s relevant or even helpful to assess media bias during conflict remains an open question. Accusations of bias often come from watchdog groups that claim to keep the media in check and push an agenda by capitalizing on and fueling distrust of mainstream mass media. Media bias accusations often come in the form of signaling factual errors, which makes them closely linked with fact-checking enterprises, since both pledge allegiance to The Truth.

Lucas Graves, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, identifies two main critical perspectives on fact-checking: People either find it to be overly literal—finding fault in semantics while ignoring big-picture truths—or overly contextualizing, putting a spin on debates that should be black and white. “It’s remarkable, and revealing, how easily we glide from one camp to the other,” he writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “demanding context and nuance one day and slavish literalism the next.”

In other words, fact-checkers are ultimately in the same bind as the journalists and politicians they seek to referee, a realization that has helped fuel a bit of a backlash to what the American Journalism Review named “the fact-checking explosion” of the early 2000s. In a 2010 editorial, The Wall Street Journal criticized the Pulitzer prize-winning PolitiFact as being “part of a larger journalistic trend that seeks to recast all political debates as matters of lies, misinformation and ‘facts,’ rather than differences of world view or principles.”

This is exactly what makes bias accusations so sticky for journalists—when dealing with irreconcilable world views there is no such thing as an unbiased fact. In this context, bias accusations call into question the intentions of the journalist reporting the fact. This makes those accusations difficult to deny because how can journalists—indeed, how can anyone—prove that they are acting in good faith? Calling into question journalists’ motives further erodes their legitimacy in an environment where they’re already struggling to maintain it.

“Obviously if you make a mistake you correct it,” New York Times London bureau chief Steven Erlanger said in a telephone interview in August. “But what [these groups] are really after is to intimidate the press into their narrative. They use fact-checking to create an atmosphere of intimidation.” Erlanger said he used to engage with media watchdog groups like the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), which aims to root out what it sees as anti-Israel bias. But in his four years as the Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Erlanger grew weary of “ideological critiques” and started filtering those emails straight into the trash.

Journalists themselves seem divided over how much attention and energy they should give to others’ critiques of their journalistic integrity. Take this summer’s controversy surrounding statements made by the Foreign Press Association, a nonprofit that represents over 400 international journalists covering the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In early August the FPA issued a statement condemning Hamas for intimidating foreign reporters. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that many correspondents—perhaps even a majority—disagreed with the statement, including the current New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, who called it “dangerous” and engaged the FPA in a heated email exchange.

Rudoren told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “I am confident the FPA based its statement on detailed reports from members regarding their experiences on the ground, and only had the best intention of protecting journalists and journalism, as it always does. But I found the wording of the statement overly broad, and, especially given the narrative playing out in some social media circles regarding foreign correspondents being taken in by the Hamas narrative and not reporting on the war fully or fairly, I was concerned that it undermined what I consider to have been brave and excellent work by very talented people.”

Perhaps what we should really be concerned about is that journalists are being intimidated not by Hamas or by the IDF but by their own audience. Constant scrutiny sidelines journalists into fighting their own war for legitimacy, rather than covering the war on the ground. As important as public opinion is, suggesting that a war being waged on social media could become more important than the physical one seems not only ridiculous but offensive. Bombs launched in the war on public opinion may explode in a global echo chamber, but their damage is less immediate and tangible than the ones rattling Israeli ears or killing families in Gaza.

Erlanger said that his criticism largely comes on one side from Americans concerned about the fate of Israel and on the other side from the younger European left. “Israelis are calm because their debate is pretty vivid. And Palestinians are calm because they know themselves better,” he said.

Erlanger’s observation demonstrates that the propaganda war seeks to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a proxy war fought in the name of conflicting ideologies. To indulge in it on both sides only increases polarization. As the journalist and political columnist Walter Lippmann noted in 1967, coming to the defense of the New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury after he was accused of spreading North Vietnamese propaganda, “We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace.” Our ability to judge media bias in war time, or when it comes to any issue close to our hearts, says as much about us as it does about the media in question.

“We used to be able to hold media accountable for misinforming the public. Now we only have ourselves to blame,” writes Gilad Lotan, an Israeli data scientist based in New York. Lotan analyzed the spread of information on Twitter following various events in Gaza. He created a series of “network graphs” that map media outlets and people based on their online interaction and the material they share. Lotan describes how one cloud circulates photos of Gaza’s destruction, reports of entire families being killed and a tweet from an IDF soldier admitting to murdering Gazan children; the other spreads videos of protesters shouting “Death to Jews,” Jain’s video of the rocket launch, and articles claiming that mainstream media coverage of Gaza is biased.

