In this interview with the Press, Marda Dunsky talks about her new book Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and discusses some of the failures by the media and what can be done to improve coverage.
Pens and Swords has been praised by Rashid Kahlidi who writes, “Written by a journalist and scholar who has reported from the region, this book is a perceptive, careful, and factual assessment of why the American mainstream media do such an exceedingly poor job of conveying the realities of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, instead perpetuating stereotypes and echoing the conceits of policymakers in Washington.”
Below is an excerpt from the interview:
Q. Is American mainstream reporting of the conflict pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian?
Marda Dunsky: I would not characterize mainstream reporting of the conflict as consciously or purposefully tilting toward one side or the other, per se.
On any given day, based on the actual events of that or the previous day, individual news reports may seem to tilt toward the Israeli or the Palestinian side. For example, in the immediate wake of a suicide bombing, the coverage may focus specifically on the pain and suffering of Israeli victims. Days later, reports may highlight the bomber’s background—which often includes direct or indirect suffering experienced by the bomber or family members due to the occupation—in an attempt to reveal his or her motivations. Both of these kinds of reports inevitably bring criticism from pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian readers, viewers, and listeners that such reporting is biased because it focuses on the suffering of one side to the exclusion of the other.
However, this kind of reporting isn’t biased. It is a reflection of the ebb and flow of daily events. Over time, most mainstream media outlets tend to report the continuing story of the conflict in a way that includes the perspectives of Israelis and Palestinians. This is especially true when it comes to reporting the suffering experienced by both sides. Readers, viewers and listeners should look for balance over time in the reporting of specific media outlets as well as reporting across media—not necessarily in a single day’s report on the conflict.
In Pens and Swords, I have documented exceptions to this balance. One exception is reporting on Israeli settlements, which tends to balance viewpoints of Israeli settlers with those of left-wing Israelis who oppose the settlements—but rarely gives direct voice to the viewpoints of Palestinians whose lives are affected by the presence of the settlements. Another exception is reporting by American journalists who ride along with, or embed themselves with, Israeli military forces in pursuit of Palestinian suspects. This is part of a general tendency to rely primarily, if not exclusively, on Israeli military sources when reporting on inter-communal violence.
I have included in Pens and Swords interviews with correspondents who have reported the Israeli-Palestinian story from the field for major American news outlets. In these interviews, the journalists reflect at length on their concerns about professional standards that emphasize accuracy, balance, and fairness. They also express that journalists reporting from the field, along with their editors and producers in newsrooms back home, are well aware of and sensitive to charges of biased coverage. The correspondents say that when criticism has journalistic merit, it is heeded.
It is important that journalists analyze their reporting for bias based on what it actually contains, and there are many indications that reporters, editors, producers, and ombudsmen for media outlets do this routinely when it comes to reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, Pens and Swords emphasizes that it is also important to analyze the coverage for the bias inherent in what is missing from it, as detailed earlier.