Even before the brutal 7 October attacks by Palestinian armed group Hamas and the ensuing horrific Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which has killed or wounded over 100,000 people, accusations of bias in coverage of the situation in the Middle East were rife.
It is undeniable that there have been widespread and prominent failures – from the dehumanising language used about Palestinians, to the passive voice largely used to downplay Israeli responsibility for the war crimes it is committing. A recent example courtesy of a Sky News report on the killing of a Palestinian child by Israeli forces in early January tells of a bullet “accidentally stray[ing]” in the back of a van and killing a “3-4 year old young lady”. A subsequent report changed the phrasing to “young girl” but kept the self-propelling, wandering bullet.
Much of the criticism has blamed the problems on the failure by individual journalists and media establishments to uphold basic journalistic values. In a scathing piece in Al Jazeera, investigative journalist Vidya Krishnan argues that “Western journalists have abandoned basic standards”. The UN’s outspoken special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Francesca Albanese, has also questioned whether “journalists have codes of conduct and professional ethics to abide by and be held accountable to”. The unspoken assumption is that the reporting would greatly improve if all concerned simply stuck to the dictates of professional codes.
However, that may be missing the wood for the trees. Gaza is not unique. Similar problems have been noted in coverage of a host of other crises, suggesting that the problem is systemic. From the Rwanda genocide, to Hurricane Katrina in the US, to the US and Russian invasions of Iraq and Ukraine, it has long been clear that coverage of international events tends to consistently reproduce a limited range of perspectives.
Today’s professional codes are largely based on ideas about the press that were developed in the United States in the early decades of the last century, and which have little to say about guarding against a Western-centric telling of the news.
What we call “the news” is the creation of a journalistic process during which information is manipulated and shaped by multiple players. It is a commodity baked from a motley of ingredients that are not limited to the occurrences being reported but include the personal morality, ambition, and world views of journalists, editors, and media owners; as well as financial, political, and social pressures. In the popular imagination, editorial policies and professional codes are meant to help media organisations navigate these treacherous waters and come out on the other side with a credible product. But it rarely works that way, and for two main reasons:
First, research has shown that journalists rarely pay attention to such codes in their day-to-day decision-making. When confronted with situations, especially those in which quick, evaluative judgments are required, journalists and their editors rely more on their own intuitive sense of right or wrong and the opinions of peers than on much-vaunted professional norms. In the book Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life, Walt Harrington observed that working at high speeds, which is typical when covering an unfolding crisis such as Gaza, encouraged journalists “to fall back on well-worn themes and observations – “interpretive clichés” – rather than to make well-considered decisions.
This means that stereotypes and simplistic explanations offering good-versus-bad dichotomies – and the information that fits into such framing – will not only be favoured, but will be widely reproduced as journalists copy what their peers are doing. And journalists’ internal moral compasses may not be as reliable guides as one might assume. A 2019 study found that professional journalists scored “far lower” than they did 13 years prior on the Defining Issues Test (DIT), which is used to gauge moral development by asking respondents to rank 12 statements in order of their importance in resolving an ethical dilemma. While moral reasoning is just one of the inputs into ethical behaviour and such tests are not necessarily predictive of what journalists do when faced with actual ethical dilemmas, the result should urge caution when evaluating the wisdom of journalists’ choices.
Secondly, professional codes can themselves be part of the problem. They are, after all, cultural products that encode norms and values and world views from specific parts of the globe – not necessarily universal principles and understandings about journalism and the roles of journalists. For example, a recent report by the Reuters Institute and Oxford University noted that even when people in different countries described what they expected of news using similar language, they didn’t always mean the same things. And today’s professional codes are largely based on ideas about the press that were developed in the United States in the early decades of the last century, and which have little to say about guarding against a Western-centric telling of the news.
No such thing as global
Seeing news as a cultural product allows us to acknowledge the tribal nature of journalism. Across the world, media organisations and journalists are affiliated with regions, countries, societies, and cultures to whom they owe primary allegiance. In general, reporting strives to reflect the values and outlooks of the audiences that journalists feel accountable to, and ethical duty is rarely acknowledged regarding those falling outside this ambit. Kenyan editors, for example, regard their audience as almost exclusively Kenyan and pay little heed to how their coverage might offend non-Kenyans who may come across it online.
