Palestine is perhaps one of the most oft-written about, oft-misunderstood topics when it comes to international news. Though it is portrayed as hopelessly complex, with an understanding of the topic unattainable for the average American, this mystique when it comes to the coverage of the plight of Palestinians seems somewhat deliberate, as it is in the interest of the Israeli PR machine, also known as “hasbara.”
There are a number of areas that are problematic when it comes to coverage of Palestine in American mainstream media, ranging from headlines like the one below, to descriptions of events on the ground that end up favoring one side over the other — which in this case means advocating for Israelis over Palestinians. For example, the headline below is from the New York Times and was published on May 7, 2021. The original headline makes it seem as if the “evictions” are the cause of the “conflict,” a starting point of the recent violence. The correction, however, is more accurate.
So what is really happening when it comes to the media coverage of the Israel–Palestine issue?
THE MYTH OF OBJECTIVITY
The conversation among journalists surrounding the concept of objectivity has intensified in the past few years, as Black, Latinx and journalists from other minority groups have been vocal about the weaponization of the concept of objectivity as a means to silence journalists from these backgrounds. Journalists from marginalized communities are often prevented from covering issues they are actually both familiar with and affected by, under the guise of objectivity. Many have exposed this concept for what it truly is: largely an effort to mainstream the dominant (and often white) narrative surrounding these communities. If Black people write about Black issues, and Latinx people write about Latinx issues, how can their work be trusted? The underlying sentiment is that in order for a story to be told objectively, it must come from an unbiased, white, voice.
This same white supremacist logic has been applied to coverage of Palestine: Palestinian (and by extension, Arab and Muslim) voices are considered biased, as they can never separate themselves from the story. In 2014, Ayman Moyheldin was removed from his post covering Gaza, which many believed was due to his sympathetic coverage of Palestinians, and only later reinstated after complaints from viewers and other journalists. Yet, the same logic is not evenly applied to openly Zionist journalists, whose voices are amplified both in newsrooms, and as sources, when it comes to coverage of Palestine. The facade of neutrality continues to uphold the status quo and maintain the dominant narrative.
Journalists face the constant fear of being blacklisted for fair coverage, as well as for their advocacy for Palestinian liberation. Numerous examples exist of journalists being either taken off of assignments because of their connection to Palestine, or even losing their job. This issue surfaced most recently with the Associated Press (AP) and their termination of news associate Emily Wilder due to her previous involvement with college campus group “Students for Justice in Palestine.” Ironically, this was just days after the AP had their office in Gaza bombed by an Israeli airstrike. In fact, even the AP Stylebook “urges against references to ‘Palestine’ because it is not a fully independent, unified state.”
IS THE MEDIA REALLY COVERING “BOTH SIDES”?
In addition to the amplification of non-Indigenous voices when it comes to coverage of Palestine is the insistence on presenting “both sides” of the issue equally, allowing equal space, coverage, and time to both sides of the story. While this may be necessary when covering politics or other issues in which gradations of opinions exist, this does not — and should not — apply to covering a situation where it is clear who the occupying power is, and who the occupied people are. This framework does not account for the drastic imbalance of power in the Palestinian narrative and the lack of representation of Palestinian voices in both media and politics. If journalists today were covering the process of British decolonization in India, would there — or should there be — an insistence on giving equal weight and time to spokespeople from the British government versus the leaders of the Indian independence movement?
Those who seek to amplify Palestinian voices also have to deal with the pressure to always include the settler colonial voice in the same piece. Sourcing becomes an added dimension of difficulty when it comes to including Palestinian perspectives. While the Israeli government has a centralized cadre of government officials, spokespeople, ambassadors, and PR representatives available for comments at any time, reporters seeking Palestinian representation in their pieces, especially at the local level, often resort to man-on-the-street type interviews with whoever they can locate at protests, rallies or in areas in the United States known to have a significant Palestinian population. Palestiniains, however, are stateless, occupied, and scattered across the globe. In other words, Palestinians do not have a single go-to source of representation that is trained to speak for them. While the international community may consider the Palestinian National Authority (PA) as representing the Palestinian people and their cause, many Palestinians do not think of the PA as representing their true interests, which range from getting their territory back from Israeli settlers to having equal rights within Israel.
CREATING FALSE NARRATIVES
The established framework for covering Palestine in American media also relies on problematic terminology and Orientalist paradigms. While individual journalists may make an effort to cover the issue more fairly, the overall narrative must undergo a paradigm shift to even begin to tell the story accurately.
It is no surprise to anyone who has watched a movie, television show or newscast in the past five or six decades that Palestinians, often conflated with Muslims generally in media, have been demonized as subhuman — people who glorify the “culture of martyrdom,” the idea that Palestinian and Muslim culture reinforce the concept of martyrdom, leading them to not only seek death but to embrace and even celebrate it. We hear commentators accusing Palestinians of “teaching their children to die,” or even the argument that various movements have used civilians as human shields.
Palestinians are stereotypically portrayed as irrationally filled with rage, shouting and rioting, covered in foreign attire and bloodthirsty. Manipulation of messaging and the presentation of their culture as inferior, barbaric and death-seeking removes culpability of the aggressor, justifying the use of any tactic or weapon necessary needed to excise the “target.” The victim appears to be the aggressor because their outrage can not be contained, while the warmonger can appear to be calm, calculated, and rational because they are under no real threat of violence. These Orientalist representations permeate all forms of media, especially news, from the inflammatory images chosen to accompany print articles, to the provocative, rather than analytical, sound bites chosen to accompany video packages. For example, NBC News published this headline on May 18, 2021: “Israel and Hamas trade attacks after Biden expresses support for cease-fire.” To the untrained eye or for those who are unaware of the history of the conflict, it seems harmless enough, and descriptive at best. What the headline, however, is really implying is that both sides are equal: “Trade attacks” indicates that the balance of power is symmetrical, when it is not.
