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July 30, 2009

Canadian newspaper coverage of Israel/Palestine

Karin Brothers

Karin BrothersAttempts to challenge the biased coverage of Canadian newspapers on the Israel/Palestine issue through the Ontario Press Council (OPC) have been disappointing.

Public understanding about the realities facing Palestinians is stymied by mainstream media coverage that ranges from biased, to deceptive, to outright fabrication. 

Academics such as Prof. Greg Philo of the University of Glasgow, co- author of  Bad News from Israel and Prof. Sut Jally, Prof. of Communications at the University of Massachusetts, have studied the strong connection between media coverage of the Israel/Palestine issue and misunderstanding of this issue among the public.

Philo, who studied BBC TV viewers, found that more people thought that Palestinians occupy Israel than the reverse; the more they watched TV, the more confused they tended to be. 

Jally noted in his film Peace Propaganda and the Promised Land that from 58 to 63% of his students typically thought that Palestinians occupy Israel; only 22% knew that it is Israel that occupies Palestinian territory!

Both professors noted the lack of context to news from Israel/Palestine as well as consistent bias against Palestinians.

The web site If Americans Knew documents this bias in their own study of The New York Times newsprint coverage, a methodology that the Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation (NECEF) duplicated in its own study of Canadian print media. 

The OPC is supposed to monitor the accuracy of its members' news coverage  if  readers file formal complaints against a given newspaper.

Canadian national newspapers, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star are OPC members; the National Post is not.

But official complaints presented to the OPC in 2006 and 2007 produced disappointing results.

Two complaints about a 2006 Globe and Mail editorial were taken up by the OPC.  Despite their conclusions that acknowledged the editorial's misrepresentation, the OPC "dismissed with reservations" the two complaints.

A complaint against The Toronto Star was presented in May, 2007 after The Star reported that Hamas, rather than Israel, had broken a ceasefire.

Excerpts of the official complaint to the OPC on May 1, 2007 follow:

" ... The breaking of the ceasefire: Despite the Israeli killing of over 150 Palestinians since the November 2006 ceasefire, it was still considered in effect on April 22nd, when the Israeli military killed nine Palestinians including two children.

“Israeli forces also wounded 18 civilians including two children, a journalist, four women and four international human rights activists. The Star ran no headlines about Israel's shocking breaches, which caused Hamas to declare that the ceasefire was off (and shoot off three of their crude, homemade rockets toward Israel; one of which ended up in the sea and two in empty fields). The Foreign Editor surmised that there may have been "no space" to cover this story.

“While the killing of nine Palestinians and the wounding of 18 didn't make The Star's headlines, the firing off of harmless Palestinian rockets did, with the April 27th headline "Israel losing patience after Palestinian militants fire rockets from Gaza".

“On Friday, April 27th, Israeli forces shot a number of peace activists at a nonviolent protest at the illegal Israeli wall at Bil'in, including the Irish Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maquire. This went unreported in The Star.

“While the shooting of the Irish Nobel Peace Laureate didn't make The Star's news, unverifiable advice to Hamas did on Monday, April 30th; The Star ran the headline about a web posting addressed to Hamas: "Israel: Al Qaeda urges Hamas to fight with "bombs and fire":" continuing: "An Al Qaeda recruiter called on the Islamist Hamas group to fight Israel .... days after militants launched rockets into southern Israel breaking a ceasefire... in a video posted on a web site used by militant groups.

“Reality checks:

1) The Star cannot verify that "Al Qaeda" posted this on a commonly-used web site: anyone could have,

2) Hamas is not a "group", it is a political party that was elected with the support of both Christian and Muslim communities and includes at least one Christian legislator,

3) This is The Star's second reporting of the Palestinian response to the Sunday slaughter,

4) Hamas did not break the ceasefire; they declared it ended after Israel's slaughter of the nine Palestinians. Israel broke the ceasefire by killing nine people, and

5) Why is anyone's advice to Hamas (or to anyone else) news? The Star's purpose seems to have been to try to create a connection in people's minds between Al Qaeda and Hamas.

“The Star's responses to my complaints have been unacceptable. When their switchboard gave me the "Foreign Editor's desk", I was immediately hung up on with the words: ‘We can't please everyone.’

“The actual foreign editor I spoke to later surmised that there might have been a lack of space for more important articles, which is doubtful, as situations less dire and less important received generous coverage.

“The Star’s public editor had no response other than to ask me to write a letter to the editor, which was not published.

I believe that The Star's selective reporting, along with misrepresenting facts, is damaging enough to the public understanding of a critically significant situation to warrant a formal complaint.”

The Foreign editor of the Toronto Star, Martin Regg Cohen later responded to the complaint when the OPC forwarded it to the Star.

While claiming that The Star's coverage was "fair and balanced," he implicitly acknowledged the misrepresentation of the period documented, but defended it on the grounds that other papers such as the Globe and Mail were also negligent; The Star's long-term record was better than that lapse; other news from the Middle East also requires space; and that the complainant underrated the danger to Israelis of the Palestinians' Kassam rockets. 

When the long term coverage of the Star was then challenged as the main problem, Cohen "advised" the OPC that  it "does not plan to respond to the [charge of the long term coverage]!”

The OPC declined to adjudicate that complaint on the grounds that "there are so many incidents in Israel and the Palestinian territories (note: not "occupied") that it would be almost impossible to reach a rational decision on whether the Star is providing irresponsible and intentionally deceptive coverage on the Palestinian situation. There may be a variety of reasons why the newspaper did not cover a particular incident but it would be presumptuous of the Council to try to rule that such incidents are a reflection of a deliberate policy.”

Despite pointing out that the OPC's constitution instructs it to deal with the conduct of the press, not the intent of the of conduct, the OPC confirmed in a March 2008 meeting that they would refuse to pursue any complaints about this coverage.

The result of the OPC's refusal to challenge misstatements of fact, non-coverage of significant events, stories of highly questionable provenance, and extreme bias in covering the Israeli/ Palestine issue, leads to the conclusion that the OPC will do whatever it can to avoid embarrassing a member paper.

It is thus apparent that there is virtually no accountability in our newspapers' coverage of the Israeli/ Palestine issue.

Karin Brothers is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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