Covering Gaza: Is the Mainstream Media Discourse Changing on Palestine/Israel

As Israeli occupation forces carried out a brutal response against 30,000 Palestinians protesters in Gaza, Washington, DC—and much of the international community—remained largely silent.

Questions that crossed the minds of many who work for justice in Palestine were: What if the situation were reversed and Palestinians had killed 18 Israelis and wounded more than a thousand? Would media coverage and official attention in the United States and elsewhere have been the same? The answer is a resounding no to both.

Before the protests in Gaza took place, Israel’s PR machine prepared the international community for what was to come: framing protesters as “terrorists,” blaming Hamas, and calling Gaza a “combat zone.” This was Israel’s method to “manufacture consent” for its planned lethal action against the besieged population.

While predominantly unarmed Palestinians—who posed no threat to Israeli soldiers—were gunned down by Israeli snipers’ live ammunition, the American mainstream media largely reported of “clashes,” “confrontations,” and “violence.”

Here, as has been the case with press coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general, three features are evident in the reporting on the protests that started on March 30.

First, the dehumanization of Palestinians is a recurring theme in US media reporting. None of the names of the 18 Palestinian victims shot to death were mentioned nor were any personal stories about them, their families, or their struggles. This comes in stark contrast to the usual reporting on Israeli victims, in which their pictures, lives, and grieving families are repeatedly shown and discussed.

Such dehumanizing coverage further echoes the Israeli narrative of justification, which is often reported as the reliable account. Thus, the second and related feature of American media coverage is the biased use of sources. In several media reports of the Gaza protests over the last week, Israeli military and official statements and spokespersons have been disproportionately consulted to explain the events. It was rare to see Palestinian leaders, analysts, or witnesses interviewed and very few were cited; and when present, they were given significantly less time and page space. Indeed, taking the talking points of an occupying power as facts, without questioning or verifying the information, is, at best, sloppy and incomplete journalism.

A third aspect of US media reporting on Palestine involves the decontextualization of the narrative. Despite Gaza’s deteriorating humanitarian situation, the 12-year-long Israeli siege of Gaza, and the continued denial of Palestinian rights by Israel in contravention of international law, the coverage of the mass protests in Gaza has been stripped of any context. The lack of mention of any history, legal frameworks, or power structures on the ground communicates a limited and misleading narrative.

While new and alternative media outlets on the liberal end of the spectrum have been providing more complete and nuanced coverage, they remain secondary to the mainstream press; and they, too, sometimes fall into the trap of the “both sides” line, providing the false impression that there is a power balance in this conflict.

Additionally, in today’s digital and social media age, raw user videos tell a different story. With the availability of digital media tools and the distribution of videos showing several unarmed Palestinians (praying, taking pictures, etc.) being shot and killed by Israeli snipers, international human rights organizations and some nation-states have condemned the Israel killings. There was even an attempt to issue a statement by the UN Security Council and there have been calls for an investigation into the killings, but both were rejected and blocked by the United States and Israel.

Social media is increasingly playing an important role in informing public opinion in the United States. The shift in public opinion among Democrats towards Palestine/Israel in the last few years is likely a reflection of the social media’s influence. In turn, some press outlets, especially those that claim to be liberal, may have realized that they need to cater to their viewers if they do not want to lose them to more progressive online platforms. As such, we are beginning to see a shift among prominent, albeit few, media personalities and news channels including Ayman Mohyeldin and Chris Hayes of MSNBC, the Washington Post, and to some extent the New York Times.

The challenge with social media, however, is similar to that with the mainstream media: those with more power and resources can afford to set the agenda. Since the backlash from international human rights organizations, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been tweeting specially designed and created high quality videos, images, and graphics that dehumanize the Palestinian protesters, label the mass protests by a besieged and desperate population as “violent riots,” and force the “terrorist/ Hamas” narrative onto the protests. These images were happily shared by Israel apologists in the United States, justifying the illegal killing of unarmed protesters who posed no threat to Israeli soldiers and did not cross the border fence. While these civilian deaths and injuries constitute a clear violation of international law, in the court of public opinion, the narrative of the powerful party—Israel and the IDF—dominates.

As the media continues to play a significant role in shaping public perceptions and impacting decision-making and policy outcomes, the American press has a responsibility to provide factual and balanced reporting on one of the most important and volatile issues in the world today. With the availability of first-hand accounts on social media, it is becoming harder for the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs to spin the facts and for the mainstream media in the United States to mirror the Israeli rhetoric. More and more now, the power is shifting to the hands of the public (quite literally) and news outlets can no longer ignore that, even when it comes to Israel.