I recently had an email exchange with a PhD student at Oxford who saw my posting about the study of war casualties in which I pointed out that .06 percent of those killed in wars since 1950 died in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and .3 percent of the Muslims killed in conflicts since then were killed by Israelis. He was struck by how his colleagues could talk of nothing but Israelis killing Gazans, despite the extraordinary violence to be found the world over, much of it really intentional. As he put it in a subsequent email:
The first seminar of the term dealt with a new book, which deals with intentions, double effect and blame. Need I say that the first example (and the main one used to discuss issues of war) was Gaza? And need I add that the lecturer seemed to suggest (although she wasn’t very clear on this point) that it’s controversial what the Israelis’ intentions are (i.e. did they REALLY only want to kill terrorists) but that it’s quite obvious that the actions were disproportionate. (I think that the opposite is true, i.e. that Israel clearly tried to avoid killing civilians but that reasonable observers can disagree on its adherence to proportionality considerations).
I was furious mainly about the fact that this was the only example discussed (while ignoring other obvious recent cases such as the war between Russia and Georgia or the Christmas massacre in DRC). I thought about what I should do and resisted the urge to rise and give them a long lecture on Anti-Semitism. Instead, when I asked a question I used (in a rather obvious way) a different example, about Georgia and Ossetia. My general impression was that most of the crowd were quite puzzled about why I bothered to make up such states and places and why I can’t use the actual story, regarding which everybody knows all the relevant facts. They kept asking me to clarify the example and explain who tried to kill whom and why (no such explanation was required when they discussed Israel).
Of course all of this is directly related to Charles Jacobs insight about The Human Rights Complex in which the indignation of the “Human Rights” community derives far more from the identity of the perpetrator than that of the victim or how much that victim has suffered.
This got me to thinking. What if we were to develop a method for determining the carbon footprint of civilian deaths in the media, something along the lines of column-inches, minutes airtime, people per demonstration on the one hand and number of civilian casualties on the other. One could do it across the boards, but just consider Palestinian civilian deaths: killed by Israelis, by Palestinians, by other Arabs. It wouldn’t be hard. After all, how much coverage did the civilian deaths in Hamas’ vicious take-over in 2006 receive from the media? Or after the orgy of coverage during the summer war of 2006 in Lebanon, how much coverage did the Lebanese army’s assault on Nar el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp receive?
As one of the harsher critics at this site commented: “numbers push the reality into everyone’s eyes.” Well, of course they can just as easily mislead — as in his simplistic comparison of Israeli civilian dead with Palestinian civilian dead. But I suspect that a media footprint might indeed reveal the startling imbalances of a media coverage that unquestionably has an enormous impact on public opinion the world over.
Then I found out, someone has already done so, specificially in the context of the Christmas massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo (about which I knew nothing), mentioned by my Oxford interlocutor. (HT: JW)
Gaza vs. Congo: A Tale of Media Double Standards
Two conflicts with remarkably similar characteristics yet shockingly disparate press coverage.
January 17, 2009 – by Eli Bernstein
While the conflict between Israel and Hamas unfolded in Gaza over the past few weeks, many innocent Gazan civilians stuck in the middle have no doubt suffered much. Meanwhile, another group of civilians further south has been going through a nightmare of no lesser proportion. You may be forgiven if you haven’t heard about the dire situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where over 1,000 civilians have been killed by a Ugandan rebel group since Christmas (Source: ResolveUganda). After all, the papers were so filled with coverage of the situation in Gaza, they had left little space to report this story; the late-night news devoted half its time to scenes of death and destruction in Gaza, running out of time before they had the chance to update you on the massacres in the DRC.
There are longstanding complaints about mainstream media bias in its reporting on Israel and websites such as honestreporting.com and bbcwatch.com [and CAMERA – rl] seek to highlight this ongoing phenomenon. The contrast in reporting between the coverage of Israel’s war on Hamas and the massacres of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) presents an interesting case study in media bias, and a disturbing one at that.
There are a remarkable number of similarities between the two conflicts:
- Hamas is a radical Islamic militia headed by an imam with the aim of creating a state under Sharia law. The LRA is a Christian militia headed by a “spokesman of God” with the aim of establishing a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments (Source: GlobalSecurity).
- Hamas and the LRA have both refused to sign peace agreements with their enemy, a U.S. ally. Both are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State.
- Following the end of a negotiated truce period and responding to ongoing Hamas rockets, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27, 2008. The ongoing conflict has lead to the deaths of 1,000 people to date, a third of whom are civilians. Meanwhile, two days earlier on Christmas Day, following the end of a UN peacekeeping mandate, the LRA attacked civilians with machetes, sparking the current conflict. To date, there are reports of 1,000 dead, all of whom are civilian.
- The most newsworthy anecdote of the Gaza conflict has been the reported deaths of 40 civilians, including women and children, by an errant Israeli shell as they gathered to seek shelter at a safe haven, a UN school. Meanwhile, in the village of Doruma, more than 100 people, including women and children, were hacked to death by the LRA as they sought refuge in a safe haven, a Catholic church. Body parts were scattered all around the church and village (Source: The Monitor; ABC News).
Of course, the major difference — and this goes to the heart of the problem — is that in the one the “aggressor” is a modern Western nation defending itself from what their Muslim religious fanatics would like to do, while in the other, the aggressors are the religious fanatics doing in the defenseless victims.
Given the similarities, one would expect to get an equal level of media coverage on the two conflicts. I must admit that until yesterday, I knew nothing about the situation in the DRC and I think it would be a safe bet that most of you have not heard about this conflict until today. Here’s why.
A Google News search I ran on a mix of keywords relating to the two conflicts, the respective terrorist organizations involved, and the newsworthy anecdotes of the conflicts showed that reporting has been evidently skewed. When adjusted to factor in the newsworthiness of the story, as measured by the number of civilian deaths involved in the incident, the bias is beyond just proportion.
|Gaza crisis: Uganda crisis
|UN School bombing: Church Massacre
Without getting into a debate about the morality of the operation in Gaza (see my other article on that subject), surely you would have to agree that a story about a civilian killed by an errant shell (aimed at rocket launchers 30 meters away) is not 807 times more newsworthy that a civilian hacked to death in a church on Christmas Day.
Indeed, were we to factor in intention (an intentional murder deserves far more attention — say ten times as much attention — as an accidental death, whose responsibility may well lie elsewhere — say, with the people who fire at troops from behind civilians), then this might not be 1:800 but 1:8000 in disproportion.
While admittedly a higher standard of responsibility is rightly applied to a democratic state than an African terrorist group, surely the responsibility for the safeguarding of civilian life in enemy territory is somewhat mitigated by its right to defend the citizens of its own territory.
Confronted with two crises of a similar scale evolving over the same timeframe, the media chose to devote its full attention to one while blankly ignoring the other. Looking at these statistics, the mainstream media has little right to preach the doctrine of proportionality.
So, what makes a reporter decide to write yet another article about the crisis in Gaza rather than break the news from the DRC? The only plausible explanation for this disproportionate coverage is racism. It seems that while no one wants to read about another thousand dead Africans, everyone wants to read about those “warmongering Jews.” And so a pogrom of media reporting begins.
And the predictable results are that Europeans, ever eager to consume their media packets of moral Schadenfreude about the Jews, complacently discuss how happy they’ll be when Israel “disappears off the face of the earth.”