The Israel-Palestine conflict and ‘mainstream media’

Issues over the choice of language, headlines, and images are exacerbated as the fog of war covers the social media landscape

October 20, 2023 01:34 am | Updated 08:30 am IST

Israeli Iron Dome air defence system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel on October 19, 2023.

Israeli Iron Dome air defence system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel on October 19, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

Large, established journalistic publications, amorphously clubbed together as “mainstream media”, are often portrayed as villains online. Politically convenient ideas and blatant misinformation are shared as “things that the mainstream media will never tell you”; and the belief that “mainstream media” has certain “agendas” is a driving force of the online misinformation mills. This repeated messaging across social media is reflected in studies that show a declining trust in established news outlets.

The distrust is more evident now as the fault lines in West Asia have opened up once again. To cite an example, a headline from The New York Times had initially stated that an Israeli strike had caused the explosion and fire at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza on Tuesday. The headline was later revised to avoid Israeli involvement, drawing intense scrutiny online. The original headline was seen as evidence of the publication being biased towards information emerging from the Palestinian side. Incidentally, in the pro-Palestine sections of social media, The New York Times is seen to support Israel and its policies.

The BBC in the U.K., too, faced such a predicament when one of its initial social media posts on the current violence spoke of many Israelis having been “killed” while many Palestinians had “died”. The choice of words was the subject of a viral video from a Palestine supporter, who claimed it was evidence of Western media’s pro-Israel bias. Meanwhile, in pro-Israel circles, the BBC is seen as being biased towards the Palestinian cause. In fact, the BBC has so far received about 1,500 complaints regarding its coverage of the current conflict, and as per a report in The Guardian, the complaints are evenly split between those alleging a pro-Palestine bias and those alleging a pro-Israel bias. This reminds one of many a veteran journalist’s adage that “if both sides are not happy, we are doing something right.”

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The debate over the choice also brings to mind the flak that The Hindu takes on social media for not using the word “martyr” when it reports on soldiers killed in action. The Defence Ministry has made it clear in Parliament that the Indian armed forces do not use the word “martyr”, which by definition is reserved for someone who has been killed for their beliefs. However, it is seen by some as unpatriotic on the part of an English language publication to not use the term.

Such issues over the choice of language, headlines, and images are exacerbated as the fog of war covers the social media landscape. This is particularly true for the Israel-Palestine conflict, a decades- (or centuries-) old issue that has deeply divided opinions across the world, and which has its own vocabulary around land and rights. In the fast-changing environment of an armed conflict, the chances of a newsroom slipping up on these are very high, often feeding into existing perceptions regarding bias. Another factor aiding the perception of bias is algorithm-driven platforms, where articles are mostly consumed as stand-alone entities rather than as part of a whole. This pattern of news consumption often drives the “whataboutism” and “both-sideism” that have become the bane of online political conversations.

It should also be noted that social media is heavily visual, driven by TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. These facilitate and encourage repeated viewing and immediate responses in the form of likes, shares, and comments. The ongoing violence in Israel is also particularly visual, with actual footage of missile strikes and their aftermath mixed with fake videos, including those from video games. The loss of trust in “mainstream media” often drives people to look for raw content online — footage and images shorn of context and analysis that only good journalism can provide.

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