War Journalism Leads the Bleeding in Gaza

By Erin Niemela

As Israel’s boots hit the ground in Gaza, Operation War Journalism rages on. Both Arab and Israeli war journalists weaponize rhetoric: False dichotomies (do we bomb or do nothing?) and a pro-violence worldview, among other deadly bullets. War journalism sells violent conflict – “if it bleeds, it leads” – and we’re buying it. The violence in Gaza is partially a result of decades of media-distributed war products made from state-provided materials. War journalists escalate and prolong violent conflict. Their reporting choices, whether conscious or not, are harmful to citizens on all sides of violent conflicts, the Gaza crisis included.

Fortunately, violence isn’t the only product on the market. “To say that violence is the only thing that sells is to insult humanity,” Prof. Johan Galtung said his 2000 essay, “The Task of Peace Journalism.” Peace journalism, Galtung’s  conception of the 70s, is defined as “when editors and reporters make choices – about what to report, and how to report it – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value nonviolent responses to conflict.” Peace journalism insulates journalists from war propaganda by avoiding false dichotomies, highlighting nonviolent options and making other positive peace reporting choices. For the immediate cynics: Peace does, in fact, sell. Conflict & Communication Online studies in 2005 and 2006, by Wilhem Kempf and Monika Sphors, respectively, showed audiences accepted peace journalism articles no less, and even more, than traditional war journalism articles on the same issues.  Nevertheless, war journalism continues, and Gaza is the perfect battleground.

Victimization, Demonization, Retaliation

The photo: A grieving Palestinian woman, wailing toward the sky. The headline: “Gaza Under Siege: Naming the Dead.” Al-Jazeera’s regularly updated webpage lists the names and ages of the now-285 Palestinian victims in Gaza. In a 2013 study on Arab news framing of the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict, author Mohamad Hamas Elmasry and colleagues found that some Arab news networks regularly framed Palestinians as victims of Israeli aggression, showed images of Palestinian grief and included names and ages for Palestinian victims more than that of Israeli victims. In fairness to Al-Jazeera, two Israeli victims’ names and ages – the only Israeli deaths, so far – sit below the list. But the names aren’t meant to provide balance or personalize those deaths. They’re meant to dichotomize between good and evil and provoke the question: Whose side are you on? With victimization comes demonization – the “evil” side is implied and violence against evil is culturally justified.

For Israeli news, it’s the same story. In an extensive 2004 study on audience effects from news of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, “Bad News from Israel,” Greg Philo and Mike Berry observed that participants identified more with the side where violence was presented as justifiable. Words like “retaliation” for Israel’s military operations provided this justification. Palestinians were presented as having “started it.”

A July 18th article from The Times of Israel on the Gaza invasion is a case in point. The title: “20 Hamas fighters killed, 13 captured in first hours of ground offensive.” With violence in the headline, the lead justifies: “IDF says soldiers in Gaza destroy 21 rocket launchers, find several tunnel openings; Eitan Barak, 21, from Herzliya, is first IDF fatality; 80 rockets fired at Israel.”  Dangerous weapons, nefarious tunnels and an Israeli death are just the facts on the ground and they happen to provide justification.

War Facts Supersede Peace Facts

Yet, there are other facts, such as in a curious blurb near the bottom: “Gaza health officials said at least 20 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began, including three teenage siblings killed by shrapnel from a tank shell attack. It was not immediately clear if the 17 terrorists killed by the IDF were among the casualties reported by Gaza authorities.”  Peace journalism refrains from emphasizing our facts while marginalizing their facts, and names “evil-doers” on all sides.

War journalism gives us two sides to choose from, but it only offers one option for resolving conflict: violence. As media often frame the Israeli government and its citizens, and Hamas and Palestinians, as one and the same, we get to choose the violence of either Hamas or Israel.

Peace Journalists and Nonviolent Options

But violence is never the only choice for dealing with conflict. Peace journalists report nonviolent options from Palestinians, Israelis and any other stakeholders. Not because we don’t recognize claims to victimhood, but because we recognize that emphasizing violence as the only conflict management option only produces more violence.

Reporting nonviolent options means sourcing peacebuilders, like the Christian Peacemaker Teams that work with locals to build nonviolent, Palestinian-led, grassroots resistance. Or Gush Salom – Jewish-Israelis using direct action to stop the occupation. Insight on Conflict and Peace NGO Forum host a long list of peacebuilding organizations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Any respectable reporter can find a peacebuilder to quote, and a balanced, impartial report on Gaza depends on including the voices of peace.

Traditional war journalists support perpetual violence – their bread and butter. Yet, reporters could choose to support perpetual peace and still maintain journalistic integrity. Peace journalism practices deflect war propaganda, provide actual balance and fully inform democratic audiences. We need more peace journalists in Gaza, America, Israel and every country suffering through violent conflict. This isn’t advocacy, public relations or advertising – these are the goals of war profiteers. This is simply good journalism by good journalists with a commitment to democracy, accountability and the wellbeing of global society.Φ

Erin Niemela (@erinniemela), PeaceVoice Editor and PeaceVoiceTV Channel Manager, is a Master’s Candidate in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University, specializing in peace journalism and social movement media.

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