Monthly Archives: December 2011

Top Five Biased against Israel Stories

Click here if you want to see the top five stories that were biased against Israel in the last year according to Honest Reporting. There are lots of people in the business of looking for bias against Israel, and it clearly is not difficult to find. But it can also become tiresome when every small interpretation or discrepancy gets reported as a major news transgression. Still, I think the stories reported here make for some interesting reading and do seem to frame themselves in opposition to Israeli culture and politics. But you can be the judge.


The Quality of Fox News Reporting

The above is an example of reporting by Fox news. Notice anything about the graph? The location of the trend line for the most recent number of 8.6 for November is higher than the placement of the line when the number was 8.8 back in March. Media matters first pointed this out. According to them when the unemployment rate dropped to 8.6 Fox news rounded up to 9.0! Maybe the chart below (also from media matters) gives a more accurate picture? I don’t think so but it does make the point. The claim that it is easy to manipulate impressions with “misleading” graphs is easy enough to defend and requires no additional elaboration.


Mitt Romney Looks Suspiciously Like The 44th president

Notice anything about the above picture? Seems like they got Romney wrong. It remains quite impressive how Fox news can continue to manipulate images and political inclinations. The Republican debate sponsored by Fox had very little to do with the press’s noble goals of providing fora for issues. The audience was loud and highly partisan and many questions were designed to highlight Republican platform positions and attack Obama rather than clarify issues.

Rush Limbaugh and the conservative talk radio crowd have been using these techniques for some time. These issues are a little beyond the “peace and conflict” subject matter of this blog, but they do speak to the issues of the press and its role in a political environment.

Democratic values as they apply to the press are important. Issues such as accuracy, independence, freedom from bias, and integrity are important. The news media should always make the distinction between factual news stories and opinion pieces. Fox’s manipulation is to blur this distinction. When conservative talk hosts are attacked for their partisanship the Fox leadership claims that they’re not supposed to be news but entertainment. There certainly is a place for intelligent opinion and perspective which are often essential to understanding the consequences of the story. But we can see from the above examples that Fox is a little sloppy when it comes to representing accuracy and authority.

A recent study of Reuters proprietary websites examine their reporting related to the Middle East conflict. The study ran tests of articles for problems with logical fallacies, propaganda, and violations of Reuters handbook. These were tested in order to determine attitude shifts and support for belligerent parties in the Middle East conflict. The results indicated that there were over 1,000 occurrences of reporting and ethical failures that attitudes did shift as a result of being exposed to these reporting and ethical transgressions. For example, atrocity propaganda or lies and manipulations about the extent of violence and atrocities increased favorability and sympathy toward Palestinians. The same was true for the use of pity and subordination propaganda. The authors of the study concluded that Reuters engaged in systematically biased storytelling in favor of the Palestinians, and these biases directly influenced audience affect and behavior. On the one hand, these findings are not surprising but they certainly demonstrate that errors, biases, and manipulated frames do have strong effects. Both Fox News and Reuters must work on improving clarity and accuracy.

A diverse employment environment is one response to these biases. This includes more than simply gender and ethnic differences but must include differences in terms of knowledge and perspectives. Fox with respect to national political news and Reuters with respect to international news must do better at accuracy, error correction, focusing on intelligent and coherent perspectives rather than bias, information quality, and balance. Fox will continue to maintain its distinction between traditional news and editorial or opinion and defend their use of the media designed to direct perspectives in a certain manner. They have found a business model that allows them to maintain a conservative ideology and still garner enough of an audience. Although there is nothing particularly wrong with representing a coherent political ideology, there is something very wrong with rank partisanship and mistakes.

Gingrich and the “Invented” Palestinian People

Speaker Gingrich caused a small stir the other day when he referred to the Palestinian people as “invented.” Gingrich typically prefaces these statements with phrases like “let’s be honest.” The preface “let’s be honest” is designed to signal the hearer that Newt has the truth and you are about to hear it. It implies that up until now all discussion about the point (in this case the construction of Palestinian national identity) has been tainted by indirectness, vagueness, avoidance of what’s “real,” and the dreaded political correctness.

