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Mid-East coverage baffles Britons
BBC News Desk - The BBC - Fri 25th, June 2004
UK television news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is confusing viewers and favouring the Israeli position, a new report says.

The study, by the Media Group at Scotland's Glasgow University, found Israelis were quoted more than twice as much as Palestinians in reports.

It said that news programmes did not provide enough information about the conflict's history and origins.

Many viewers were also not even sure who was "occupying" whose territory.

Language differences

Researchers focused on the BBC One and ITV News channels' coverage from the beginning of the current Palestinian intifada, examining more than 200 programmes and interviewing more than 800 people, including several prominent BBC correspondents.

They found that, in addition to "a preponderance of official Israeli perspectives", US politicians who support Israel were "very strongly featured" in news programmes, appearing more than politicians from any other country and twice as much as those from Britain.

It was about time that this has come to light - most people confuse Palestine with Pakistan

Sharif, Leeds

BBC users debate coverage

The report takes issue with a tendency in the media to present the problem as "starting" with Palestinian action, while Israelis were seen to be "responding" with actions that were explained and contextualised.

"There was very little discussion of the nature of the relationship between the two sides - that one [the Palestinians] was subject to military control by the other [Israel]," the report says.

Researchers also found a strong emphasis on Israeli casualties on the news despite the number of Palestinian deaths being considerably greater.

And the differences in language used by journalists for both sides were also noted.

"Words such as 'atrocity', 'brutal murder', 'mass murder', 'savage cold blooded killing', 'lynching' and 'slaughter' were used about Israeli deaths but not Palestinian," the report said.

"The word 'terrorist' was used to describe Palestinians by journalists but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as 'extremists' or 'vigilantes'."

'Breaking news' culture

The survey also showed that the average British person knew little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Many people in Britain think the Palestinians are occupying Israeli territory and not the other way round and some think Palestinians are refugees from Afghanistan, despite extensive media coverage of the conflict.

Coverage does not stress what military occupation is like, the report says

Several journalists interviewed for the report blamed lack of time and the difficulties of reporting such a controversial topic for the dearth of adequate background explanation, while others pointed to intimidation of journalists by both sides.

Many BBC News Online readers blamed the "breaking news" culture for reducing news to sound bites instead of offering comprehensive coverage of one of the world's most covered but least understood conflicts.

"The history is the missing aspect in all coverage today," said BBC News Online reader Rakesh Jain from the US.

"This results in the people being susceptible to 15-second television sound bites and they totally misread the reasons for the problems."

While UK reader Douglas Shaw picked up a point suggested in the report, that there is a tendency among journalists to present Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as vulnerable communities, rather than having a key military and strategic function.

"The BBC could choose to describe all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as being 'illegal'," Mr Shaw wrote.

"This would be a small step forward in helping public understanding."

History lessons

Senior BBC news executive Mark Damazer denies any suggestion of anti-Palestinian bias in the corporation's coverage of the conflict, but concedes that because of the "grammar" of TV news important context is often left out.

People watch the news night after night and at the end of the day they have no understanding what the conflict is all about.

Greg Philo, Glasgow University

"Sometimes important points of history get lost amidst the welter of coverage," he told BBC World Service's Newshour programme.

But he said correspondents and editors were aware of the risks and take their responsibility "very seriously" to sketch in the missing context over time.

And as far as the language of news is concerned, he said there was no evidence that the BBC had been "cowed" into being pro-Israeli.

"When BBC correspondents have to describe the West Bank and Gaza Strip they don't say 'disputed' territory, they say the territories are 'occupied'."

But Glasgow University's Greg Philo that told the same programme that the facts speak for themselves.

"You can't have a history lesson each time you do the news, but the problem is 80% of the population rely on television news for their information about the world," he said.

"They watch the news night after night and at the end of the day they have no understanding what the conflict is all about."
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