A couple of nights ago I went to a Jewish Community Center to listen to a talk by a respected scholar of Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an enjoyable evening with pleasant enough talk. Actually, it was more like a prayer meeting than a community political lecture. The audience was composed of Israel supporters and there were prayers and the singing of Hatikvah.
But what struck me was the casual and confident ease with which people claim media bias. One presenter proudly and enthusiastically declared that she was going to cancel her subscription to the New York Times, as if that would do anything other than make her less informed. I know the media are an easy target and as an active specialist in these areas myself I encounter the charge of media bias regularly. Still, it is frustrating how little effect I have on people when I explain the multitude of perceptual distortions that go into their conclusions about bias, followed by an explanation of the difference between “bias” and “perspective”.
We can’t seem to explain to the public that people watch the news for a multitude of reasons, many of which have little or nothing to do with the acquisition of accurate information. We watch news for mood management, social rehearsals, and all sorts of cognitive needs. The more one watches the more they are bound to encounter bias or develop distrust.
You know that individual psychology and cognitive distortions are implicated when both sides of an issue claim bias. There are a dozen studies that show the same footage or text to two different groups, only to have that message interpreted completely differently by the two different groups depending on their entering perspective. No news story is completely free of values, and no story includes all potentially relevant information.
In one study available here the authors found that presentation variables such as agency in headlines and focal point of photographs all contributed to different (perhaps just “different” and not distorted) interpretations. And just as one would predict, according to the hostile media affect, the roomful of Israel supporters saw bias against Israel everywhere, noting the New York Times, when in fact the research cited above indicates that the New York Times is mostly pro-Israel. The hostile media affect is the tendency for highly involved individuals to see media coverage of their issue as biased against their own position. Their own ego involvement and engagement with the issues makes it impossible for them to process a new story objectively. In fact, coverage of the Israel Palestine conflict has traditionally been so supportive of Israel that the American public is uninformed about the Palestinian narrative and political position. Zelizer and colleagues in the reference cited above found that the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune had remarkably similar coverage of the intifada with the Times being more supportive of Israel.
But the difficulty people have with the distinction between “perspective” and “bias” is particularly disappointing. Not a single person at the lecture interpreted news stories as a perspective; they only saw bias everywhere they looked. A perspective is a defensible and explainable viewpoint from which one member of the group sees an issue; it is a point of view. The perspective can be impartial and defensible. To say it is defensible means that the holder of the perspective is fair-minded and has come to his or her opinion on the basis of acceptable reasons and evidence. This does not mean that other evidence is not available or different interpretations are not possible, just that the holder of the perspective has thoughtfully considered alternatives and sincerely tried to weigh competing evidence. Being a “liberal Democrat” or a “Zionist” is defensible and can be explained on the basis of acceptable reasons. But the same is true for being a “conservative Republican” or an “anti-Zionist.” It is the clash of these perspectives that results in reasonable disagreement. There is disagreement because the two perspectives support different positions and hold different values, but both perspectives are defensible from evidentiary, rational, and cultural standpoints.
A bias is holding an unfair and indefensible attitude or opinion. The holder of the bias is typically close minded and unwilling to consider additional evidence and alternatives because he or she pre-judges new information and alternative perspectives and refuses to engage in proper and sufficient information processing that might result in opinion change. Certainly, putting aside beliefs and working to form new conclusions is difficult. But it remains a communicative behavior that is central to problem-solving and part of the general communicative process that forms the foundation of democratic conflict resolution and the management of conflicting groups.
The article below is reprinted from Tablet and makes a gentle and fair-minded case for why Representative Omar should expand her experiences in Israel. We expect her to criticize Israel for the occupation as well as labeling Israel a colonial state along with additional critical vocabulary. But if she truly is trying to learn with an open mind, then Omar should heed Carly Pildis’s suggestions.
When news broke last month that Rep. Ilhan Omar was planning a trip to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank with some of her congressional colleagues, I felt a subtle sense of hope. I disagree with many of Omar’s comments on the conflicts, but, given her rapid change in viewpoint after winning her election, I hope that she’ll come to the region with an open mind and an open heart. And having myself visited Israel on numerous occasions—visits that were deeply meaningful to me and helped me shape my view of regional politics—I believe the right itinerary could make a real difference. I’m no travel agent, but I wrestle daily with a complicated view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, with that in mind, sat down to imagine the trip I would arrange for Omar and her friends.
