The 7 Principles of Media Objectivity

For years, much concern has been raised about media bias. And it has become painfully clear that a key aspect to the Mideast struggle today is the manipulation of media to influence public opinion.

Indeed, over HonestReporting’s 14 years, we’ve seen papers blur the distinction between journalism and advocacy. We’ve seen fact-checking failures become fatal. We’ve seen press photographers and Palestinians in mutually beneficial relationships that twist reality. We’ve seen basic semantics become politicized. We’ve seen news executives fearfully cover up news to protect access. We’ve even seen journalists abuse readers who dared to disagree.

None of this is in the public’s interest. As news consumers, this shakes our sensibilities.

  1. We expect journalists to maintain independence and objectivity.
  2. We expect news that is relevant, informative, proportionate, and engaging.
  3. We expect transparency.

So why is the media biased? Are journalists intimidated by Palestinian strongmen into covering only the “positive” side, while Israeli democracy permits more open coverage of the Israeli position? Is it more exciting to root for the underdog? Does the news industry apply a double standard to Israel? Or is there a groupthink among the foreign press corps?

Whatever the reason, if truth is to prevail, we can’t just “read” the newspaper. As readers, we must be discerning. Otherwise, we become passive objects of someone else’s agenda. As Matti Friedman, a former Israel correspondent for the Associated Press, put it:

The world is not responding to events in this country, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations. The key to understanding the strange nature of the response is thus to be found in the practice of journalism, and specifically in a severe malfunction that is occurring in that profession—my profession—here in Israel.

How can readers discern the truth between the lines?

As consumers of news, we can learn to read between the lines by having an awareness of the seven violations of media objectivity. The underlying principles apply to all areas of coverage (though the examples we cite relate to the Mideast conflict).

The “7 Violations of Media Objectivity”:

  1. Misleading definitions and terminology.
  2. Imbalanced reporting.
  3. Opinions disguised as news.
  4. Lack of context.
  5. Selective omission.
  6. Using true facts to draw false conclusions.
  7. Distortion of facts.

Violation #1
Misleading Definitions and Terminology

Prejudicing readers through language.

Language is often used to promote an agenda. The media must exercise caution when it consciously chooses to adopt (or avoid) certain terms, proper nouns or foreign words in coverage. Simply put, words matter.

EXAMPLE: Dissatisfied with Reuters’s policy of not using the word “terror” in news reports, the Canadian news chain, CanWest, began inserting the word into wire copy. Reuters executives objected, claiming that terror would confuse readers and endanger reporters. CanWest’s Scott Anderson responded:

If you’re couching language to protect people, are you telling the truth?

Reuters’s verbal gymnastics continued over the years — most notably after a 2011 bus bombing. The wording suggests that terror only exists in the minds of Israelis.

Police said it was a “terrorist attack” — Israel’s term for a Palestinian strike. It was the first time Jerusalem had been hit by such a bomb since 2004.

EXAMPLE: For more than 2,000 years, Jerusalem was a unified city that made no distinctions between “East” and “West.” The concept of  East and West only came about in 1948, when the armistice left Israel in control of Jerusalem’s western neighborhoods and the Jordanians in control of Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods. Jordan expelled all the Jews living in the areas under its control, making 1948-1967 the only period in time when eastern Jerusalem was exclusively Arabic. Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, and Jews and Arabs are free to live anywhere in the city.

“Arab East Jerusalem” is not a proper noun any more than Harlem is “Black North Manhattan.” Yet news services like the BBC, and Los Angeles Times, for example, misleadingly refer to “Arab East Jerusalem.” And in light of the city’s history, the Associated Press description, “traditionally Arab east Jerusalem,” is equally inaccurate.

Other examples include the debate over whether to describe ISIS as Islamic extremists or violent extremists.

Violation #2
Imbalanced Reporting

Media reports distort news through disproportionate coverage, presenting only one side of the story, or misrepresenting fringe views as mainstream.

