Category Archives: Palestine

Twenty years later, lessons learned about media bias are even more relevant

People have the amazing ability to create their own reality. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan one said that Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” but what about when everyone has the same facts? A ground breaking study of perceived media bias during Israel’s first foray into Lebanon revealed that for the most part, the media just can’t win. While media bias does exist, and perfect objectiveness is next to impossible, viewer bias may exist even more, and viewer objectiveness may be as rare as a peaceful night in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Two Views of the Same News Find Opposite Biases

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006; A02

You could be forgiven for thinking the television images in the experiment were from 2006. They were really from 1982: Israeli forces were clashing with Arab militants in Lebanon. The world was watching, charges were flying, and the air was thick with grievance, hurt and outrage.

There was only one thing on which pro-Israeli and pro-Arab audiences agreed. Both were certain that media coverage in the United States was hopelessly biased in favor of the other side.

The endlessly recursive conflict in the Middle East provides any number of instructive morals about human nature, but it also offers a psychological window into the world of partisan behavior. Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon sparked some of the earliest experiments into why people reach dramatically different conclusions about the same events.

The results say a lot about partisan behavior in general — why Republicans and Democrats love to hate each other, for example, or why Coke and Pepsi fans clash. Sadly, the results also say a lot about the newest conflicts between Israel and its enemies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and why news organizations are being besieged with angry complaints from both sides.

Partisans, it turns out, don’t just arrive at different conclusions; they see entirely different worlds . In one especially telling experiment, researchers showed 144 observers six television news segments about Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon.

Pro-Arab viewers heard 42 references that painted Israel in a positive light and 26 references that painted Israel unfavorably.

Pro-Israeli viewers, who watched the very same clips, spotted 16 references that painted Israel positively and 57 references that painted Israel negatively.

Both groups were certain they were right and that the other side didn’t know what it was talking about.

The tendency to see bias in the news — now the raison d’etre of much of the blogosphere — is such a reliable indicator of partisan thinking that researchers coined a term, “hostile media effect,” to describe the sincere belief among partisans that news reports are painting them in the worst possible light.

Were pro-Israeli and pro-Arab viewers who were especially knowledgeable about the conflict immune from such distortions? Amazingly, it turned out to be exactly the opposite, Stanford psychologist Lee D. Ross said. The best-informed partisans were the most likely to see bias against their side.

Ross thinks this is because partisans often feel the news lacks context. Instead of just showing a missile killing civilians, in other words, partisans on both sides want the news to explain the history of events that prompted — and could have justified — the missile. The more knowledgeable people are, the more context they find missing.

Even more curious, the hostile media effect seems to apply only to news sources that strive for balance. News reports from obviously biased sources usually draw fewer charges of bias. Partisans, it turns out, find it easier to countenance obvious propaganda than news accounts that explore both sides.

“If I think the world is black, and you think the world is white, and someone comes along and says it is gray, we will both think that person is biased,” Ross said.

The experiment, of course, did not address whether news reports were in fact biased — who would decide? — or how the media ought to cover conflicts. Partisans argue that assigning equal weight to both sides is wrong when one side (theirs) is right. In any event, psychologists such as Ross are less interested in rating the news or in which side is right than in the curiosities of human perception: Why are partisans invariably blind to how news coverage might help their side?

If someone says several nice things about you and one derogatory thing, what sticks in your mind? People who are deeply invested in one side are quicker to spot and remember aspects of the news that hurt than they are to see aspects that help, said Richard Perloff, a Cleveland State University political communication researcher.

Perloff elicited the same clashing perceptions of bias from pro-Israeli and pro-Arab audiences when he showed them news clips with equal amounts of violence.

Ross and Perloff both found that what partisans worry about the most is the impact of the news on neutral observers. But the data suggest such worry is misplaced. Neutral observers are better than partisans at seeing flaws and virtues on both sides. Partisans, it turns out, are particularly susceptible to the general human belief that other people are susceptible to propaganda.

