Press Reporting During the Intifada: Palestinian Coverage of Jenin
Much of what we know, believe, or think is affected by the news we
read. The power of the press is reflected in the description of the
press as the "fourth branch of government." This description shows
the enormous influence the press has on shaping public opinion and
changing the behavior and attitudes of citizens and policymakers in
the "information age". In today's world, news moves very fast, due
primarily to satellites, the Internet, faxes, television, radio,
mobile phones, newspapers, magazines, and other popular means of
communication. Unfortunately, the price paid for passing along
information with greater speed is that news coverage has become
less thorough and less accurate.
Those who make the news depend on the media to spread their views
and ideas to the public. Newsmakers rely on journalists to get
their message out at the same time that reporters rely on
newsmakers to keep them informed. When access to information is
impeded and reporters' freedom of movement and observation is
restricted, news reporting is severely damaged. This will have a
negative impact on the democratic system, since widespread access
to information can be the greatest boon to democracy, increasing
people's political awareness and participation.
Ideally, the news should mirror reality. However, in practice, this
is not the case. In his book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan
coined the famous phrase, "The medium is the message." By this,
McLuhan meant that the way events are conveyed can be more
important than the events themselves. In Palestine, news is
conveyed through a media driven by the urge to make and promote a
political stand, as opposed to providing a public service. This
article attempts to answer the question: Does news reporting
contain political or ideological bias and to what extent does that
Post-Oslo News Reporting
In the post-Oslo, pre-Al-Aqsa Intifada days (September
1993-September 2000), news coverage of the symptoms and causes of
potential conflict not only failed to prevent fighting from
breaking out but may have accelerated it by widening the gap
between the two peoples. Media coverage gave only skimpy attention
to the burning political and economic challenges facing the Oslo
peace process and coverage of complex problems was superficial.
Peace news is not exciting; conflict, violence and tragic news have
the drama that attracts attention and interest. Often, journalists'
political attitudes swayed their reporting. Reporting was
systematically biased against the Oslo peace process. Rarely were
stories presented in a "point/counterpoint" format in which the two
opposing points of view (Palestinian versus Israeli) were
presented, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions.
Sensitive issues were avoided, rather than confronted, and tension
continued to mount until Ariel Sharon's visit to the Haram
al-Sharif/Temple Mount sparked the second Intifada.
In the post-Al-Aqsa Intifada days (September 2000-present), the
"conflict approach" to news coverage gave prominence to spreading
violence. Violent news became "headline news" while "conciliation
news" became "no news". Palestinian press at high-profile events
offered emotional reporting. This is in line with a culture that
exhibits little tolerance for the views of others and has a
tradition of monopolizing the truth.1 As the conflict with Israel
continued to worsen, the two main newspapers distributed in the
Palestinian Territories, Al-Quds, published in Jerusalem, and
Al-Ayyam, published in Ramallah,2 became a valuable resource for
Palestinians thirsty for news about the latest developments. Both
papers focused on the civilian casualties, physical damage and
destruction to property.
But sorting facts from emotional reporting and extremism may prove
difficult. Press coverage, and in particular editorials, took a
subjective look at Palestinian events. The news reporting, essays
and photos published in the Palestinian press aimed to bolster
Palestinian views3, to stir reactions against Israel and to drum up
international support for the Palestinian cause. News reporters,
like politicians, found it hard to be objective.
In general, Palestinian news coverage of the Israeli incursion of
Jenin in April 2002 has been biased, emotional, exaggerated,
inconsistent, sloppy, and jingoistic. This was not deliberate or
malicious but rather was due to the lack of professional,
well-trained, qualified reporters. Here we have a distraught public
being "injected" with exaggeratedly emotional information, echoing
the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Covering the news from Jenin camp,
the Palestinian media reported what people suspected and feared,
not what was actually happening.
Palestinian news coverage of what happened in Jenin was influenced
by a number of different events:
1. Israeli reluctance to allow news teams access to the camp. The
way news is collected from the field and what information is
gathered determines what is later reported. In the first days of
the event, Palestinian coverage of the news was restricted to the
military confrontation between the Israeli army and Palestinian
fighters. The Israeli army forbade journalists, reporters and
cameramen from approaching the camp for the first 10 days. They
neither allowed nor facilitated the presence of media reporters
(foreign, Israeli, or Palestinian) to Jenin refugee camp. A
spokesman for the Israeli army stated that reporters were not
allowed in the area for their own safety. Many journalists depended
on the following sources for information:
(a) Communiqués issued by both sides.
