U.S. television coverage of the recent three-week conflict in the Gaza Strip failed to tell both sides of the story, according to a number of media analysts.
The most recent conflict between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinian faction Hamas garnered some media attention, with an unusually large spike in coverage, but that level sank as the fighting dragged on.
During both the first and second weeks of the attack, including a massive aerial attack and a full-scale ground invasion of the tiny, densely-populated Gaza Strip, the conflict was the top story on the nightly newscasts of the three major U.S. networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), where it got 55 minutes of total airtime.
But the first two weeks of fighting were "an aberration in terms of coverage by American broadcast networks," said Andrew Tyndall, of the Tyndall Report, which monitors the weekday nightly newscasts from the three major U.S. broadcast networks. "It’s very rare for a foreign story to have that kind of status for two weeks."
U.S. foreign news coverage has been on the decline. In 2008 attention to international news was at its lowest since the Tyndall Report was first published in 1988.
After the initial abnormal spike, however, coverage of Gaza fell significantly. In the week of Jan. 12, the last full week of fighting, the conflict was discussed for a total of 20 minutes by the three networks.
The amount of play a news story gets on television is particularly important because of the centrality of the medium in U.S. news.
In 2008, some 70 percent of the public relied on television as a main source of national and international news, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Network news has long been criticized as being too "soft", providing more "infotainment" than actual news. However, an estimated 23 million U.S. residents watch the 22 minutes of evening news that each of the networks broadcast on an average weekday evening.
Since the network news audience is 10 times larger than that of cable news networks, such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, it is no surprise that the views presented in the newscasts are often reflected in public opinion.
According to a recent survey released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation, 60 percent of those questioned say they sympathize with Israelis in the Gaza conflict, with 17 percent backing the Palestinians.
Tyndall points out that while the number of sound bites of the conflict broadcast from the two sides was about equal, the use of quotes from official sources was not. For every quotation by a Palestinian official, the three networks quoted 10 Israelis.
"Interviews with Israeli spokesmen and ambassadors were not juxtaposed with the voices of Palestinian leaders," said Habib Battah, a freelance journalist writing for Al-Jazeera English.
In addition to disproportionate official representation, the grave disparity in casualties between the two sides was usually played down or not mentioned at all by newscasters. Nearly 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the conflict, which ended tentatively with separate ceasefires on Jan. 18.
"When the number of deaths did appear [in television news broadcasts] sometimes as a graphic at the bottom of the screen it was identified as the number of ‘people killed’ rather than being attributed specifically to Palestinians," said Battah.
The recent IDF incursion signaled the end of a tenuous Egypt-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza strip since 2006. In June, Hamas agreed to end attacks from Gaza on Israel. In return, Israel agreed to halt raids inside Gaza and ease its blockade of the territory.
On Nov. 4, Israel launched an air strike just inside Gaza’s borders. When Hamas responded, Israel retaliated to that attack. The incident is regarded by some analysts, including a private Israeli intelligence group with apparent ties to its official counterpart, as the beginning of the end for the ceasefire.
The 22-day war has garnered much attention from human rights groups. Israel has been accused of illegally using white phosphorus shells, which cause extreme burns to the skin, near civilians. It has denied this, saying an investigation found no evidence to support this claim.
Given the U.S.’s long history of supporting Israel, the slanted media attention does not surprise many close followers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The coverage is what you would expect," said Peter Hart, activism director at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). "There is a lot of pressure from pro-Israeli groups on media outlets."
"The root of the problem is not the media," said Dan Hallin, professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. "The problem is that politicians of both parties avoid any serious discussion of the issue. The media reflect that silence. It would be good if they tried to open up a little more space for debate, but this is not a role the media play by themselves very often."
With so much reaction from both sides, journalists are finding it difficult to cover the conflict impartially.
Ethan Bronner, in a piece for the New York Times, writes, "Every time I write an article about the conflict that does not mirror [the story line of Israel as the victim] if, for example, I focus on Palestinian suffering or alleged Israeli misdeeds or quote a human rights group like Amnesty International I have proven myself to be a secret sharer with the views of the enemy."
"Every time I fail to allude to [the other side of] that story when, for example, I examine Israel’s goals in its Gaza war without implicitly condemning it as a massacre, or write about Israel in ways that do not call into question its legitimacy I have revealed my affiliation and can no longer be trusted as a reporter."
George J. Mitchell, the new U.S. envoy to the Middle East, met with Israeli leaders on Wednesday.
He told the Los Angeles Times that the United States would "sustain an active commitment for reaching the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security."
Leaving no questions about where the U.S. stood on this issue, he said, "The United States is committed to Israel’s security and to its right to defend itself against legitimate threats."