Pressure Groups and Censorship
Bad News from Israel
‘This superb study is extensive in scope and scrupulously fair.
‘It will be a landmark’
— Edward Herman
This is a study of TV new coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of how this coverage relates to the understanding, beliefs and attitudes of the television audience. The work was undertaken with support from the Economic and Social Research Council whose help we would like to acknowledge. In producing this study out intention was not to ‘monitor’ the media or to criticize individual journalists. Our intention was to discuss the pressures and structures within which they work to show the effects of those on new content and to examine the role of the media in the construction of public knowledge. It is a very extensive study with an audience sample of over 800 people and a detailed analysis of TV news over a two-year period. This work also raises a series of important theoretical issues in mass communications. The main focus of the book is on giving a clear exposition of our methods and results, but the theoretical concerns are latent and there is a more detailed discussion of them in other work by the Media Group. (For a discussion of issues in popular culture and audience response, including the active audience, resistance and post-modern accounts see Philo, G. and Miller, D. Market Killing Pearson / Longman. 2001).
The study suggests that television news on the Israel/Palestinian conflict confuses viewers and substantially features Israeli government views. Israelis are quoted and speak in interviews over twice as much as Palestinians and there are major differences in the language used to describe the two sides. This operates in favour of the Israelis and influences how viewers understand the conflict. The study focused on BBC One and ITV News from the start of the current Palestinian intifada, the Glasgow researchers examined around 200 news programmes and interviewed and questioned over 800 people. The study is unique in that for the first time it brought senior broadcasters together with ordinary viewers to work in research groups, analyzing how the news informs people and how it could be improved. Those taking part included George Alagiah and Brian Hanrahan from the BBC, Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 news, the film-maker Ken Loach and a large number of other broadcasting professionals and programme makers. (The study was part of a large research programme analyzing views and audience understanding across a range of subject areas. Those helping and taking part also included: John Humphrys, Sue Inglish, Paul Adams, Nik Gowing, Sian Kevill, Alan Hayling, Evan Davis and Fran Unsworth from the BBC, Gary Rogers, Adrian Monck and Gaye Flashman from Channel Five News, Alex Graham from Wall to Wall Television, John Underwood from Clear Communications, Sandy Ross and Paul McKinney from Scottish Television.)
Some Major Findings:
“The impression I got (from news) was that the Palestinians had lived around about that area and now they were trying to come back and get some more some more land for themselves – I didn’t realize they had been driven out of places in wars previously.”
“In depth it takes a long time, but we’re constantly being told that the attention span of our average viewer is about twenty seconds and if we don’t grab people – and we’ve looked at the figures – the number of people who shift channels around in my programme now six o’clock, there’s a movement of about three million people in that first minute, coming in and out.”
Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 News also commented on how difficult it was to report in a controversial area:
“With a conflict like this, nearly every single fact is disputed, I think ‘Oh God, the Palestinians say this and the Israelis say that...’ I know it’s a question of interpretation so I have to say what both sides think and I think sometimes that stops us from giving the background we should be giving.”
The book also examines other factors in production such as lobbying and public relations by both sides.
“You always think of the Palestinians as being really aggressive because of the stories you hear on the news...I always think the Israelis are fighting back against the bombings that have been done to them.”
“I wasn’t under the impression that Israeli borders had changed or that they had taken land from other people – I thought it was more a Palestinian aggression than it was Israeli aggression.”
Some people disputed such views but they tended to cite alternative sources of information other than the television news.
“I had absolutely no idea it was that percentage...I saw them as small embattled and surrounded by hostile Palestinians – that’s entirely thanks to watching the television news.”
“I remembered it was the suicide bombers – they are the one who go in and take maybe a whole busload and I thought it would be more Israelis.”
And this is from a viewer who believed the Israelis had five times as many casualties as Palestinians:
“I would imagine it’s going to be more casualties on the Israeli side, but it’s purely from television – that’s where I get my info from.”
The book shows the crucial importance of TV news in informing public opinion and the powerful influence it can have on how we see and understand our world. It also shows how news can confuse and the book is a real attempt to reach for different and innovative approaches to improve the quality of news and deal with some of the most difficult issues that journalists have to face. The study also raises serious questions for broadcasters since they have a duty to properly inform the public in these and to maintain due impartiality in reporting all sides of the conflict. The absence of any proper historical context or explanation for the reasons underlying the conflict make it difficult for viewers to understand why it is so intractable and hinders the development of an informed public discussion on how it might be resolved.
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