In the latest shot across the BBC's bows, the corporation has been accused of bias - in favor of Israel. And it's not just the BBC. Al-Jazeera is also pro-Israel! Yes, you read that correctly. Arab Media Watch's Sharif Nashashibi conducted a study of the BBC and Al-Jazeera Web sites over a four-month period (February-May 2009). It concluded, among other things, that while every BBC article included Israeli sources, 35 percent had no Palestinian sources, and of the remaining 65% that did, 82% devoted more words to Israeli sources.
So, have Jeremy Bowen et al. become paid up members of the Zionist Organization of America? Not quite. HonestReporting has published a number of studies on the BBC over a longer period of time and concluded the exact opposite of AMW.
While such studies cannot claim to be wholly scientific, AMW's method of counting the number of words in an article attributed to either side is anything but.
In an age of sound bites, do word counts mean anything? It's very rare that an Israeli spokesperson is afforded the luxury of explaining the origins of the conflict as far back as 1948, let alone 3,500 years of Jewish history in the region. How many times has a Palestinian representative fired back with the oft-heard "occupation, occupation, occupation?" Palestinian interviewees stay remarkably "on message" when confronted by the international media. How many Palestinians in Gaza are brave enough to admit on the record, in the presence of a journalist's Hamas "minder," that terrorists were firing from their homes?
An Israeli source, on the other hand, could mean anyone from the settler movement to the B'Tselem human rights organization and six million Jewish wannabe prime ministers somewhere in between. It could even include Israeli anti-Zionists who are sometimes more extreme than the Palestinians. What then is AMW's definition of an "Israeli source?"
AMW fails to adequately examine the prominence of images in accompanying stories. After all, a photo of a Palestinian child covered in blood will likely trump anything an Israeli official can say in defense of an IDF operation. While HonestReporting has also previously studied the BBC's use of images and found it to be biased against Israel, Al-Jazeera is the master of this technique. Interviews with Israelis are broadcast on a split screen accompanied by gory footage of wounded or dead Palestinians, distracting the viewer from the Israeli message.
It was Al-Jazeera's carefully controlled and crafted footage from Gaza's Shifa Hospital during Operation Cast Lead that, perhaps more than anything else, caused such considerable damage to Israel's image during the conflict.
BUT PERHAPS the clincher is AMW's claim that both the BBC and Al-Jazeera overwhelmingly portrayed Israeli violence as a response to Palestinian violence, directly and indirectly. The effect of this is to legitimize and justify Israeli violence, while portraying Palestinians as the instigators of violence that has no explanation or cause.
If only this were the case. HonestReporting's own studies of the BBC concluded the diametric opposite - that Israel is almost always portrayed as the aggressor, while Palestinians are absolved of responsibility for violent actions and terrorism.
For example, we found that stories about Palestinian attacks never directly named the aggressors. Instead, headlines such as "Rocket injures dozens in Israel" were used. On the other hand, in 63% of articles addressing Israeli military operations, the headline was much more clear and direct, regardless of whether the action was a responsive or defensive measure (e.g.: "Israel strikes kill six in Gaza").
If AMW's findings are accurate, then that can only be a welcome development. More likely, however, is a statistical blip that only serves to expose AMW's (and much of the media's) willful blindness to the concept that Israeli military operations might actually have some reasonable justification.
While HonestReporting has examined BBC coverage over periods of time that have included events such as Operation Cast Lead, AMW has chosen the past few months, a relatively "quiet" time when, according to AMW, only 26 relevant articles have appeared on BBC Online.
In addition, by concentrating solely on articles covering acts of violence, AMW has ignored a significant amount of anti-Israel coverage. In the aftermath of Cast Lead, the BBC has gleefully pounced upon accusations of "war crimes," aided and abetted by interviews with Palestinian "eyewitnesses." These deficiencies are more than enough to render the AMW study inconclusive and unreliable.
What about those stories that the BBC omitted in the first place, such as several years' worth of Kassam rocket attacks against the South? In 2007, there were almost 1,500 rocket and mortar attacks targeting civilian populations, resulting in, on average, one strike every 10 hours. The BBC chose to publish only six articles focused on the attacks during the entire year.
Sorry AMW, but your snapshot study just won't cut it. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, then it must be a duck. Most of us don't need stats to recognize anti-Israel BBC bias (or Al-Jazeera's) when we see it, but AMW's distorted statistics are simply disingenuous.
The writer is managing editor of HonestReporting. www.honestreporting.com
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