Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bias Within Bias

Talking with a friend today after class, I remarked that much of my thinking on Israel/Palestin issues had moved away from the nuts and bolts of the conflict itself, and towards the meta-issue of how we talk about the conflict. This is the instinct that prompted my narrative frames post, for example. To a large extent, I truly do not believe that our society has figured out the ground rules of a conversation on this issue that allow all parties to participate while feeling like they are given equal consideration and due treatment. Because of this, the discussion on the discussion holds considerable importance to me--until we get that debate resolved, I believe the policy issues will indefinitely loop around and never actually be resolved.

In that vein, David Adnesik has a great post examining the claim that the media is more likely to report Israeli civilian casualties than their Palestinian counterparts. The subject of his inquiry is a report by FAIR that claims to have found this trend in NPR reporting on the conflict. This is FAIR's conclusion:
An Israeli civilian victim was more likely to have his or her death reported on NPR (84 percent were covered) than a member of the Israeli security forces (69 percent). But Palestinians were far more likely to have their deaths reported if they were security personnel (72 percent) than if they were civilians (22 percent). Of the 112 Palestinian civilians killed in the Occupied Territories during the period studied, just 26 were reported on NPR. Of the 28 Israeli civilians killed in the Territories--mostly settlers--21 were reported on NPR.

My narrative theory can account for this--indeed, on my earliest pieces on narrative dealt specifically with Journalistic Narratives. The narrative that creates this "bias" could be one of many things--it could be an implicit view that Israeli lives are more valuable than those of Palestinians. It could be that a desire for evenhandedness makes the media attempt to report casualties at a 1:1 rate, which yields the bias because there are far more casualties on the Palestinian side during the measured time period. It could be the manner in which Israeli deaths occur makes them more "reportable"--Adnesik notes that many of the Israeli deaths occur from massive suicide bombings that kill large numbers of civilians at once, while Palestinian deaths tend to happen in more isolated incidents. Any of these or other potential narratives, or any mix of these, could cause the disparity FAIR sees.

FAIR offered a spreadsheet to buttress its analysis, and Adnesik argues that it shows that the disparity is explainable by factors that are not related to any implicit devaluing of Palestinian life. The data apparently verifies my aforementioned point that Israelis tend to die in bunches, while Palestinians die one-by-one. He also points out that the status of many of the Palestinians FAIR labels as civilians is quite ambigious--FAIR does not seem to account for the presence of armed militants who aren't part of the official Palestinian Security apparatus, which seems like an elementary mistake--and the breakdown of what type of people are dying fits "the demographic profile of a fighting force." If NPR was more willing than FAIR to examine the prospect that some of these "civilians" were actually militants, it may then have decided that a battle that resulted in one death in a longstanding civil war is not worth its ink.

Thus, Adnesik concludes that
What NPR covered most was terrorism -- the intentional murder of civilians, especially when more than one was killed at a time. One might argue that a focus on terrorism is not the best way to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that is very different from arguing that the US media devalue Palestinian life and fear the retribution of the Jewish lobby.

So what do we draw from this? Well, as Adnesik says, one can argue that the focus on terrorism ends up biased towards Israel because the types of deaths it suffers are far more likely to meet the moniker than the deaths it inflicts. Or one could argue that NPR's decision calculus is perfectly acceptable, as there is a qualitative difference between civilians being delibertely targeted for death, and "civilians" who are possibly militants dying (or alternatively, civilians dying as collateral damage during operations against militants, which we've sort of internalized as one of the necessary tragedies of war).

Ultimately, then, the question of whether the media really is showing "bias" towards Israel is determined by whether its facial reasons for reporting disparity are coherent and meaningful conceptual categories, or are merely serving as a facade for the slant. That's not resolvable without getting inside people's psyches (again, back to the narrative frames issue), but at the very least, the reporting is not inarguably biased in favor of Israel.


Anonymous said...

It is beyond absurd to conclude the media is bias in favor of Israel. But being as far to the left as they are, not surprisingly, FAIR would see it that way. And of course they would also not be able to make moral distinctions between Israeli civilians deliberately targeted for murder, and palestinian terrorists being killed by Israel, or civilians accidently killed by Israel in the midst of fighting terrorists.

Anonymous said...

"but at the very least, the reporting is not inarguably biased in favor of Israel."

You are absolutely right. Also, at the very least, the reporting of is not inarguably biased in favor of Bush.