(b) Sources belonging to the two sides who were close to the
(c) Eyewitnesses leaving the battleground surroundings.
All those sources may have an interest in portraying their enemy in
the worst possible light.
2. Palestinian Authority eagerness to turn Jenin into an "Alamo
episode." Here the press was a willing partner; they aspired to
make Jenin a symbol of resistance for the Palestinians.
3. Editors reluctance to report unfavorable information, data, or
photos; the Israeli press reported that the Israeli army tried to
help civilians by:
(a) Distributing food supplies.
(b) Providing oxygen and an Israeli electric generator to a
(c) Transferring 83 sick and wounded people to hospitals in
(d) Sending technicians from Jerusalem Electric Company to repair
the electric network in Jenin.
(e) Fixing drinking water pipes.
(f) Operating a water well that was broken.
No such news items were reported in the Palestinian press. Were
they untrue? The Palestinian press portrayed the Israeli army as
going out of its way to inflict as much senseless harm, injury,
humiliation, suffering, property destruction and infrastructure
damage as possible.
4. Editors' reluctance to show photos of Israeli victims, since the
public may interpret this as sympathy for the Israelis. While
Palestinian deaths received much headline coverage, Israeli victims
did not. There was no single picture of a mourning Israeli parent
or child published in the Palestinian press following a violent
attack on civilians. Rarely would the Palestinian press inform its
readers about the human stories of Israeli victims, their photos,
their name, their background, etc. The images Palestinians saw of
suicide attacks on Israeli civilian targets were highly dehumanized
- remains of the destroyed bus or rubble of the building bombed.
Israeli victims were faceless and anonymous.
5. Reporters' willingness to use unreliable sources, which turned
out to be wrong. For example, they initially reported an
exaggerated number of victims in Jenin, quoting an official
Palestinian source. This led to increased public concern and
allowed rumors to spread. As a result, the number of Palestinians
killed in Jenin refugee camp dropped from 5,000 to 3,000 to 500 to
300 to 100 and, eventually, to 52, nearly half of whom were
In studying the mechanisms of choosing language and descriptions to
report on each event, we found that Palestinian newspapers
carefully chose their language and their descriptions in order to
give the event its emotional dimension. They played with words and
used photos and editorial cartoons extensively to influence
Palestinian, Arab and world public opinion. They were emotional
and, at times, inaccurate when describing events in Jenin. In
general, they failed to give people the true picture of what was
1.Use of Numbers for Victims. Palestinian newspapers gave an
exaggerated and vague number of victims. For example, they said
tens or hundreds, rather than using exact figures. This led to
increased public concern and rumors about a new "holocaust" taking
place in the Palestinian territories.
2. Use of Humanitarian Stories. In describing Palestinian
suffering, Palestinian newspapers used highly emotional
humanitarian stories describing the victimization of families to
draw world sympathy to their cause.
3. Use of Photos. Palestinian newspapers used graphic photos of
dead people, which normally the press would avoid publishing. They
also used photos of demolished homes and children, women and old
men suffering and in pain. In contrast, not one single photo was
printed in any Palestinian newspaper of an Israeli victim of
4. Use of Comparative Descriptions. In one quotation, the sight of
the Jenin camp was compared to "Berlin in 1945."
5. Use of Nationalistic Slogans. The Palestinian press highlighted
Palestinian military resistance against the invading Israeli army
as something patriotic; they described the events in heroic terms
(e.g. slogans, flags, songs, poems, pictures of martyrs). One
headline read: "Residents of Jenin Camp Swear: We shall never
forget." They used emotive descriptions to note the heroism of the
fighters (e.g. cruel resistance) and to describe the victims (e.g.
massacre, collective killing, etc.).
6. Use of Israeli and International News Stories. They selected
stories or editorials from the Arab, Israeli and international
press that would enforce the Palestinian public's views.
The Palestinian press covered events in Jenin more intensively than
any other single occurence during the Israeli reoccupation of the
West Bank. For months, the newspapers wrote about it, whereas
coverage of violent Israeli actions in areas such as in Nablus,
Hebron, and Gaza were limited. One reason for this may have been
the media's efforts to inspire the creation of a heroic
1. What you read in the papers is not necessarily what happened.
News reporters and newspapers are not perfect. Disinformation,
unfounded accusations and distortion, as well as factual
information and accurate reporting, are printed in the press or
transmitted by television and web sites.
