Reporting on Gaza is about keeping the viewers at peace

Published: November 24, 2012
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It’s not just the media in the United States; examples of news organisations shifting the direction of their coverage to accommodate public opinion is widespread. PHOTO: AFP

“Follow the money…just follow the money.”

The infamous dialogue said by Hal Holbrook playing ‘Deep Throat’ in the movie ‘All the President’s Men still holds a lot of wisdom today in understanding as to why the media behaves the way it does.

So when I saw the onslaught of memes on Facebook and angry tweets crying foul on the biased coverage by the Western media on the Gaza issue, it made me think of old Deep Throat.

News organisations worldwide claim to be bastions of objectivity, fairness, balance and accuracy; they have to.

After all, who would watch a news channel that doesn’t make such promises?

But what should be kept in mind is that the vast majority of news organisations worldwide are owned by parent companies whose sole objective is to make a profit. Global giants like News Corporation, Time Warner and NBC Universal treat their news gathering and broadcasting divisions as any business would treat a product.

To understand this further, let’s think of ‘news’ as a ‘product’.

Following basic business principles, for a product to be successful it has to appeal to a targeted consumer group, in this case the viewers. The news has to be such that it caters to the preferences of the biggest possible viewer group where the product is available ─ or news is broadcast.

In my opinion, the biased coverage of what’s happening in Gaza, and a lot of other issues, can be explained with this understanding.

According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 57% of Americans feel that Israel is justified in taking military action in Gaza; with just one in four saying the attacks are unjustified. That means more than half of the potential viewers of CNN have a predisposed inclination of feeling sympathetic with stories highlighting the difficulty and hardship that the Israelis have to endure living with the threat of Hamas rocket strikes rather than of the dozens getting killed by Israel’s pounding of Gaza.

(Israeli children react during a Palestinian rocket attack in the southern strip of Ashkelon, neighbouring the Gaza strip. PHOTO: AFP)

The conclusion; CNN has to wrap its news in such a way that it resonates with the preference of the most number of viewers, that is what will boost it ratings allowing it to receive more advertisement and gain revenue.

Israel

(Israelis react as they run for cover while a siren wails during a rocket attack by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip in the southern city of Ashdod on November 20. PHOTO: AFP)

Now I know a lot of people would argue that things are the other way round, it is the news channels that shape viewer opinions and that is also true. The media as a whole, not just news, has a great potential to shape viewer opinions.

But in this particular instance, I am discussing the Gaza-Israel issue.

Israel is touted almost every day by American politicians and business leaders as United States’ greatest ally in the Middle East. The reason why Israel has such a unique status merits a blog post on its own. A lot of people in the United States genuinely do support Israel in almost all its endeavours, as a matter of fact, no national politician here can even dream of getting elected into office without showing overt support for Israel.

Panetta and Barak in Ashkelon - Reuters - August 1, 2012

(US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak hold a joint news conference. PHOTO: REUTERS)

(Jihad Masharawi, a Palestinian employee of BBC carries the body of his 11-month-old son who was killed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza. PHOTO: REUTER)

It’s not just the media in the United States; examples of news organisations shifting the direction of their coverage to accommodate public opinion is widespread.

In 2009, Tony Benn’s, accusing the BBC of falling under Israeli governmental pressure not to air Gaza aid appeal, video has become a YouTube sensation. But what must be remembered is that following public outcry, BBC and all other news outlets in the UK did broadcast the Gaza aid appeal.

Yes the BBC is not a for-profit organisation but it also values its ratings!

On the other side, we have the likes of Al Jazeera, which caters primarily to an Arab speaking audience around the world, especially in the Middle East where people are more inclined towards the Palestinian cause. It clearly shows biases on the other side of the fence. The news script used by its anchors and the time dedicated by it to showing the woes of the people of Gaza are self evident.

(A Palestinian man kisses the body of one of his children during their funeral in the northern Gaza Strip, November 18, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS)

That is not to say that true journalism is dead.

All the aforementioned organisations have world-class journalists working for them who sometimes put their lives in danger to put the truth out. However, the technological changes in the way that the news is broadcast allow these organisations to package news in such a way that it focuses more on the side of the story they choose to promote. This varies from a dramatic close up picture of a relative of one of the five Israelis killed crying in mourning to the video clips of Palestinian youngsters waving AK-47’s in the air shouting slogans in an alien language…

Follow Asif on Twitter @asifhasansheikh

Asif H Sheikh

Asif H Sheikh

A freelance journalist currently pursuing a Masters degree from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs specialising in International Political Economy. He tweets @asifhasansheikh (twitter.com/asifhasansheikh)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.