Tzfat is a good place to start and get rooted. The town has a deep history of Jewish mysticism, religious study, and art. Local legend claims the city was created by Noah after the flood. Yes, that Noah. It has ancient Jewish roots, including mentions in the Jerusalem Talmud and the writings of Jewish historian of Roman times Josephus, as well as a vibrant modern Jewish culture of mystical study and art. I hope Omar will stop by Abraham Loewenthal’s studio and chat with him about mystic art; I have one of his pieces in my kitchen.I hope she walks the ancient streets, exploring its beautiful unique synagogues. Abuhav Synagogue, built by Rabbi Abuhav and his disciples after they were expelled from Spain in 1492, is a favorite of mine. Another is the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue, built in 1570. In 1948 a piece of shrapnel flew through the synagogue while congregants were praying, and, miraculously, no one was injured. People still write notes to God and slip them in the the hole the shrapnel left behind. I have left my own prayers there.
Why should Omar spend a day touching ancient stones and chatting with hippie mystic artists? Because some of her fellow progressives are likely to tell her that nothing about Israel is authentically Jewish, that it is all a modern construction, a colonialist, white supremacist enterprise. I am hoping after a day in Tzfat she will vocally disagree. Tzfat was the home of PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas before his family fled in 1948, and the home of Rabbi Abuhav who took refuge there in 1492. Roots tangle, especially in the Holy Land.
Now that Omar has rooted herself in history, I think she should visit those who best understand what’s at stake, because they have lost the most: the parents who lost a child to the conflict. Parents Circle-Families Forum is a grassroots organization of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost an immediate family member in the conflict. In 2007, I met with Aaron, a father from PCFF who told me lovingly and achingly about his son Noam, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War. His hands never stopped shaking, rolling and unrolling a piece of paper as he recalled hearing the news of his beloved son’s death and how he felt called to push for peace, reconciliation, and dialogue. PCFF brings families together to share their grief, and their hopes that by sharing grief they can create a path to reconciliation and peace. They have offices in both Ramat Efal and Beit Jala you can visit, where members engage in dialogue circles. Additionally, PCFF runs a summer camp for bereaved youth and a hotline that allows Israelis and Palestinians to talk for free and make new connections. It has had over a million callers. PCFF is both heartbreaking and inspirational, and it’s the kind of project that needs more support. In this era of American activists creating “anti-normalization” clauses and refusing dialogue and debate, PCFF stands in stark contrast to Western bombast. It is a model that is both heartbroken and hopeful for peace, deeply committed to recognizing the pain of all its members.
Another space that will help Omar understand the stakes of the conflict is Sderot. The people of Sderot have been hit with thousands of rockets over the past decade, including this past May, when over 450 rockets attacked Southern Israel from Gaza. One landed right outside a kindergarten in Sderot. Forty percent of children in Sderot suffer from PTSD and anxiety due to the trauma of rocket attacks, which is far higher than the national average of 7% to 10%. The Israeli Education Ministry’s psychological service is now training teachers to help them better support children who are traumatized by the conflict. In 2009, the Jewish National Fund donated an indoor playground that doubles as a bomb shelter, so that the children of Sderot can play without risking being too far from a bomb shelter. When a Code Red alert sounds, residents have only 15 seconds to reach a bomb shelter. There are over 200 throughout the city. Rep. Omar and members of her “squad” have proposed cutting U.S. military aid to Israel. I think when she is in the region, she should meet with the families in Southern Israel that would bear the brunt of that cut.
While examining investments in keeping the people of Sderot safe, both in terms of bomb shelters and the Iron Dome, it is important to contrast the average citizen of Sderot with the average citizen of Gaza, who does not have access to a bomb shelters. It seems the Hamas government is unwilling to invest in civilian bomb shelter, preferring instead to invest in underground smuggling tunnels that further the effort to bomb the citizens of Sderot. If Rep. Omar and her colleagues get a chance, they should question the Gazan government’s priorities.
