Media Psychology 101 – Framing Israel: Is Fair Coverage Possible?

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Over the years, HonestReporting has analyzed and critiqued hundreds of articles, editorials and opinion pieces. But what goes through the minds of the journalists and writers that influence them to treat Israel in a certain way?

Here we present our Media Psychology 101 series – taking an academic examination into the minds of the media and how news consumers are influenced by the media’s reporting.

This is the first part of a guest post by Cherryl Smith, PhD, a Professor of English in Rhetoric and Composition at California State University, Sacramento.  She is currently writing a book on media framing of Israel.

Although professional organizations of journalists have impressive codes of ethics and sometimes respond with apologies and revisions when some of the more egregious inaccuracies are reported, academics and journalists note that bias is not merely an occasional problem, it is a given of mainstream press. Media coverage ofIsrael may simply be an extreme case.

Individual inaccuracies need to be addressed, but these most often are made possible by a few consistent news frames.

Reporters and editors need to frame news, just as any communicator needs to frame information, in order to make sense of it. Framing makes streams of information coherent; it marks the implicit boundaries through which news events are viewed.

It will not surprise readers of HonestReporting that a dominant frame through which Israel is viewed is “the conflict,” — and a very particular interpretation of the conflict – presented through the other, connected frames. Probably the most apparent of these is the “cycle of violence” frame through which attacks on civilians are seen as the same as defense against attacks on civilians.

Along with “cycle of violence,” other persistent media frames are “David and Goliath,” with the state of Israel as Goliath and individual Palestinians as David; a frame of “Israel to blame” which allows for quite unbelievable reporting, for instance, days of “massacre” to be reported and then ultimately (and quietly) revised in 2002-2003; the accusation of “apartheid,” and particular interpretations of the terms, “disproportionate response,” and “settlements.”

The frame of conflict blocks out the rest of Israel so that people who know about the country only from the news learn little of Israel’s technological breakthroughs, its high standard of living, its thriving arts and culture, its scientific discoveries, or its social complexity. The everyday life of the country is obscured.

A narrative pattern using David and Goliath, for example, allows listeners/viewers/readers to feel empathy with David without the need for much evidence. Simply designating one player David and the other Goliath makes the case, makes a recognizable story even without a lot of detail or support.

If you are writing a novel, running a political campaign, or advertising your products, you will naturally work to trigger the appropriate responses in your audience – sympathy with the main character, voting for the candidate, buying what is advertised – not merely by providing evidence but by the way the entire discourse is framed. You are free to be as biased as you please.

Not so media in a democratic society. The public, and the press, itself, expect commitment to balanced and accurate presentation, so the limits of framing – what is left out, what is included – must be checked for bias. We expect to hear the whole story, to have the opportunity to draw our own conclusions; we expect political slant to be minimal or balanced in the reporting of the news. The whole range of ethical requirements for journalists demands that media seek a fair and truthful representation of events in their reporting.

Identifying and tracking the news framing ofIsraelis a promising way of addressing media bias. By focusing on the frames, we expose the underlying problems of biased reporting — bias that does not necessarily correspond to writers’ or editors’ own political views, since the frames, once well-established, become the conventional ways of reporting.

If we want to set the record straight about Israel, the facts are important, but focusing on the rhetoric may be even more important, since the frames through which Israelis viewed allow for inaccuracies to go unchecked. Media is expected, and expects itself, to report fairly, but often the current framing does not allow this to happen. Identifying these implicit frames reveals the incongruity between media’s ethical standards and their reporting on Israel. If the frames are exposed perhaps fair coverage will become a possibility.

Stay tuned for the second part of this series coming soon. Let us know what you think about this article by commenting below and and whether or not you would like to see us publishing more content like this.

Image: CC BY-SA HonestReporting.com, flickr/akeg, flickr/erikpaterson, flickr/zeevveez.

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