Newt Gingrich considers himself an intellectual and a historian. And although I cannot imagine myself voting for Gingrich, I do enjoy listening to him and appreciate his argument-based approach to politics. Newt can make an argument and offer a perspective, something which I enjoy and appreciate always keeping in mind the difference between “perspective” and “bias.” But the speaker can tout his historian credentials all he likes; he remains shallow and incomplete with respect to a variety of issues – Palestinian peoplehood in particular this time. I’m waiting for one of Newt’s challengers to point out that all collectivities, all national identities, all “peoples” are invented.

Gingrich’s claim that the Palestinians were Arabs living on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire and never constituted a national or political entity – complete with state institutions, internal infrastructure, and recognition – is defensible enough. He is sort of technically correct. When the state of Israel was declared in 1948 there was no existing Palestinian state in the full sense of the term that was displaced by Israel. In fact, there was no consistent and organized call for a Palestinian state until about 1967. Many Arab leaders in that region of the country considered themselves to be part of Syria. Evidence has been marshaled to defend this point, namely, that most of the land acquired by Israel up until 1948 was purchased legally, the Arab Muslim population was migratory, and that some testimony before the Peel Commission suggested that the word “Palestine” was a Zionist invention.

But none of this matters. Gingrich doesn’t understand that all political and national entities are “constructed” and come into being over time. 100 years ago there was no Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Syria. These “peoples” were formed as a result of political alliances. The speaker has perhaps fallen into the trap of believing that because his own national group (American) is older and more established it is somehow more authentic. A society and its national institutions are constructed on the basis of cultural unity. If a group of people live amongst one another long enough they have the basis for inclusion and exclusion (ancestry, language, religion,). The attachment to a collective category such as national group (e.g. Palestinians, Canadian, French, Saudi) is primarily symbolic and utilitarian in some important ways. Thus, any time a collective group mobilizes in pursuit of goals and has a loyalty to this collectivity, including a preoccupation with its preservation, they are cementing their sense of peoplehood.

Even if we accept a conservative estimate the Palestinians have been organizing themselves around instrumental societal institutions for 50 years. They have constructed themselves in a manner consistent with acquiring control over resources, the solution to problems, and a defense against enemies. The basis for inclusion in the Palestinian national identity is no different than any other; it is by birth, language, and a commitment to the well-being of the collective identity. There are few, if any, national categories or groups in reality. There are always influences from other groups, languages, and ideologies and definitions of collective identities vary somewhat on the basis of emphasis or orientation. Hence, there are Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims and groups whose ethnic descent varies somewhat from others.

There are a few common characteristics that describe the development of a national identity. These characteristics tend to represent a pattern of evolution from scattered bands of people to a cohesive collective identity that has persistence. First communities undergo changes from a minority to majority conception of themselves. They see themselves as the dominant voice and presence in a geographic area. This process is still incomplete in the case of the Palestinians but is clearly moving forward. Gaza, the West Bank, and other disputed land must be settled first. Related to this, is the fact that Palestinians have moved from a pan Arab sense of themselves to a more precise definition of their own boundaries as a collectivity. Secondly, the Palestinians have increasingly focused their attention on development in the future rather than surviving the past. This too is still in the early stages and will progress as the Palestinians acquire structures and control of resources that have an impact on their own political well-being. Third, the act of inventing one’s sense of being a “people” is advanced as institutions advance for the realization of group interests. Turning to institutions as a mechanism to satisfy collective interests is superior to relying on tribal or ethnic affiliations and begins the process of transcending ethnicity and forging a civic identity rather than an ethnic one.

Speaker Gingrich needs to develop a more refined sense of how a people come to be. Why would a possible president of the United States even make such a statement? It is not only shallow but unproductive and certainly not conducive to a peace process. As of now, the speaker is stuck in simplistic categories of what groups are deserving of national identities. He thinks of these categories as finite and established; he thinks of them as nouns when in actuality they are verbs.

News Frames and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

If you drew a map of the world and you drew the size of each country proportionate to how much news attention it receives, Israel would be the size of the old Soviet Union. There are a variety of reasons for this, namely, that Israel is a democratic country in which it is possible to walk around and file a story. It is also true that the international appeal of the conflict as well as the prevalence of English make newsgathering easier.