In as much as it implies coverage of global events for global audiences, “International media” is somewhat of a misnomer.
In reality, it encompasses a narrow range of actors such as wire services like the Associated Press, AFP, and Reuters, and media with global reach, such as BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera – mostly but not exclusively based in the West – and all of whose reporting, like that of the Kenyan editors, is careful not to alienate the societies they are accountable to. Krishnan describes it as “journalism done by practitioners from colonising countries who take pride in their imperial conquests and have an elevated sense of self, every fibre nurtured by centuries of predatory accumulation of wealth, knowledge and privilege”.
Largely produced by foreign correspondents for audiences back home, “international news” reflects imperial standards and world views. This is evident in how Western outlets have claimed that they are unable to cover Gaza properly because their Western correspondents have been barred access by Israel, despite the fact that Palestinian journalists on the ground have been doing a stellar job.
Juxtaposing the Western coverage of Gaza – especially the regurgitation of Israeli talking points as news – against the performance of Palestinian journalists under the most trying of circumstances, shatters the supposed superiority of reporting by Western foreign correspondents.
The suspicions over the trustworthiness and neutrality of local reporters in coverage of crises is nothing new and again reflects a very colonial ethic. In a 2011 report for the Reuters Institute, Professor Mel Bunce averred that local reporters differed from Western correspondents in that “they worked in greater fear of the government… and had a different understanding of their role as journalists which, importantly, did not include a strong sense of their work as ‘watchdog journalism’.” However, juxtaposing the Western coverage of Gaza – especially the regurgitation of Israeli talking points as news – against the performance of Palestinian journalists under the most trying of circumstances, shatters the supposed superiority of reporting by Western foreign correspondents.
Reporting for home – rather than global – audiences typically manifests in differing coverage of those coded as allies versus those framed as “other” or enemies. The former receive humanising and empathetic coverage and have their culpability in crimes minimised, while there is an undertone of condemnation and dehumanisation reserved for the latter. In reporting the situation in Gaza, it is clear that Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, has been sympathetic to the Palestinians and condemnatory of Israel, while the coverage of many Western-based news agencies has been the exact opposite.
All this to say: The problem is, therefore, less journalism done wrong by rogue journalists and more journalism done “right”, just within terrible ethical frameworks.
Western media biases, in particular, can have outsize impact because of their inordinate reach, not just through the influence of professional codes, but also due to the structure of the international news system. Around the world, few newsrooms generate their own international news, and most are reliant on these newswires and outlets, even for stories about their own immediate neighbourhoods. For example, a study by Africa No Filter found that a third of all non-domestic stories about Africa in African news outlets are sourced from foreign news services, with AFP and the BBC accounting for a quarter of those stories.
As the book Humanitarian Journalists notes, since these agencies are “characterised by the journalistic norms and values of the West”, and their output is primarily skewed to appeal to Western consumers, their dominance reproduces a “homogenised and skewed global discourse” about global issues. As such, non-Western news outlets can, and do, easily find themselves enlisted as distributors of dehumanising content even about the people in their immediate vicinity.
In truth, the problems of international news coverage stem from all these factors and will not be resolved by simple appeals to journalistic codes without addressing: the biases baked into them; the flawed way journalism is actually produced; and the inequalities in how news is propagated across the world.
The structure of the global media system should be reformed to allow a much greater diversity of sources for international news.
Fixing this starts with a new understanding of what it means to practise journalism in a globalised world, as well as the establishment of a new kind of media ethics that is not bound by a cultural or national tribalism – a journalism that truly honours the humanity of all. This will require input from a wide range of actors from around the globe, including media outlets, editors, journalists, cultural workers, and academics.
The structure of the global media system should be reformed to allow a much greater diversity of sources for international news. But within individual newsrooms, it will also require steadfast efforts to encourage journalists and editors to adopt methodical approaches to ethical decision-making across the news chain, and deliberate efforts to build up a moral muscle memory.
Audiences’ demands are already forcing changes. Pressure from social media has seen a perceptible shift in the coverage of Gaza, with Western outlets being more willing to push back against Israeli spokespeople. This moment, awful as it is, offers a golden opportunity for more enlightened parts of the media industry to take a step back, be less reactionary, and make some deliberate changes that are badly needed.
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