Bias hiding in plain sight: Decades of analyses suggest US media skews anti-Palestinian

How the media talks about suffering on one side compared with the other can often reveal bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict coverage, writes a scholar of media bias and the Arab world.

By Natalie Khazaal Published on Feb 29, 2024.
Palestinian families seeking refuge in makeshift tents in vacant areas in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

News organizations are often accused of lacking impartiality when covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In November 2023, over 750 journalists signed an open letter alleging bias in U.S. newsrooms against Palestinians in the reporting of the ongoing fighting in the Gaza strip.

More recently, two articles in respected U.S. newspapers highlight the debate over bias.

A Feb. 2, 2024, op-ed in The Wall Street Journal described a Michigan city, where many Arab immigrants live, as a center of antisemitic terrorism sympathizers. On the same day, another op-ed in The New York Times depicted the U.S. as a lion engaged in combat with Iran – characterized as a “parasitoid wasp” – and Hamas – portrayed as a “trap-door spider,” executing rapid, predatory maneuvers. The pieces were attacked by critics as being Islamaphobic and falling back on racist tropes.

Broadcast media is similarly being scrutinized for bias. According to the Guardian, CNN has faced scrutiny for its alleged pro-Israel bias, with claims that Israeli official statements receive expedited clearance and trustful on-air portrayal. Conversely, statements from Palestinians, including those not affiliated with Hamas, are frequently delayed or remain unreported. A notable instance cited by the Guardian involved former Israeli intelligence official Rami Igra asserting on CNN that the entire Palestinian population of Gaza could be considered combatants, a statement allowed to go unchallenged.

From the other side, Jonathan Greenbatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, has accused U.S. media of a bias that dehumanizes Israelis while sanitizing Hamas. During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in October 2023, he raised concerns over the networks framing of Hamas, asking, “Who’s writing the scipts?”

The issue of bias isn’t confined to the U.S. In the U.K.,the state-funded BBC has received complaints on its Gaza coverage from both sides as well.

With accusation of bias being levied by both sides in the conflict, what does academic research say about newsroom prejudice?

Support for the assertion of anti-Israeli bias in media occasionally emerges in research. A 2016 study uncovered anti-Israeli bias in German and British newspapers, although results for U.S. publications were mixed. However, when scholars look at media coverage data as a whole, rather than pick and choose, they demonstrate that leading U.S. outlets tend to be more sympathetic toward the Israeli perspective than that of Palestinians.

As a scholar of media bias and the Arab world, in my own research, I have found that anti-Palestinian bias in the U.S. and other countries’ media is often subtle, albeit in plain view.

Measuring bias

Typically, scholars examine this form of media bias using both quantitative and qualitative measures of the framing, selection and portrayal of news. Content analyses of news articles, headlines and images are common methodologies, seeking patterns that may favor one perspective over the other.

Additionally, scholars examine the sources cited and the prominence given to different voices. Historical context, the overall tone and language, how often the media talks about suffering on one side compared with the other – all are indicators used to analyze media bias.

Historical bias in language and reporting

Several studies scrutinizing U.S. media coverage during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, spanning from 1987 to 1993, consistently revealed pronounced biases.

The analyses indicated a propensity to emphasize Israeli deaths despite higher Palestinian casualties. The media’s reliance on Israeli sources shaped the narrative, omitting crucial context such as the illegality of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands under peace agreements. Overlooking this fact obscured the correlation between increasing settlements and a rise in Palestinian attacks, thus compromising a comprehensive understanding.

Throughout the second intifada from 2000 to 2005, the prevalence of bias in media coverage persisted.

A study conducted by the independent media watchdog FAIR highlighted a notable instance concerning NPR’s reporting during the initial six months of 2001. While NPR initially presented similar figures of Israeli and Palestinian deaths — 62 versus 51 — FAIR’s comprehensive analysis revealed a stark disparity. When considering the total six-month death toll of 77 versus 148, NPR reported on eight out of 10 Israeli deaths but only three out of 10 Palestinian deaths, creating a skewed impression of balance.