But there is another slightly more insidious reason. Media coverage of Israel is often simply framed in an extreme way or in a regularly consistent manner such that the frame takes on “reality” or a strong sense of “truth.” News stories of Israel are almost always framed around “conflict.” A conflict frame includes “violence”, images of Israel as Goliath and the Palestinians as David, along with accusations about “apartheid,” settlements,” and “occupation.” These violence and conflict frames overwhelm the rest of Israel. In fact, it is frame incompatibility that defines the conflict. An act of violence will be framed as a “security” issue by the Israelis and an “aggression” or “occupation” frame by the Palestinians. Frame management is one important route to conflict resolution.

Arguments can be cast or “framed” in such a way as to direct attention toward a specific type of information or cognitive processing. Framing, wherein the frame casts the same information in either positive or negative terms, has been the focus of substantial research activity in the past three decades.The issue is whether framing an alternative in either a positive or negative manner influences the response. Frames are an alternative to classical rationality. Subjective issues form the cornerstone of framing theory. For instance, as Kahneman and Tversky first pointed out, gaining a hundred dollars by going from $100 to $200 is more significant than gaining hundred dollars by going from $1100 to $1200. The absolute gain in both cases is the same; however the gain in the first example is psychologically greater. The framing perspective for ethnopolitical conflicts is heavily influenced by the presence or absence of various psychological factors. That is, it is an alternative to classical rationality and the effectiveness of the argument is dependent on the qualities associated with accepting or rejecting a particular frame.

A framing effect occurs when, during an argument, relevant considerations of how the argument is framed causes individuals to focus on these considerations when constructing their opinions. The arguments of others are an important window on our own reality; that is, people are influenced by the opinions and arguments of others. Such informational influences demonstrate the value of argumentative exchange; arguments have an informational influence and can direct the development of attitudes about an issue.

For example, the blame frame and the cooperative frame are two typical ways to frame messages, especially between Palestinians and Israelis. Blame is based on the perception that someone is responsible for a failure to achieve a goal or a particular social condition. Blame is also associated with a sense of injustice that can be very motivating and even used to justify aggression. The act of blaming another person or group serves to exonerate one’s own actions. I can ignore my own problematic behaviors because by blaming someone else, attention is directed away from my own behavior, and I can even justify my behavior as a result of someone else’s actions. The attribution of blame serves as moral justification for my own behaviors. The attribution of blame toward a competing party creates a particularly intense reaction because of the negativity bias: the tendency to be more sensitive to potential losses or negative information than to gains or positive information. Negativity is an informational cue that carries a strong negative valence and may have a more powerful effect on attitudes and evaluations. We would expect, then, an argument between Israelis and Palestinians that is framed by “blame” to elicit a defensive tension reducing response that prevents attitude change in the desired direction. Moreover, a “blame” frame acts as a “loss” frame in the Kahneman and Tversky sense of the term. In other words, potential outcomes fall below a reference point, because accepting an argument means accepting responsibility for inappropriate and even immoral behavior. A blame frame is negative stimuli and attracts more attention; it induces more cognitive activity and increases the analytical tension an individual brings to a decision. We would expect, then, that when Israelis and Palestinians argue their respective positions, that couching the argument in blame would be counterproductive and weaken the conflict resolution process.

Message framing is usually a highly intentional activity and used mostly by communication professionals who are crafting messages designed to elicit a particular effect. In the flow of normal deliberative conversation participants are usually, though not necessarily, less conscious of the arguments they are making. Message frames have been described as either forward or backward looking, which are somewhat related to cooperation and blame frames. Backward-looking statements prefer compromises and emphasize the past, including the symptoms of the conflict and implying that the other party is responsible. Forward-looking message frames, in contrast, are characterized by an effort to create a new framework and build a constructive future. The focus is more on similarities and mutual responsibility. Message framing is a powerful component of argument because how a message is perceived is equally as important as the quality of the presumptive relationship. Deliberation relies on quality argument and message framing can be used for good or ill. Deployed deceptively, a message framed in a particular way can detract from proper consideration of issues. On the other hand, framing can elucidate an issue and help provide perspective and clarity.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains fiercely entangled and frame management is one way out of the morass.

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