More than any one specific tour stop, I hope Rep. Omar integrates into her itinerary a search for duality. Sometimes we must hold two difficult, even seemingly contradicting truths in our mind at the same time, especially as people of faith. When she visits a West Bank checkpoint, as I hope she will, and confronts the cruelty of the occupation and the hardship it causes, I hope Omar will also talk to the Israeli soldiers on duty. If she does, she’ll see that they are often very young, just out of high school, and very frightened by the burden of responsibility for security placed on their shoulders. I hope she speaks to Palestinians who lost everything in 1948 and became refugees, just like her, and I also hope she speaks to Jewish refugees from Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Ethiopia, and the former USSR, who found a home in Israel when they were in desperate circumstances. If the congresswoman chooses to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, I hope she also goes to the Kotel. When I touched the stones of the Kotel for the first time, I laid my head on it and wept, because God felt so close and yet so far away. It is the same way for peace in the region, it seems both within our grasp and devastatingly far away.
As if the propaganda and distortions that ooze out of Fox News isn’t enough to damage to the quality of public discourse, Fox has a younger sibling who is growing and gaining strength and influence. This is Sinclair news and “Media Matters” recently reported on their newfound influence. We are in the middle of an unprecedented war with the press prompted mostly by the President and his conscious attempts to manipulate the public impressions of what the press is trying to do. The Sinclair corporation has focused on local news and blatantly controls content so as to propagate conservative influences.
Sinclair is known for some particularly manipulative tactics: acquiring and consolidating local news stations and then deceitfully blending advertising with news, including cutting budgets and taking shortcuts with any production of content that meets journalistic standards.
Sinclair has been around for some time but it recently is gaining in strength and influence. It is increasingly—and blatantly—running a right wing message and has taken its cues from Roger Ailes and Fox when it comes to ensuring that its political perspective is foregrounded. Sinclair has hired a Trump aide (Boris Epshteyn) who is charged with ensuring that Sinclair’s right wing proclivities find their way properly into the content of the media.
What is even worse, according to Media Matters, is that the Trump presidency is assisting Sinclair with changing FCC regulations that currently limit its ownership so that Sinclair can grow. And, it should be noted, that Sinclair is trying to operate in markets deemed most useful to meeting the needs of national elections.
Boris Epshteyn is known for his strict adherence to his own policy of “must run.” That is, he forces the affiliates to run certain segments that meet the political preferences of the corporation. His policy at times has been so outrageous that it prompted John Oliver to make fun of it (video is 19 minutes long but should watch at least 10 minutes) which is yet another indication of its growing presence.
Sinclair has made a conscious choice to focus on “local” news for three reasons. First, data show that local news is more respected and considered more trustworthy than national news. Viewers simply think that organizations like CNN or CBS are more biased. Second, the policy of “must run” means that the prepared statements are from the hand of corporate headquarters but the words are spoken from the mouth of the local newscaster who is typically more trusted. The local newscaster, who is recognizable and congenial and even speaks in the local dialect, is forced to utter and account for the political message. And third, local markets are less saturated and developed and ripe for exploitation.
The key issue here is not necessarily that a station leans left or right since all media has at least some political leaning. But that is not what we are seeing in the contemporary discourse. Rather, it is the purposeful distortions and deliberate attempts to manipulate the discourse based not on argument or reason preference but on implications, conspiracies, and factoids. When “real” news is called “fake” news, and millions of people casually accept this distinction, the quality of the political culture is threatened, and Sinclair takes a step forward.
This video makes some very strong points and is worth watching. I suggest you click on it now and watch. The video is sponsored by “Media Matters” which is a liberal organization but one that has the interests of our democracy in mind. It is possible to make the case that systematic and consciously perpetrated bias by Fox News governs their organizational identity and has quantifiable effects on voting patterns and political knowledge. The claims of news bias are so pervasive and so self-contradictory that it’s damaging any remnants of news credibility. Everybody believes the news is biased right up until the point the news says something they agree with. And, moreover, people are absolutely convinced that their perceptions are correct and their understanding of the issues and whatever source they came from is accurate. The public is shockingly naive about the frequency and forms of information processing distortions.
