Palestine protest Palestine protest. Photo: Alisdare Hickson / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The media’s language describing Israel’s attack on Gaza shows a systematic pro-Israeli stance, but our protests do have a political impact, argues Des Freedman

The mainstream media have played a crucial role in facilitating Israel’s genocidal attack on the people on Gaza by legitimising its military campaign and failing to hold to account those politicians who are backing the attack. 

Academics Greg Philo and Mike Berry analysed four weeks of BBC news coverage and found that references to ‘murder’ and ‘mass murder’ were used regularly in relation to Israeli deaths but not in relation to Palestinian ones. They found that there was a lack of historical context in the output and that the ‘Palestinian perspective is effectively absent from the coverage’.

Research I carried out for Declassified UK revealed how none of the main UK news outlets investigated the growing allegations that genocide was taking place in Gaza and that they only changed their tune (and only for a short time) once South Africa had taken its case to the International Court of Justice.

Earlier this year, a detailed analysis of elite US-news coverage of Gaza published in the Intercept found that leading newspapers ‘disproportionately emphasized Israeli deaths in the conflict; used emotive language to describe the killings of Israelis but not Palestinians; and offered lopsided coverage of antisemitic acts in the U.S., while largely ignoring anti-Muslim racism in the wake of October 7.’

Now a really comprehensive analysis of (mostly) UK media coverage has been produced by the Centre for Media Monitoring (CMM) that demonstrates conclusively that all too often, key news outlets amplify official Israeli sources while shutting down pro-Palestinian perspectives. As the journalist Peter Oborne writes in his foreword, leading journalists and broadcasters ‘have used every trick in the book to paint a false story of the war. They’ve twisted the facts, promoted falsehoods, collaborated with fabrications, lied by omissions, and far too often failed to correct their mistakes.’

The report has some significant findings. For example, it found that:

  • 76% of online articles describe the ongoing attack as an ‘Israel-Hamas war’ marginalising other frames.
  • The fact of occupation is systematically ignored in the vast majority of coverage.
  • Broadcast news promoted ‘Israel’s right’ to defend itself, as compared to the right of Palestinians to defend themselves, by a ratio of 5 to 1.
  • Emotive language about victims was far more likely to be used in relation to Israeli, rather than Palestinian, deaths with over 70% of all references to ‘atrocities’, ‘slaughter’ and ‘massacre’ attached to Israeli victims.
  • TV coverage referenced Israeli perspectives three times as much as Palestinian ones, which were often ‘either dismissed, omitted or minimised’.
  • Journalists failed systematically to challenge unverified claims, for example in relation to allegations of ‘beheaded babies’ where out of 361 mentions on TV news, only 52 actually interrogated these claims.

The CMM report concludes that a large bulk of the coverage frames events as a conflict between Israel and Hamas – the position of the Israeli government – and not as a broader attack on Palestinians in Gaza and beyond.

Of course, there are some exceptions to the amplification of official Western sources and some critical questioning of Israeli authorities, but the default position is one in which Israel has an unambiguous right to defend itself and where Palestinians are largely denied agency and history.

Media coverage all too often fails to treat Palestinian and Israeli lives as equally valuable, fails to provide suitable historical context, and fails systematically to investigate and challenge Israeli narratives. This is aided by the use of language which, as we saw in relation to the Iraq War, privileges official Western frames and policy priorities and, in this case, reduces Palestinians to the status either of voiceless victims or bloodthirsty terrorists. 

Terrible things seem to happen to Palestinians without explicitly and consistently calling out the perpetrators. This refers to the media’s use of the ‘passive voice’ – a form of dehumanisation and marginalisation.

I have compiled below only a small sample of the dehumanising, marginalising and mystifying language used by the media which serves to hide the real horrors that have been unleashed by Israel – with the support of countries like the US, Germany and the UK – on the people of Gaza.

What they sayWhat they mean
Israel-Hamas warIsraeli assault on Gaza
humanitarian crisisgenocide
military presenceoccupation
died as a result of a lack of foodstarved
starvation is stalking Gaza’s childrenIsraeli policies are starving children to death
dehydrating to deathIsraeli policies are killing people
evacuationforced removal
voluntary emigrationethnic cleansing
humanitarian corridordeadly war zone
chaotic scenesmassacre
bombs are fallingIsrael is bombing
susceptible to combat operationsbombed
precision strikedeadly attack
lives lostmurdered
the only democracy in the Middle EastThe US’ watchdog in the Middle East

As we saw in the CMM report above, Palestinians are also treated differently to Israelis in the media’s routine and highly differentiated use of language.

When applied to IsraelisWhen applied to Palestinians
have been killedhave died
victimscollateral damage
deadliest dayroutine deaths
citizenshuman shields

What is the best response to this systematic misreporting of Israel’s attack on Gaza? Internal codes of conduct, ‘due impartiality’ and editorial guidelines will not shift the media from their underlying support for Western foreign policy, of which backing Israel is a crucial component.

Instead, we need to continue building the Palestine solidarity movement – with marches, occupations and divestment campaigns. The pressure exerted by this movement has already increased solidarity with Palestinians, forced Keir Starmer to talk about a ‘ceasefire that lasts’ and seen even US president Joe Biden ‘pivot’ on Gaza. 
We know that our campaigning is making a difference when Rishi Sunak is rattled enough to make an extraordinary Friday afternoon statement attacking pro-Palestinian peaceful protestors and elected politicians. Now only an intensification of popular pressure can put a decisive squeeze on the governments of the UK and US – and their complicit media outlets – and help to bring about an end to this genocide.

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Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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