2. Access to events is directly related to the quality of the news.
The more access a reporter has to events, the better the
3. Much of what we read reinforces our beliefs and convictions. Any
news item seeking to change our minds or our beliefs will be
confronting not just a political prejudice but a cultural one. The
more evidence that is accumulated against our point of view, the
more we cling tenaciously to it. To us, they are cruel; to them, we
are evil. There was no need for hard evidence for the Palestinians
to believe that the Israelis committed widespread atrocities in
Jenin. Any evidence accumulated against the Israelis only
reinforced people's beliefs and convictions.
What Needs to be Done
Editors and reporters should take heed of the following:
1. Be aware of the potential harm each news item might have for the
news audience. Thus, think in terms of accuracy, objectivity,
clarity, prominence, and honesty in reporting the news. Inaccurate,
biased and vague reporting, as well as efforts to de-legitimize
"the other", threaten the credibility of the newspaper. A reporter
should distance himself from his people and culture in reporting
the news because bias produces a negative perspective, stereotypes
and dishonest views.
2. Banish highly emotional terms such as "massacres",
"catastrophe", "hell", "disaster", etc. from headlines to avoid
harmful ripple effects resulting in tragic consequences. Editors
and reporters should anticipate that such terms have the power to
intensify public fear, cause panic and could result in flight or
incite violent revenge.
3. Filter and tone down stories of high drama and violence that may
cause public anger and concern. The lynching of two Israelis
arrested in the city center of Ramallah was fueled by photos
published the day before in the local press of a Palestinian
tortured and killed by fanatical Israeli settlers.
4. Keep in mind "the public's right to know" when covering the
news. Not reporting an event because it "humanizes the other" or
conflicts with public beliefs will do more harm than good.
5. Choose news sources very carefully as the information and data
they provide will be reported in today's press and become
tomorrow's history. This carries special significance in times of
conflict or crisis.
6. Build up competency by attending training workshops and
seminars. Good news reporting depends on the competence of the
reporters and journalists.
7. Decrease the emphasis on conflict and discord in covering the
news and increase the emphasis on stories of conciliation,
forgiveness and tolerance.
The Palestinian print media have played a significant role in
shaping the history and politics of the Palestinian people and they
continue to provide the most thorough information about political
issues. Nonetheless, public confidence in news coverage by the
print media is on the wane. One may attribute this declining
interest to a growing lack of confidence and faith in the media,
due to accusations of media bias and distortion, media control, as
well as politicization, and over-emotional reporting.
The domination of the Palestinian media by a few individuals means
that: (a) citizens do not have access to multiple points of views;
and (b) the quality of news coverage is reduced. These problems are
compounded by a culture, as well as a political and educational
system, that does not encourage citizens to think critically, and
does not tolerate citizens who publicly voice opposing views or
constructive criticisms. This has caused many Palestinians to be
concerned about the future of democracy in the future State of
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* Based on the study entitled "Media Images of the Other in Israel
and the Palestinian Territories: Covering One Another During the
Second Intifada", conducted by Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld, Truman
Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, with Prof. Mohammed S. Dajani, The Sartawi
Center for the Advancement of Peace at Al-Quds University, and
sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation.
1 Without enforcing any official censorship, it will be nearly
impossible for a Palestinian to publish in any daily newspaper
today an editorial on taboo topics, such as supporting the US war
on Iraq, condemning suicide bombing, advocating abortion, exposing
corruption within the PNA, or calling for the end of the
2 In the Palestinian Territories, there are three daily newspapers
in circulation: Al-Quds published in Jerusalem, Al-Ayyam and
Al-Hayat al-Jadida, published in Ramallah. The first two were
selected for the study because of their wide circulation in the
Palestinian Territories. In a public opinion poll on Palestinian
attitudes towards politics conducted by Jerusalem Media and
Communications Centre in October 1999, Al-Quds newspaper got the
highest ratings in terms of readers (57.3 percent) and the highest
ratio of confidence (59.4 percent). Al-Ayyam followed far behind.
It is no surprise that the Palestinian newspapers are no New York
Times or Washington Post.
3 The average Palestinian newspaper reader glances at headlines,
looks at the photos, and reads the editorial cartoons. The
editorial cartoons published in the Palestinian press reflect an
anti-Israeli, anti-American, anti-Arab, anti-Oslo bias while, on
the other hand, they reflect a pro-Intifada, pro-Iraqi, pro-reform,