Let’s pay attention for a moment to this issue of news bias and try for some rigor and conclusions that result from data and controlled studies. I’ve grown weary of everyone complaining about the news and biases especially when all the complaints are simply self-serving. It borders on fascinating how few people see their own distortions and biases. Every Trump supporter is convinced the New York Times and the television media – minus Fox News – favored the other side and was critical of Trump while being charitable toward Hillary. And Hillary supporters (although in much smaller numbers) lamented the fascination with Trump that brought him so much free media time.
I would call your attention to a study directly confronting this issue of Fox News and its impact in the news sphere. The authors examine the impact of media bias, the persuasiveness of a particular media, the likelihood of voting, and mobility rates. Moreover, and something most citizens don’t think about, the review of the studies includes conditions of the receivers. In other words, the same news programming does not have the same effect on everyone. So, on the basis of survey research the authors found that 22% of the population believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but 33% of Fox News viewers believed he had weapons of mass destruction. The findings hold even after controlling for party identification.
Additionally, exposure to conservative media has an effect on voter choice including being responsible for switching some Republicans to Democratic voters. The results are slightly conditioned by the psychological state of receivers. Those watching Fox news for the first time were more persuadable than viewers who watched consistently. This particular study focused on Fox News and conservative media but I would presume that the pattern of results apply to liberal media as well even if the effects are stronger or weaker.
My concern here is not to repeat the pernicious effects of Fox News or biased media but to sound the alarm for increasing pressure to both find quality outlets of information, as well as “educate” the public a little more about the nature and exposure to bias and what to do with it. Fox News is responsible for taking partisan positions and making some extreme even outrageous claims; these then get repeated and spread throughout the population thus multiplying the distorted effects.
Turning more toward public media rather than commercial media is one response to this situation. Public media presents more in-depth and critical news about domestic and international affairs and is capable of increasing citizen engagement as well as quality information.
How Group Membership Distorts Political Thinking and the Impossibility of Quality Political Communication
Watching citizens yell at one another during debates and political discussion has reminded me of something more than the loss of civility. It prompts me to recall the distorted communication that occurs so often during political conversation. These distortions in meaning and argument result from the ingroup mentality of belonging to a particular political party. People cling to their own beliefs as driven by reasoned analysis of the real world while the beliefs of others are the result of ideology, emotions, and biases. We easily divide political rivals into simplistic binary categories: red states or blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Add to this the combustible mix of bloggers, talk radio hosts, and TV pundits and political discourse becomes hot and hostile rather than deliberative and respectful. Actually, labeling oneself as a member of a preferred group (e.g. “I am a conservative” or “I am a Democrat”) is dangerous and results in information distortions.
Party identifications are the result of people categorizing themselves as a member of an ingroup defined by certain characteristics. By categorizing myself as say “a Republican” I adopt characteristics of similar others, and embrace a list of appropriate beliefs and behaviors. I start to speak and behave in ways that I believe are consistent with my membership in this group called “Republicans.” When my group membership is coupled with motivations to enhance my own group’s self esteem, then I will produce favorable judgments and evaluations about my own ingroup, and unfavorable evaluations about outgroups. Thus, as a Republican I would consider myself a patriot and Democrats as socialists. This is a dangerous situation that produces serious errors and failings in political discourse. Let’s examine a few.
One thing that happens with strong group identification is that the social norms of that group become overly influential. If I identify as a “Democrat” then I will be more than usually influenced by how I imagine Democrats think and behave despite the merits of an issue. I will be more influenced by party membership than policy. In one research study Democrats and Republicans were given a policy statement and told that the policy was supported by either a majority of Democrats or Republicans. Subjects in the study disproportionately favored a policy when it was identified with their own political party. This means that political judgment is too influenced by group identification and not sufficiently the result of objective consideration and analysis.
Secondly, being a member of a political party causes partisans to make biased conclusions. People explain and judge political behavior on the basis of their own political worldviews. Hence, a conservative when confronted with someone from poor economic circumstances will easily attribute this to laziness or lack of ability where a liberal will cite unfavorable social circumstances. Again, the explanations for political events should be based on deep consideration of issues and more complexity (many things explain poor economic circumstances), not simply on consistency with my own group’s ideology.
Excessive suspicion and negativity toward politicians is a third bias of political party membership. During the healthcare debate Obama was called a socialist and even likened to Hitler (a strange confluence of political ideologies!). These extreme negative judgments about a politician’s character result when a politician from the other party (the outgroup) presents a position inconsistent with your own group’s position. Under these circumstances there is a tendency to exaggerate differences and attribute personal blame to the other.