The imbalance can come in many forms: Articles that quote several Palestinians at length but only Israeli (briefly, at that). Op-ed sections like The Guardian’s, where the balance of op-eds, letters and talk backs are overwhelmingly critical of Israel. One-sided photo essays depicting, say, Palestinians suffering during a Gaza conflict, but not Israeli suffering from rocket barrages. Related links pages that link to Palestinian and left-wing Israeli web sites and social media feeds, but not to any mainstream Israeli or Jewish ones.

EXAMPLE: The amount of coverage and prominence a story gets tells readers how important a story is. In 2009, Breaking the Silence, a non-governmental organization that claims to expose IDF misconduct, issued a report claiming to detail abuses by the military during Operation Cast Lead. The soldiers’ testimonies were debunked as hearsay and rumors, but the report spread like wildfire — particularly in the British media which gave it disproportionate attention. The Independent, for example, published a front page double-center spread whose lead article was more than 48 column inches. And the online article linked to Breaking the Silence’s web site.

EXAMPLE: The flip side of disproportionate coverage is ignoring a story. One particularly vivid example of this was the Itamar massacre of 2012, when Palestinian terrorists brutally murdered Udi and Ruth Fogel and three of their children. When the BBC didn’t bother reporting the story, raising the ire of MP Louise Mensch (nee Bagshawe). Beeb officials apologized.

EXAMPLE: A related violation, yet particularly insidious, is where the media presents a speaker from one side of the conflict who merely ratifies the opposing viewpoint. For example, under the guise of “balanced reporting,” the media is fond of quoting left-wing Israeli critics like Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy or Jerusalem activist Danny Seidemann.

EXAMPLE: A Time magazine cover-story in Sept. 2010, titled “Why Israel Isn’t Interested in Peace” spun Israelis as disinterested in peace and detached from the Mideast conflict. For a story of such heft, Jerusalem bureau chief Karl Vick needed a representative cross-section of Israeli views. Instead, the article was based on the views of two Russian-born salesmen, an elderly woman, and her waitress friend — all in Ashdod. For this, HonestReporting readers awarded Time the 2010 Dishonest Reporter Award.

Violation #3
Opinions Disguised as News

A journalist’s job is to report facts without injecting his own opinion or interpretation of events.

Reporters are entitled to their opinions, and veteran journalists have unique insights that can enrich the public’s understanding of developments. But the place for a reporter’s opinion or interpretation of events is in articles or sidebars clearly labeled as analysis, or published in the op-ed section. But blurring the distinction between fact and opinion undermines the journalist’s sacred mission of objectively reporting the facts and letting the public decide.

Even though people are entitled to their opinions, commentary must bear a modicum of objectivity. Commentary must be based on accurate information, sound logic and written respectfully. When columnists, bloggers or talking heads play loose with the facts, rely on faulty logic, or resort to personal attacks, the conversation that op-eds are supposed to foster devolves into mere rhetoric. As James Hill, now the senior editor of the Washington Post Writers Group once explained:

You have to hold columnists to the same standard as anyone at the newspaper. If a column writer is making egregious errors in the process of stating his or her opinion, eventually it’s not the columnist who’s doing that, it’s the paper that’s doing that.

EXAMPLE: Reporters declaring that “Israeli settlements are illegal in international law.” (Sometimes, this is  followed with the qualifying line, “but Israel disputes this.”) In fact, international legal opinion on the legality of settlements isn’t so clear cut. Eugene Kontorovich, Mitchell Bard, Eugene Rostow, Jeffrey Helmreich, and Moshe Dann, among others, expand on why.

EXAMPLE: On election day, 2009, the faces of Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in the Evening Standard’s news section alongside the headline (later changed):

Israelis go to the polls to choose between three warmongers

EXAMPLE: On February 7, 2001, The Early Show co-host Bryant Gumbel interviewed former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross about what Ariel Sharon’s election victory meant for the peace process. Gumbel abdicated his role of objective journalist by repeatedly asking Ross leading questions, loaded with venomous descriptions of Sharon. Gumbel said:

“But does he [Arafat] even have a chance with – with Sharon, when many objective observers view him as – as not only a racist, a terrorist, a murderous war criminal?”


