Testing for bias

The NY Times under a microscope

Both sides charge the Times with bias in covering Israel-Palestine. Pro-Israel watchdog groups and Palestinian rights activists alike complain about preferential treatment for the other side. Does this mean the paper is getting it right? Is the Times simply neutral and balanced and willing to take the heat for walking a line between opposing points of view?

Editors and reporters often make such claims, but there are better tests for determining bias. Academics have scrutinized Times coverage by content, headlines, word choice, sources, graphics, photos, placement and tone, comparing the paper with other U.S. and international media. Others have done meticulous counts of the numbers of Palestinian versus Israeli deaths reported, especially those of children. Both types of studies have shown The New York Times has an unmistakable bias in favor of Israel.

The Annenberg paper

An analysis of Times coverage over a 30-day period during the second Intifada appears in the paper “How bias shapes the news: Challenging the New York Times’ status as a newspaper of record on the Middle East,” published by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication. It is based on a study by three scholars who analyzed coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

The scholars determined that all three papers displayed “a consonance with the Israeli way of framing events,” a “geographic bias” in reporting from inside Israel rather than from the occupied Palestinian territories, and a tendency to report Israeli deaths more often than Palestinian, among other findings.

Compared with the other papers, however, the Times showed “more consonance with the claims of a pro-Israel slant that have been leveled against the American press.” It was more likely to “position Palestinians as aggressors and Israelis as victims” in its headlines. It “tended to use agent-free language that suggested the violence came from nowhere.” In its lead paragraphs the Times emphasized “Palestinian-instigated violence twice as much as it focused on Israeli-instigated violence.”

It often depicted both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, as accountable for violence “even during events that other newspapers saw as bearing Israeli responsibility.” The Times’ stories were also more likely to “feature anonymous high-ranking American sources and named Israeli sources over local Palestinian voices.”

The study calls the Times “a clear outlier” from the other two newspapers, not only in its stories but in its use of photographs as well. More often than the Tribune and Post it used photos “suggesting Palestinian culpability” or a middle ground where both sides were at fault. “Aggression on the part of the Israelis was not depicted by the Times, it found. As an example, the authors cited one story about a series of Palestinian casualties, which was “accompanied by a photo showing Palestinians burning tires in East Jerusalem.”

In sum, all three papers showed a pro-Israel bias, but this was most pronounced in the Times. “The New York Times,” it states, “assumed for generations to be the leading authoritative voice on events like the Middle East crisis, displayed a consistently deviant view of the crisis.”

The study is based on a report commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago in October 2001. The federation never released that report, but its findings were published later in the Annenberg School journal. The lead author was Barbie Zelizer, Raymond Williams Professor of Communication and director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A study by If Americans Knew

If Americans Knew—an organization that provides data, news reports and media analysis about Israel-Palestine—did a statistical study of how The New York Times reported the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians over two separate years in 2000 and 2001 and in 2004. The group’s researchers looked at coverage in headlines, lead paragraphs and complete stories, and they drew on data from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Their findings indicated “significantly distorted coverage” by the Times.

This was their summary: “In the first study period the The Times reported Israeli deaths at a rate 2.8 times higher than Palestinian deaths, and in 2004 this rate increased by almost 30 percent to 3.6, widening still further the disparity in coverage.

The Times’ coverage of children’s deaths was even more skewed. In the first year. . . Israeli children’s deaths were reported at 6.8 times the rate of Palestinian children’s deaths. In 2004 this differential also increased, with deaths of Israeli children covered at a rate 7.3 times greater than the deaths of Palestinian children. Given that in 2004 22 times more Palestinian children were killed than Israeli children, this category holds particular importance.”

This is cut and dried number crunching, but Daniel Okrent, then serving as Times public editor, dismissed the study in an article about the paper’s coverage of Israel-Palestine. He lumped If Americans Knew with extremist groups and referred to their data as mere claims, not as hard facts. He also adopted a condescending tone, saying they “earnestly believe in the information they presented me.”

By contrast, a Stanford University media project, Grade the News, took a similar If Americans Knew study of the San Jose Mercury News in earnest. The researchers replicated the study in independent work of their own and found the original analysis was accurate. “An Israeli death was 11 times more likely to make a front-page headline in San Jose than a Palestinian fatality,” wrote John McManus, director of the project.

The Annenberg paper also noted that Israeli deaths were more often reported than Palestinian deaths, and the authors of that report were not partisans in an acrimonious conflict but academics who specialize in communications analysis. Okrent made no mention of their findings.

Other academics have also assessed Times coverage of Israel-Palestine and found it skewed in favor of Israel. Howard Friel, an independent scholar, and Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, together wrote Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East. They emphasize “the persistent ways the New York Times has ignored principles of international law in order to shield its readers from Israel’s lawlessness.”

Marda Dunsky, who teaches at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is the author of Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. She examines print and broadcast media, often citing the Times, and shows how their reports fall into line with American policy and thus support the Israeli agenda.

Beyond academia

Other groups outside the activist ranks who monitor coverage also often take the Times to task for its omissions and distortions in regard to Israel-Palestine. Among them are FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which monitors U.S. news media for bias and censorship, and NYTeXaminer, which calls itself an “antidote to the ‘paper of record,’” and comments on Times coverage in general.

Pro-Israel critics

CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, critiques the Times from the Israel lobby point of view. The group has published its own book on the subject and is offering it free online. It is titled Indicting Israel: New York Times Coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict—A July 1–December 31, 2011 Study.

The Anti-Defamation League also maintains Media Watch, where it lists complaints written to the Times and other media.

2 thoughts on “Testing for bias

  1. Thank you for publishing a more accurate accounting of events and pointing out the bias in the Times reporting. However, I noticed that most of the studies you cite are from 10 years ago or longer, and the most recent is from 2011. It would be helpful to find or conduct a more recent analysis of reporting by the Times and other media outlets.


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