Finally, political party favoritism has a strong emotional reaction because partisans are so motivated to favor their own group. For Democrats, their strong negative emotional reaction to George W. Bush diminished their ability to arrive at logical conclusions. If Bush was for something, Democrats were against it.
The healthcare debate, for example, has to be won on its merits. The above problems can be overcome by increased communicative contact with members of the other party and a widening of goals such that people see themselves more interdependently. Proper political communication is difficult and challenging but given the alternative it is a challenge we must meet.
The Republicans have lied so systematically and pervasively that they now have created a new lying monster and it is loose in the streets and no one seems to be able to capture him. It’s Frankentrump. The fact checking websites are ablaze with Trump’s lies. Of course, no one expected Frankentrump to last this long, no one thought the little monster was anything other than annoying and while he might terrorize the streets for a few days he was mostly entertainment value.
But it turns out that the monster Frankentrump has escaped from the laboratory and is staying alive by continuing to terrorize the streets with even more lies and unsubstantiated statements. In fact, Frankentrump is moving into the mainstream population. The village elders in the GOP are worried because they are losing control of him. And, he is upsetting the GOP establishment because his lies and misinformation are not being corrected properly which means this monstrosity continues to feed, grow, and is difficult to contain. How was Frankentrump created?
Frankentrump is the monster that was born of three maniacal mothers all related to the GOP. It’s common enough and facile to say that all politicians lie or that both Democrats and Republicans manipulate information but it does not mean that the two parties do it the same way or have equal skill. The Republicans are far more skilled at lying than the Democrats and they have now created this beast slouching toward the presidency.
Frankentrump’s three mothers are (a) the Republican reality bubble created by their own system of media ownership and think tanks, (b) the era of “post-truth politics,” and (c) new media. You can read more about Trump and the media here.
(a). It’s fairly common knowledge that in the last decades the GOP has successfully created think tanks, media outlets (Fox News), cable programs, talk shows, and publication opportunities all designed to perpetuate a conservative agenda. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except in the case of the GOP it has produced a toxic side effect which is that so many GOP candidates live in a bubble that is disconnected from reality. They have distorted the truth so frequently and so aggressively (e.g., Obama is a Muslim, Obama is not a citizen, veterans Swift-Boating Kerry, weapons of mass destruction, the Clintons killed Vince Foster) that they live in an increasingly insular world. Just look at this list of GOP presidential candidates – listen to how people talk about them as crazy, or scary, or embarrassing – and tell me they are not little monsters challenging conventions of evidence and reasoning.
(b). Post-truth politics is the fact that voters use crude heuristics to assess legislative proposals. This runs somewhat counter to the idealized Enlightenment view which to gather facts, draw conclusions, create policy on the basis of those conclusions, and implement. Post-truth thinkers identify with a group, adopt the position of that group, and then do nothing but seek confirmatory information. The Republicans have been particularly effective at finding heuristics. Every Democratic proposal is met with an unpleasant group identification. The proposal is socialism, or weak liberalism, or class warfare, etc. You can read more about post-truth thinking here.
(c). There is a loss of credibility and traditional media. The era when journalists were informed and asked tough questions and pointed questions designed to inform the public is slipping away. There is so much new media and user generated content that the power of the media has been drained in this sense. There are so many opportunities for expression that no one credible and respectable source can dominate the narrative. And most importantly perhaps is the strategy of simply accusing the other side of something outrageous, knowing it is false, but walking away from the accusation over time because the damage is done even though the accusation is false or constructed. Hence, Hillary Clinton is accused of negligence in Benghazi or inappropriately using a server in the State Department. These are non-issues that are blown way out of proportion and the goal is simply to make the accusation and damage the other person casting care about facts or truth to the wind.
And so the newest incarnation of this entire poison cocktail is the monster known as Frankentrump. The party elders have lit their torches and are trying to chase the monster from the village, but as of now they can’t catch him.