NPR’s ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, responded to this assessment saying that numerical equivalence doesn’t always equate to journalistic fairness.

Selective coverage

Protestors hold a banner which reads 'In Gaza, the State of Israel also kills journalists,' while displaying names and photographs of those killed on the ground.,
A large number of journalists have been killed in Palestinian territories. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Selective coverage has the potential to align with Israeli claims of self-defense, as scholars Howard Friel and Richard Falk highlighted in their 2007 analysis of the New York Times’ coverage of the second intifada. The framing of attacks in Palestinian territories appeared to reflect a narrative that supported Israel’s stance.

The portrayal of Palestinian suffering, encompassing deaths, home destruction and daily humiliation, tends to be downplayed both in the language used in coverage and by its reduced frequency compared with Israeli experiences. Media law scholar Susan Dente Ross underscored in her 2003 study how the U.S. media often labeled Palestinians as aggressors rather than victims, thereby normalizing their losses and suffering.

Echoing this perspective, media studies scholar Mohamad Elmasry argued in 2009 that the U.S. media rationalizes Israeli violence as a reluctantly understandable aspect of war, framing Israel’s actions as “retaliatory and legitimate” while depicting Palestinian violence as “barbaric and senseless.”

The displacement of around 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 remains a top Palestinian concern, because it turned about 80% of Palestinians into stateless refugees.

“Rarely, however, is the history of how these people became refugees incorporated into the reporting,” and neither is the body of international law and consensus on their rights, states journalism scholar Marda Dunsky, who conducted the analysis. An analysis of 30 major U.S. print and broadcast outlets over four years – from 2000 to 2004 – found that the coverage lacked this important context during the second intifada.

The issue of sources is also contentious. Three in every four major U.S. outlets consistently favor Israeli sources over Palestinian and accord Israeli officials more positive media coverage, according to a 2006 study by scholars Kuang-Kuo Chang and Geri Alumit Zeldes. For the most part, U.S. outlets avoid quoting Palestinian officials, the study noted.

AI confirms anti-Palestinian bias

Recently, experts have started to study big data on the media portrayals of the conflict with the help of artificial intelligence. For example, in 2023, MIT’s Holly Jackson conducted a study of 33,000 news articles from 1987-1993 and 2000-2005 – that cover the two intifadas – with the help of state-of-the-art AI technology that provides large-scale historical data.

Jackson confirmed that there was anti-Palestinian bias that persisted during the first and second intifadas. The discernible bias was manifested in the level of objectivity and the tone of language employed by outlets such as The New York Times. The bias was further underscored by the manner in which media outlets attributed sentiments of violence to either side involved in the conflict.

For instance, an article highlighted that “They [Jews] threw rocks at hotels housing Arabs, who hurled objects from their windows in return.” Notably, the article employs the more neutral verb “throw” to portray Israeli violence and the less neutral verb “hurl” to describe Palestinian violence. Journalists sometimes use synonyms; however, the cumulative effect of repeatedly using more negative synonyms for Palestinians and more positive ones for Israelis implies the existence of bias, Jackson noted.

Jackson’s findings revealed a significant disparity, with more than 90% of articles focusing on Israelis compared with less than 50% covering Palestinians. Additionally, the articles used negative language and the passive voice to refer to Palestinians twice as often as Israelis. For example, she reveals that the passive construction “killed” is used in “Palestinian killed as clashes erupt with troops” to avoid specifying the perpetrators of the violence, contrasting with the active “slay” in “Palestinians slay 2 Israeli hikers,” used to emphasize the perpetrators.

The anti-Palestinian sentiment increased from the first intifada to the second, the same study showed. As an illustration, Palestinian deaths surged from 1,422 to 4,916, a stark increase of three and a half times. They were also four and a half times greater than the 1,100 Israeli casualties. Yet, their reporting failed to correspond proportionately to the heightened occurrences.

How the media reports on events can greatly influence public perceptions of what is really going on. Reporting can prime audiences to see a Palestinian fighter in a mask as either an icon of terrorism or a hero resisting occupation, depending on how the news is presented.

Natalie Khazaal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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