The Israeli military murdered more than 60 Palestinian protesters in Gaza on Monday. But if you read or watched U.S media coverage of the violence, you might not know who did the killing.
Multiple outlets referred to the protests as “deadly.” Several alluded to them as “clashes.” But almost no publications called it what it actually was: a mass murder of peaceful protestors. That, Adam Johnson, co-host of the Citations Needed podcast, says, is because of who did the killing.
“Who’s responsible for a particular violent act is usually made clear when it’s an official U.S. enemy,” says Johnson. “But when it’s the U.S. or its allies, there are certain rhetorical and writing tricks, either conscious or unconscious, that media does to obfuscate responsibility.”
Johnson has covered American media extensively for the national progressive media watchdog group FAIR Media Watch. He attributes the deliberately vague language in part to journalists’ desire to represent both sides equally even when both sides aren’t equal.
“There’s this need to have both sides, this horseshoe mentality that isn’t really used when it comes to governments that are in bad standing with the U.S. media class,” Johnson says.
Cultural biases come into play with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Johnson says, because members of the American news media tend to favor Israel or know people who do. Their cultural proximity to Israel taints their view of Israeli Defense Force actions and drips into coverage. The end result is misleading news reports portraying Israel and Palestine as nation states of equivalent strength where blame for the conflict is spread equally—or Israel is characterized as a victim of Palestinian terrorism.
“This increasingly flies in the face of the most basic fact set of what’s going on,” Johnson says.
News reports portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as endless and unchangeable. Conscious or not, this framing upholds a power symmetry that doesn’t exist.
“It’s sort of drilled into people’s heads that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two warring sides with equal power and the cycle of violence has been going on for millennia,” Johnson says.
A look at recent death tolls suggests a far different power dynamic. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, more than 1500 Palestinian civilians were killed compared to just six Israelis. When the differential is that staggering, it becomes more difficult—and more egregious—to obscure the true dynamics of the violence.
The media doesn’t reserve its half-handed language for Israel alone. Any American ally, law enforcement officer or the U.S. military itself is treated similarly. This 2015 media report acknowledged that Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, MO., but it doesn’t say by whom. The American military is consistently portrayed as a benevolent, bumbling giant. Clashes occur, seemingly of their own volition.
“[Using] ‘clashes’ is a great way of not assigning specific blame,” Johnson says. “It’s a cliche that launders power imbalance.”