As Daniel Kahneman describes, there are two types of thinking. The first called System 1 thinking is quick, immediate, impulsive, emotional, and reptilian. It has its foundation in our early evolutionary development and has the advantage of being responsive quickly and almost automatically. So, sexually charged messages are processed without much thought and on the basis of an immediate emotional and physiological response. System 2 thinking came later in human development and it is slow, deliberative, and reflective. This is how decisions are supposed to be made in democracies and in the context of complex data and argument.
Cass Sunstein in his work on decision-making explains how there are not enough System 2 thinkers and, moreover, there is a tendency to think decision-making is mostly subject to System 2 thinking when much of it is corrupted by the anger and emotions of System 1 thinking. This is the trap of believing that individuals mostly maximize rational preferences and are rational actors. Sunstein and his associates in a number of their publications (cf. Wiser: Getting beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter) claim that groups should be more deliberative and subject to System 2 thinking and therefore make better decisions. But they don’t.
Individuals who are making decisions are a rat’s nest of biases, distortions, and prejudices. They are overconfident, emotional, and will follow the herd. Their thinking is clouded by interpersonal relations including status hierarchies they wish to respect; they repress information that might upset someone; they seek information that confirms what they believe already and they are overly influenced by other individuals who are either attractive, particularly persuasive, or maintain some psychological “hold” on the individual. People who hold on to ideological beliefs with great fortitude and refuse to budge from their belief system, who automatically incorporate every position other than their own as either a threat or something to be embraced devolve into System 1 thinkers. This describes the Congressional Republicans as well as nationalistic and religious zealots.
System 1 thinking is so typically distorted and commonplace in decision-making groups that research has shown that decisions can be improved if members don’t meet. Statistical groups are sometimes superior because they focus on the task and eliminate social influences. But statistical groups do not have the epistemic advantage of communication which, if participants can overcome their distortions and improve their argumentative skills, has the potential of producing new knowledge and creative outcomes.
Statistical non-interactive groups may offer some decision-making advantages that accrue through the cumulative effects of individual knowledge and information. But they are quite deficient when dealing with deep differences and those who are intolerant and prejudice prone. The value and effectiveness of the contact hypothesis is a well-established and even demonstrates positive results with the most intolerant and ideological. Threat and anxiety reduction are one of the theoretical benefits of contact and these apply also to the highly intolerant.
Matti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.
His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.
First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.
The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.
A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.
Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).
There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.
There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.
There is a well-known study conducted in 1985 that ran a perfectly simple clean little experiment. One group favorable toward Israel and another group supportive of the Arabs were exposed to identical news stories about the violence in Lebanon in 1982. Even though both groups saw the same story, and all conditions of the experiment were the same, each believed the coverage was distorted and biased with respect to their own side; that is, they thought the media was hostile to their side. This is termed “the hostile media effect” and it very simply refers to the tendency to prefer your own group (either pro-Israel or pro-Arab) and distort perceptions of an “out” group and thus believe that the media are hostile to your side but lenient and supportive of the other side.
Given the orgy of news coverage surrounding the war in Gaza, and the inevitable outcry about media bias, I thought I would clarify some distinctions and explain the social scientific foundation of media bias. More journalists and reporters work more diligently to present a balanced view of the conflict then the public gives them credit for. But the same journalists will tell you that their good efforts to be balanced are for naught and they are flooded with mail claiming bias regardless of what they do. This tells you that the bias probably comes from the consumer of the message rather than the producer.
The general tendency to see bias is common enough. One of the most well-established relationships is between message distortion and group identity. If you sort people into two groups (e.g. Israelis-Palestinians) this immediately sets into motion a series of processes that influence how messages are interpreted. And, these interpretations always favor one group or another including interpreting messages as biased against their own side. The results of the 1985 study referred to earlier have been replicated with numerous topics and events. We prefer to think of ourselves as treating people equally or respecting diversity of all sorts but the truth is we strongly identify with groups and define ourselves according to group membership.
From a rather straightforward evolutionary perspective, any exposure of your ingroup to negative information is perceived as a potential threat. This stimulates our sense of self protection, which takes precedence over other cognitive processes, and causes us to question the nature and quality of the information. Claiming that the media are biased against us or the information is substandard allows group members to minimize the inconsistency between their group favorability and information inconsistent with maintaining their ingroup status.
