Nov 1 2001

The Illusion of Balance

NPR's coverage of Mideast deaths doesn't match reality

Palestinian children in Jenin (cc photo: Tarek)

FAIR’s study suggests that NPR would find these Palestinians’ deaths less newsworthy because they are children. (cc photo: Tarek)

National Public Radio‘s coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been the target of criticism from all sides, especially since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000. One common complaint from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian critics is that NPR and other outlets downplay or ignore acts of violence by the “other side.”

For example, a press release (8/12/01) from CAMERA, a conservative pro-Israel media watch group, accused NPR of skimming over the killing of a Jewish settler in a news report that focused on the funeral of a Palestinian Hamas activist killed by Israeli security forces. Similarly, Arab-American media critic Ali Abuminah (8/20/01) has criticized NPR for “cursory, inconsistent and wholly inadequate” coverage of Israeli attacks on Palestinians.

To examine these competing claims, FAIR studied NPR‘s coverage of Israeli-Palestinian violence, examining how often NPR reported fatal attacks on Israelis and Palestinians. The study looked at all NPR News coverage in the first six months of 2001 (1/1/01-6/30/01).

During the six-month period studied, NPR reported the deaths of 62 Israelis and 51 Palestinians. While on the surface that may not appear to be hugely lopsided, during the same time period 77 Israelis and 148 Palestinians were killed in the conflict. That means there was an 81 percent likelihood that an Israeli death would be reported on NPR, but only a 34 percent likelihood that a Palestinian death would be.

Of the 30 Palestinian civilians under the age of 18 that were killed, six were reported on NPR–only 20 percent. By contrast, the network reported on 17 of the 19 Israeli minors who were killed, or 89 percent. While 61 percent of the young people killed in the region during the period studied were Palestinian, only 26 percent of those reported by NPR were. Apparently being a minor makes your death more newsworthy to NPR if you are Israeli, but less newsworthy if you are Palestinian.

An Israeli civilian victim was more likely to have his or her death reported on NPR (84 percent were covered) than a member of the Israeli security forces (69 percent). But Palestinians were far more likely to have their deaths reported if they were security personnel (72 percent) than if they were civilians (22 percent). Of the 112 Palestinian civilians killed in the Occupied Territories during the period studied, just 26 were reported on NPR. Of the 28 Israeli civilians killed in the Territories–mostly settlers–21 were reported on NPR.

These numbers suggest that NPR may attempt to pair reports of Israeli and Palestinian casualties in an effort to appear balanced. The network’s anchors often introduce Mideast stories with a quick summary of recent developments, almost always mentioning one or two recent attacks on Palestinians and one or two against Israelis.

After seeing FAIR’s findings, NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin commented that “numerical equivalence is not always a determination of journalistic fairness–in the Middle East or anywhere else.” He added that NPR‘s reporting on the Middle East “regularly takes care to mention the imbalance in death tolls” between Israelis and Palestinians.

But it is easy to see the potential appeal for NPR of reporting individual Israeli and Palestinian deaths in roughly equal numbers. The network is under attack from critics who accuse it of playing down violence by one side or exaggerating violence by the other. It would be useful for NPR to be able to respond to complaints by pointing to stories that report Israeli and Palestinian casualties in more or less equal proportions. That way NPR can claim it is simply “reporting both sides.”

While that kind of coverage may appease critics, it fails to give the audience an accurate impression of what’s going on in the Middle East. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, a total of 576 Palestinians and 164 Israelis have been killed, a ratio of about 3.5 to 1. Given that disparity, the fact that NPR has reported the same numbers of Israeli as Palestinian deaths would seem to reflect fear of appearing anti-Israel more than it reflects reality.