“When you are persuaded by something, you don’t think it is propaganda,” Ross said. “Israelis know they see the world the way they do because they are Israelis, and Arabs, too. The difference is people think in their case, their special identities are a source of enlightenment, whereas other people’s source of enlightenment is a source of bias.”


Question of the Week

I sometimes wish there were a voicemail number at the United Nations, the White House, or any location where world leaders congregate that anyone in the world could call to make suggestions. Of course this would never happen for any number of reasons, not least of which is the practicality of the whole matter. Who would listen to the several million inane ideas each day while trying to identify the three or four that could make a difference? However, at the same time, with so many intractable conflicts around the world, maybe we should listen to the know-it-all college student or the single mom who has somehow brokered a peace deal between her two warring preteens. In the spirit of no idea being too stupid to consider,  I bring you this weeks question:

How would you solve the Hezbollah/Israel/Lebanon/Syria/Iran crisis? Leave your answers in the comment section.

The Middle East Cheat Sheet

Are you confused about the Middle East Conflict? If you have been paying attention, you should be. While I may not agree with everything here, and would tend to place more relationships in the “It’s complicated” category, this should at least keep your head from spinning for a few minutes.

Archived Audio from NPR’s Talk of the Nation Special on the Situation in the Middle East

This was an excellent overview of the current situation, the motivations of the major players, and where we are all headed.

Talk of the Nation, July 17, 2006 · Attacks and counter attacks between Israel and Hezbollah raise fears of a broader regional conflict in the Middle East. Guests cover the latest developments there and dimming prospects for peace.


Loren Jenkins, NPR senior foreign editor

Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat, a pan-Arab, Arabic language newspaper

Michael Herzog, visiting military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the 2005 book The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course

Sen. George Mitchell, former Democratic lawmaker from Maine and chairman of the Sharm el-Sheikh International Fact-Finding Committee

In a War Over Land, Geography Matters

At the core of the latest middle east conflict, and other wars over the last few thousand years, is land that at least four religions consider holy (The Baha’i faith joins the big three). Children learn a remarkable amount about the geography of the middle east through religious institutions. However where Jesus turned water into wine, where David defeated Goliath, or where Ismael was abandoned does not necessarily translate into understanding how geography plays a role in the latest conflict. With the help of Google Earth, I hope to explore this a bit.

The obvious first step is to show who all the major players are.

Middle east overviewIsrael and Hezbollah (based in Southern Lebanon and the Southern suburbs of Beirut) have been attacking each other over the past week. Hezbollah receives financial support from Syria and Iran (direct east of Iraq) and possibly weapons and soldiers. Because Lebanon and Syria share a border, there is little than Israel or any other state can do to prevent the transfer of money and weapons between Syria and Lebanon. Conflict in this region is nothing new. Lebanon was simultaneously occupied by Syria and Israel, and has limited sovereignty due to this as well as Hezbollah’s presence in the southern part of the country.
What makes this conflict different, and more explosive, is the fact that Hezbollah has responded to Israel’s attacks with a barrage of rockets that have struck deep inside Israel. The yellow line connecting the Israel-Lebanon border and Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city is only 80 miles long. Haifa, Israel’s third largest city is within thirty miles of the border. This places the majority of Israel’s population within the line of fire. The entire Lebanese population is within striking distance of the Israeli airforce.

Lebanon elevation Israels has dropped hundreds of bombs all over Lebanon, especially in the southern part of the country, but if anything rocket attacks have increased. As you might imagine from the image, this incredibly rugged and sparsely populated region is ideal cover for a guerrilla army. This image looks north into southern Lebanon from near the Israel-Lebanon border.

The last image is of the area surrounding Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. It shows both the stark differences between Palestinian and Israeli controlled land. The Gaza strip is one of the poorest and most densely populated places on earth, while the Israeli side of the border is cultivated farm land. This obvious inequality has been the basis of support for Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas, who sparked the latest conflict by abducting two Israeli soldiers.

I hope to include more maps and images to better illuminate what can be a very confusing part of the world.