Violation #4
Lack of Context

By failing to provide proper context and full background information, journalists can dramatically distort the true picture.

EXAMPLE: A BBC photo depicts two Palestinians, hands tied behind their backs, and kneeling on the ground. Standing over them is an Israeli soldier with a rifle pointed at their heads.

There is no context identifying this photo, just the benign caption “Tension has been high around the Jewish settlements.” But who are the Arabs in this photo? Did they just murder Jews in cold blood? Or were they innocently buying bread at the local market? BBC does not say. And why is the soldier pointing the gun? Is he guarding dangerous prisoners until reinforcements can arrive? Or is he about to blow off their heads at point-blank range? BBC lets the implication stand for itself.

Following reader complaints, BBC has since changed the caption to: “Israeli soldiers arrest Palestinian drivers in the West Bank.”

EXAMPLE: In February 2001, when a Palestinian killed eight Israelis by ramming his bus into a crowd, the front page of the Los Angeles Times carried an Associated Press photo which shows the damaged bus, and the Palestinian driver still behind the wheel, laid back with a sad face. The caption reads:

Palestinian bus driver Khalil abu Olbeh, 35, sits wounded after leading police on a 19-mile chase. Family members said that he was distraught over financial problem and upset by current unrest.

The caption and photo sympathetically suggest that this mass murderer is somehow a victim of “Israeli aggression.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian (UK) defended the bus driver as “a sort of Palestinian everyman who finally snapped because of the combined pressure of the four-month uprising and Israel’s economic blockade.” Despite his having admitted to carefully planning the attack, the Guardian said the attack was “far from being the calculated aim of a dedicated terrorist,” and claimed that the killer was merely drowsy from medication.

EXAMPLE: The October 23 edition of Teen Newsweek, a magazine distributed to middle school students across America, features is a prominent photo of three Palestinians, with the man in the middle holding up his blood-covered hands. The caption reads: “In the West Bank city of Ramallah, bloodied Palestinian protestors express their rage.”

The implication is that the Palestinians are bloody because they are victims of Israeli aggression. There is no mention whatsoever that these Palestinians are bloody because they just got finished beating, stabbing, burning and disemboweling two innocent Israelis. And how does Teen Newsweek’s photo caption refer to these heinous murderers? As benign “protestors.”

Violation #5
Selective Omission

By choosing to report certain events over others, the media controls access to information and manipulates public sentiment.

EXAMPLE: Ever since the violence began, media outlets routinely refer to the Intifada as being “sparked by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount.” This is despite the admission by Palestinian Minister of Communications Imad el-Falouji that the Palestinian Authority pre-planned the outbreak of violence. As reported in the semi-governmental Beirut “Daily Star” (March 3, 2001):

A Palestinian Cabinet minister said on Friday that the five-month-old uprising against Israel had been planned since the Camp David peace talks failed in July, contradicting past contentions of a spontaneous outburst from Palestinians on the street. Imad Faluji, the Palestinian National Authority’s Communications Minister, said during a PLO rally in Ain al-Hilweh refutifada, in which more than 400 people have been killed, was planned.

However, a search of the entire CNN website for the name of the PA minister, Imad Falouji, reveals one lone reference, buried in three short paragraphs near the end of an article. Was the PA minister’s assertion that the Intifada was planned not newsy enough for CNN? And shouldn’t CNN stop referring to Sharon’s visit as “sparking the Intifada”?

EXAMPLE: On October 24, 2000, the New York Times referred to a case of Palestinian incitement:

Israelis cite as one egregious example a televised sermon that defended the killing of the two [lynched] soldiers. ‘Whether Likud or Labor, Jews are Jews,’ proclaimed Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabaya in a live broadcast from a Gaza city mosque the day after the killings.”

But the Times utterly failed to convey the main message of the inflammatory sermon. In fact, The Times appears to go out of his way to choose a one-sentence quotation that could be seen as innocuous when taken out of context. The salient point of the Gaza mosque sermon, broadcast live on Palestinian Authority TV, is as follows:

“Even if an agreement for Gaza is signed, we shall not forget Haifa, and Acre, and the Galilee, and Jaffa, and the Triangle and the Negev, and the rest of our cities and villages. It is only a matter of time… Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them.”