At a micro level, the language used to tell the Palestinian story must undergo a serious revision. No longer can the terms “clash” or “conflict” be used to describe the situation.
A person being forcibly ripped from their home is not a “clash.”
A worshipper praying in a mosque does not “clash” with soldiers.
After speaking with people in the media during the past few weeks, a clear pattern has emerged: Many can sense change is afoot. Yes, the problematic coverage has not disappeared, but Palestinian voices have emerged in places they have scarcely been seen, heard or read before.
Palestinians and Israelis, therefore, are not engaged in a conflict, where two parties with equal access to power and resources are warring with each other. There is a war on Palestinians. They are not at war with Israel. Such language conditions your brain to think these are two groups of people who simply can’t get along. Simply put, this is a false narrative with faulty equivalencies. There is an occupier and the occupied. The settler colonizer and the Indigenous. The ideology preserving these dichotomies is not grounded in religion. Portraying the issue in terms of incompatible binaries not only misdirects the reader or viewer, but it also misrepresents the source of the problem and conflates it with religion. It is not a “civilizational clash” between Muslims and Jews either. Indigenous Palestinians come from all faith backgrounds, and all are equally impacted by Israeli apartheid.
The language of civilizational clashes and conflict must be replaced by the language of colonialism and apartheid — and liberation — when covering Palestine. Palestinians are not just Arabs or Muslims, but have a unique identity as an Indigenous people — and their identity determines their treatment while under Israeli occupation. As an occupied people, they face the consequences of living under a settler colonialist state that enforces an apartheid system.
Palestinians have been facing ethnic cleansing and forced dispossession for more than 73 years. Journalists must not shy away from using these and other terms like “war crimes,” “genocide,” and “crimes against humanity” when discussing this issue. They can not and should not use Hamas as a synecdoche for all Palestinians. The identity of the Palestinian people and their global call for liberation can not — and should not — be subsumed under one faction. This is dangerous because it creates the false impression that Hamas possesses all of the resources and rights of an autonomous state at war with another autonomous state, when it certainly does not. Grounding coverage of Palestine in the language of other anti-colonial movements is essential to accurately portraying the dynamics on the ground and in the diaspora.
HAS THE SHIFT BEGUN?
After speaking with people in the media during the past few weeks, a clear pattern has emerged: Many can sense change is afoot. Yes, the problematic coverage has not disappeared, but Palestinian voices have emerged in places they have scarcely been seen, heard or read before. Even the New York Times, notorious for its imbalanced coverage of Israel-Palestine, has published several op-eds and reported pieces that highlight the Palestinian experience and humanize their daily lives under occupation. Reporting by Vice News gave American audiences first-hand footage of the battle for Jerusalem. Sibling dynamic duo Muna and Mohammed Al-Kurd have become social media sensations, challenging Zionist narratives with their tweets, videos and appearances on mainstream media outlets as well. Even local news outlets have made an increasing effort to seek out Palestinians in their communities, rather than simply relying on footage and interviews from wire sources.
So why is this time different? One reason is that the proliferation of multiple social media platforms since the last major Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza in 2014 has led to more citizen journalists all over Gaza and the West Bank capturing the incursions and bombing firsthand — and live. Blogs, vlogs, Tiktoks, Instagram, and Facebook live streams captured the raw and brutal reality of life during Israel’s assault on Gaza. Many of the voices coming out of Gaza had already built significant followings among Americans since 2014, and these audiences only grew. While Israeli sources attempted to drum up sympathy for those allegedly living in fear of being hit by a Hamas rocket, Twitter, and Snapchat users quickly debunked those claims by drawing attention to the Snapchat feature where users could zero in on a particular area of the globe and view stories live from those locations. Needless to say, the scenes looked very different inside Gaza versus inside Israeli-inhabited areas.
In the United States, much credit is due to the Black Lives Matter movement in bringing attention to the Palestinian cause and the need to listen Palestinian voices. By both making statements expressing solidarity with Palestinians and grounding the discourse surrounding justice in Palestine in the larger movement for social justice both domestically and globally, the BLM movement created a clear parallel between the struggles of both groups of marginalized people. Americans have finally begun to see the struggle for Palestinian liberation as an anticolonial, anti-apartheid struggle. Palestinians, like Black Americans, are victims of systemic forms of racism that vilify them in the media, oppress them in daily life, deny them access to resources of all forms, and inhibit their enfranchisement. The framing of Zionism as a form of racism — and the fuel behind an apartheid system — has made the plight of Palestinians more accessible to many Americans. The voices of giants, such as Angela Davis and Marc Lamont Hill, and community organizations, including the Dream Defenders, have cemented the bonds between the Black American and Palestinian struggles, designating our struggle as one. As a result of the mainstreaming of this narrative, the tone in many publications has changed.
Within the eyes of the mainstream American media, Palestinians have suddenly become worthy of having their stories told. Americans are slowly awakening to the realization that from Ferguson to Palestine, occupation, state-sanctioned violence, incarceration, and police brutality impact marginalized people the same.
Deanna Othman is a journalist and educator from Chicago, IL.