One of Lotan’s graphs maps reactions to the late-July bombing of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school. It is nearly completely bi-polar: On the right, clusters of green dots representing a pro-Palestinian narrative circulate articles about children killed in their sleep and photos of shrapnel, on the left, the blue dots representing the pro-Israel narrative circulate articles emphasizing that it was the third time that rockets had been found in the school.

These graphs remind us that facts alone are evidence—and too few people are considering all of them. According to Lotan, many posts circulating on one side will never reach the other. It’s a visualization of what Upworthy founder Eli Pariser named the Filter Bubble—that people unwittingly construct homogeneous online networks for themselves by connecting with and seeking out information from sources and individuals who share their beliefs and reaffirm their reality.

“We knew people are biased,” Lotan said via Skype from Israel. “The graph calls out things we know already exist, we’d just never been able to actually see it. This is the first time we can visualize this as the events are happening—that’s the fascinating bit.”

If a particular story falls into a pole on the graph that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is biased; it means that those are the social circles that embrace its contents. In other words, seeing where an article falls in the network web gives some indication of which narrative it’s fueling.

It’s also a pretty good indication of which social networks are rejecting it as being either biased or outright propaganda. On Lotan’s UNRWA school bombing graph, the grey dots representing large media outlets such as The New York Times and the BBC World Service are clustered on the right-hand pole, next to the network of dots representing pro-Palestinian activists.

These organizations aren’t inherently pro-Palestinian any more than Jain’s rocket fire video made him pro-Israeli. But the more focus gets placed on the power of the message the harder it becomes not to shoot the messenger. Handling facts means handling evidence. If Jain knew what evidence he was providing and still chose to provide it, does that make him guilty?

“In the case of these videos they effectively became weapons in the Israeli propaganda engine and it’s especially powerful when they come from media outlets,” said Lotan. “But I think that’s sort of the byproduct of being on social media—you lose control. Something you do or published may be taken out of context. That’s sort of the responsibility you take on anyway as a journalist. It’s always been going on it’s just that now we see that happen in front of our eyes and we see it much, much faster.”

Greater transparency has only revealed the rifts that already existed and made everyone more aware of our inability to fix them—both in our media and in ourselves. The way Erlanger sees it, journalists wind up taking flak for the lack of moral clarity surrounding public questions. “You get attacked for being part of the great Jewish conspiracy, you get attacked for being anti-Israel. Nobody’s innocent in all of this. This is people looking to blame someone for the fact that we have once again ended up in a stalemate.”

Erlanger gave Hamas rocket fire as an example. “It’s not even news. I wrote it this time and I wrote it last time so I don’t even understand the debate. If the press had written every day [about Hamas’s launching rockets from nearby hospitals] would it have made any damn difference?”

The American public’s opinion of the press—particularly in terms of morality—has been steadily in decline since 1985, when the Pew research center began conducting their Views of the News Media survey. In 2011, 42 percent of respondents judged news media as immoral—an all-time high. Able to see the impact of their work in real time, how can journalists come to terms with their own complicity—especially knowing that not only media watchdogs but much of their audience will be standing ready to blame them?

Many no longer can. “Covering wars for a polarized nation has destroyed the civic mission I once found in journalism,” writes former Middle East correspondent Tom A. Peter. “Why risk it all to get the facts for people who increasingly seem only to seek out the information they want and brand the stories and facts that don’t conform to their opinions as biased or inaccurate?”

In late August, following the murder of James Foley, Peter published an essay on the New Republic explaining why he decided to quit war reporting. “Even if you love the work, it’s hard not to get worn down by a job that sometimes requires you to risk life and limb for readers who wonder if maybe you suffer all the downsides and hazards just to support some hidden agenda.”

At the end of his essay about the backstory of airing the rocket video, Jain reached a more optimistic conclusion. “To let this fear cripple our work would amount to erasing the difference between journalism and propaganda. We chose to not let that happen. We did not turn our sight away from a rocket launch site, just as we did not flinch while filming the dead piled up in Rafah’s morgues.”

Jain did not flinch when bias accusations piled up in his inbox. But could we blame him if he allowed himself to turn away?

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