The numbers will have risen by the time you read this, but more than 300 Israelis and 1,200 Palestinians have been killed since the current Intifada began in September 2000 (Boston Globe, 3/31/02). Thousands more people have been injured.
U.S. media coverage of the conflict has been intense in recent weeks, as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) mounted a large-scale invasion of the West Bank and Palestinian militants carried out several major suicide bombings. Amnesty International (4/3/02) has condemned the targeting of civilians by both sides, voicing concern over "flagrant human rights abuses" by the IDF, including looting, mass detentions, the targeting of medical personnel and possible extrajudicial executions. Israel has tried to exclude the press from the entire area where the abuses are occurring; the Committee to Protect Journalists has expressed alarm (4/2/02) over the apparent targeting of reporters in "ongoing incidents in which IDF forces have opened fire on, or in the direction of, journalists attempting to cover events in the West Bank."
With thousands of lives at stake and reporters risking their own lives, it's increasingly difficult-- but perhaps more urgent than ever-- to step back and examine how U.S. media have framed the story. To this end, FAIR has surveyed how the language of "retaliation" has been used on the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS and NBC.
From the start of the Intifada in September 2000 through March 17, 2002, the three major networks' nightly news shows used some variation of the word "retaliation" (retaliated, will retaliate, etc.) 150 times to describe attacks in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. About 79 percent of those references were to Israeli "retaliation" against Palestinians. Only 9 percent referred to Palestinian "retaliation" against Israelis. (Approximately 12 percent were ambiguous or referred to both sidessimultaneously.) [Full data below.]
Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict routinely present their attacks as being retaliation for previous attacks or actions. Both sides portray their struggle as essentially defensive. Whether one regards these justifications as credible explanations or self-serving rhetoric, the fact is that reporters make choices about whether to report them. The network news shows have characterized Israeli violence as "retaliation" almost nine times more often than Palestinian violence.
This disparity is meaningful. The term "retaliation" suggests a defensive stance undertaken in response to someone else's aggression. It also lays responsibility for the cycle of violence at the doorstep of the party being "retaliated" against, since they presumably initiated the conflict.
Among the three major networks, ABC's World News Tonight was the closest to being balanced, with 64 percent of its uses of "retaliation" referring to Israeli actions and 21 percent to Palestinian actions-- a three-to-one ratio. CBS Evening News came next, with 79 percent of its uses of "retaliation" referring to Israeli actions and 7 percent to Palestinian actions. NBC Nightly News was the most imbalanced, never once referring to Palestinian retaliation.
The devastating human toll of such "retaliations" makes these imbalances all the more striking. According to the latest estimates from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, 897 of the Palestinians killed from September 29, 2000 though March 30, 2002 have been civilians. Israeli security forces killed 823 of those 897 people, including 192 children. B'Tselem records that 253 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians in the same period, including 48 children. At least 16 of those 253 people were killed by Palestinian National Authority security forces or persons reportedly linked to them. B'Tselem notes that these figures include neither suicide bombers nor Palestinians who "died after medical treatment was delayed" by Israeli forces. (See .)
Figures like these, highlighting the targeting of non-combatants and even children, make clear that it is simply inaccurate to cast either side as acting purely defensively.
The language of retaliation is only one factor in reporting, of course, but FAIR's findings-- 79 percent to 9 percent-- are striking and indicate a tendency to define Israel's role as defensive, and the Palestinian role as aggressive. By doing so, ABC, CBS and NBC have oversimplified this complicated conflict and done a disservice to viewers.
Please urge the networks to examine why they apply the word "retaliation" almost exclusively to one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
ABC World News Tonight
CBS Evening News
NBC Nightly News