Violation #6
Using True Facts To Draw False Conclusions

Media reports frequently use true facts to draw erroneous conclusions.

EXAMPLE: In February 2001, when Ariel Sharon was elected Israeli Prime Minister, the Christian Science Monitor tried to delegitimize the voters’ choice by claiming that voter turnout “was an unprecedentedly low 60 percent,” and claiming that “at least 62 percent of eligible Israeli voters did not vote for Sharon.”

In reality, only despotic countries like North Korea or Syria report 99 percent voter turnout. Truly free elections mean that citizens are also free not to vote. In the United States, only 51 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2000 presidential elections. This means that President George W. Bush received fewer than 25 percent of the eligible votes; additionally he did not even win the popular vote. To paraphrase Cobban’s calculation, “At least 75 percent of eligible American voters did not vote for Bush.” In years when only congressional elections are held, American voter turnout drops to 36-38 percent. But no one makes such charges undermining the American president’s authority or legitimacy.

EXAMPLE: Many articles report that “hundreds of people have been killed, the vast majority Palestinians.” This is an indisputable fact, yet without qualifying these figures, the reader is led to the false conclusion that Israeli soldiers are the aggressors and have used excessive force.

However, if Israeli forces were actually doing what they are accused of – shooting indiscriminately into crowds with automatic weapons. If that were the case, many thousands of Palestinians would be dead. In reality, the ratio of deaths is less than one per riot.

EXAMPLE: Teen Newsweek, a magazine distributed to middle school students across America, published a chart illustrating the number of Palestinian and Israeli children killed since 1987. The Palestinian numbers, represented in bright red, many times exceed Israeli losses, shown in a less visible yellow. There is no explanation of circumstances how these children died. The implication is that there is equivalency – even though the Palestinian children were killed while attempting martyrdom in the context of violent attacks on Israeli forces, while the Israeli children were killed while sitting on a public bus or in a cafe, blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Violation #7
Distortion of Facts

In today’s competitive media world, reporters frequently do not have the time, inclination or resources to properly verify information before submitting a story for publication.

EXAMPLE: In reporting on violence of Joseph’s Tomb, CNN writes:

Meanwhile, at least 77 people, mostly Palestinians have died during several fierce clashes at Joseph’s Tomb during the past week. The lone Israeli soldier to die during the clashes bled to death in the tomb as rescuers tried for hours to reach him.

CNN’s claim that 77 people died in one week of clashes at Joseph’s Tomb is a gross factual inaccuracy. Since one Israeli was killed, 76 were obviously Palestinian. Yet in truth, six Palestinians and one Israeli soldier had died during that week of clashes at Joseph’s Tomb. In other words, CNN cited the total number of Palestinian casualties in all clashes, and juxtaposed that figure with the Israeli casualty of one isolated event.

EXAMPLE: The New York Times, Associated Press and other major media outlets published a photo of a young man – bloodied and battered – crouching beneath a club-wielding Israeli policeman. The caption identified him as a Palestinian victim of the recent riots – with the clear implication that the Israeli soldier is the one who beat him.

In fact, the bloodied “Palestinian” depicted in the photograph was Tuvia Grossman, a 20-year-old Jewish student from Chicago, studying in Jerusalem. And the assailants were not Israelis, but members of a Palestinian mob who beat and stabbed Grossman mercilessly for 10 minutes. And the infuriated Israeli policeman with a baton was deterring the Palestinians from finishing their lynching.

Media bias assumes that if there’s a victim, it must be a Palestinian. Yet who are the real victims and who are the aggressors? The truth is often the opposite of how it appears.

By being astute media observers, we can make a difference. In response to public pressure, the New York Times reprinted Tuvia Grossman’s picture – this time with the proper caption – along with a full article detailing his near-lynching at the hands of Palestinians rioters.