Moreover, the more one intensely identifies with their group – such as a religious group or ethnic identity – the more individuals feel potential threat and the more intense is the relationship between group identity and sensitivity to information threats. These relationships are further intensified when group members consider their group to be particularly threatened or vulnerable. If you ask a strong supporter of Israel or a Palestinian whether or not they feel their group is vulnerable, or threatened, or disrespected they will certainly answer in the affirmative and consequently are more responsive than most to information threats.
There are of course numerous consequences to the distortion of perceptions and information resulting from group identity – sometimes deadly consequences – but the threat to democracy is a problem that receives less attention than psychological ones. There are three of them: one, the quality of information failure. Information is discounted or judged negatively sometimes when it should not be. It becomes difficult to find common information acceptable to both sides which is necessary for conflict resolution. Secondly, group identity distortions result in political polarization. The two sides of an issue see themselves as more extreme than they might actually be and retreat to more extreme positions which makes it even more difficult to manage problems. And third, the sense of being threatened or the recipient of hostile media attention creates conditions that justify more extreme or even violent behavior. The group considers its existence to be in jeopardy and this justifies more extreme behavior in the interest of “protecting themselves.” It is analogous to increasing constraints on civil rights in the face of terrorist activity.
How do we moderate group identity affects? We will pay some attention to that issue next week.
People enjoy political cartoons. They make for fast iconic processing and cut to the quick of a point. This cartoon by Steve Bell is clearly cynical and anti-Israel. Its essential point is clear enough – that Israel values its own lives greater than that of the Palestinians. An even deeper and more cynical and insensitive interpretation would be that “only” three lives are considered more significant than all of the Palestinians.
But the cartoon does represent the mindset that characterizes the perception of Israel. On the one hand, any culture disproportionally prefers its own people and interpretations of its culture that are favorable. Why wouldn’t an Israeli, or an American, or member of any other culture be at least just a little biased towards its own people and political conditions? But this cartoon doesn’t state an obvious political reality; it’s not a simple statement of support and preference for one’s own that anyone can understand. No, it’s an indictment. It is a charge that Israel considers itself to be superior, that the lives of three teenagers (three coffins draped in an Israeli flag) are considered more important than all the Palestinian suffering.
Political cartoons that are rich in interpretive possibilities lend themselves to multiple issues and implications. This one not only accuses Israel of unfair and biased attitudes about human life but also speaks to the issues of moral superiority and moral equivalence. It accuses Israel of considering themselves to be morally superior, which is why the death of the three teens outweighs the Palestinian experience or the other side of the scale. And even though, as referred to above, this is common enough and true of any political culture in the hands of a cynical cartoonist it becomes an accusation. Moreover, as part of this bias towards one’s own group, there is the matter of moral equivalence or the belief that your own group is equally as justified as any other group. If the killing of the three teenagers was the act of a crazed individual (such as in the case of Baruch Goldstein) then that is different than it being a political act. But if Hamas for example consciously planned to kidnap and kill three Israeli kids coming home from school as part of a political statement, then an aggressive response is justified.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sense of moral equivalence on both sides. The Palestinians believe they are morally superior because more of them have died, and the Israelis believe they are morally superior because of their developed political culture as well as the conviction that they are a legitimately established state that is surrounded by enemies and simply defending themselves.
Research on political cartoons reports that cartoonists want to expose the system and encourage resistance. They clearly have an agenda, which is fine because that’s their job. But a persistent bias toward one issue is no different than any journalist engaging in conscious and systematic bias with respect to an issue. An editorial cartoonist is particularly adept at exposing hypocrisy and absurdity and these cartoon moments are powerful when there is a consensus recognizing hypocrisy and absurdity. But a cartoonist who simply hammers away portraying his or her own biased political perspective is little more than a journalist hack.
Political cartoons are naturally critical and typically have a sharp cutting-edge humor and insight to them. And this is why we enjoy them. If they subvert those in power and draw attention to the corruption of deep or sacred principles than editorial cartoons are powerful communication forces. A cartoon may not prompt revolution in the streets but it can be and should be oppositional in the most honorable sense. If we laugh or see ourselves in bitter recognition then the cartoon is successful. But propagating an indefensible cultural stereotype aimed at one culture and interpreting that culture through a single lens (the accusation of Israeli moral superiority in this case) moves beyond insightful cartoons into the realm of rank bias.