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Media Responds to Accusations of Bias in Middle East Coverage

August 17, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: When it comes to coverage of the Middle East, there are two truths that everyone who works in a newsroom, including ours, comes to understand. One is that few, if any, subjects elicit more response. The second is that the reactions to the very same story can be completely opposite.

One small example from our own e-mail this week, after a story we aired on a group of American Jews returning from Israel. One letter read, “Simply the worst piece I’ve seen on the NewsHour. Total propaganda. Please stop wasting our time with blatant fundraising attempts for Jewish and Israeli groups.”

Another said, “Finally, someone has a clear conscience that a war has two sides. Don’t take sides by just showing those sad faces and anger in Lebanon.”

We look at how readers and viewers see the news and its perceived biases with Timothy McNulty, public editor of the Chicago Tribune. He has previously served as foreign editor and as Middle East correspondent for the paper.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

And Lee Ross, a professor of social psychology at Stanford University and co-founder of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation.

Andy, I want to start with you, because you could put some numbers on this for us. You just did a poll in which you asked about bias. Tell us about the general findings.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: Well, the general reactions of the public were positive about the media. By a three-to-one margin, people said the coverage was fair, not unfair. And as you well know, the public is not shy about being critical of the press.

And this was a story that was very followed by a very large percentage of the public, much larger than the usual foreign story that doesn’t have a clear American angle. And there was no pushback on how much coverage there was.

Most people said this story got the amount of coverage it deserved, even though at one point it took up 70 percent of the news hole of the three commercial networks in the first full week of the war. So it was well-followed, well-regarded, and the public thought it was even-handed.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you did find some significant differences between Democrats and Republicans, partisans?

ANDREW KOHUT: We did. We found that Republicans were a little more critical. Only 59 percent of the Republicans said the coverage was fair; 69 percent of the Democrats said the coverage was fair.

There are a couple of things going on here. First of all, Republicans are almost always more critical of the press than Democrats. But also, in this case, the people who said that the coverage was unfair tended to think that the coverage was anti-Israel. And by a two-to-one margin, it was seen as anti-Israel, not balanced in that way. And Republicans are more supportive of Israel than are Democrats and independents, and by a substantial margin.

"No facts in the Middle East"

Tim McNulty
Chicago Tribune
The Middle East is a place where it may not be the most important story of the day, but it is always the most closely read story. The language, words are like land mines. Photos and images are emotional and explosive.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Timothy McNulty, you start a recent column I read, writing, "'There are no facts in the Middle East' is a common saying among those who report on conflict there. What they mean is there are no facts in the Middle East that are not disputed. The same is true of their reports and opinions." Tell us about the response you've been getting at your paper.

TIMOTHY MCNULTY, Chicago Tribune: Well, I think the Middle East is a place where it may not be the most important story of the day, but it is always the most closely read story. The language, words are like land mines. Photos and images are emotional and explosive. All numbers are considered suspect.

And I think, when you have people who are really intensely interested, those are the closest readers, and they will look and see anything that is unsympathetic to their side or more sympathetic to the enemy as a example of bias.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned photographs. You wrote in your column about one that appeared in the paper after the bombing at Qana. Tell us about that.

TIMOTHY MCNULTY: Yes, I thought it was interesting, again, the two different views of the same front page. The photo was of a Lebanese civil defense worker carrying the body of a small child out of the rubble. And letters I received said that that was the most anti-Israel photo and that the whole story was slanted.

On the other side, the more pro-Lebanese or pro-Arab side, some people didn't even see the photo. They saw the headline that said, "Israel Suspends Air Strikes." And it was as if people were looking at two different front pages, even though they were looking at the same one.

Media vs. the public?

Lee Ross
Stanford University
People tend to think that they see things the way they really are and therefore reasonable and unbiased people, including the media, should see them the same way. And to the extent that they see them otherwise, they accuse that party of bias.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Lee Ross, you've studied how news consumers view the news, and you came up with something called the hostile media effect. Tell us in layman's terms what you mean by that.

LEE ROSS, Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation: Well, the hostile media effect just refers to the fact that, when partisans view the media, it's likely that they see the media as biased against their interest. They also see the people responsible for the program as hostile and biased to their own interest.

And they think it's dangerous. They think that neutral observers who see this will turn against their own side. And we've seen this 25 years ago when we studied reactions to the coverage of the massacres that occurred in the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila outside Beirut.

We see the same thing in coverage of presidential elections, where everyone thinks that their side won the debate. And then when the pundits come on and talk about the debate, they feel the pundits criticized everything that was good for their side and didn't pay any attention to the flaws on the other side.

And so, in some ways, what our research shows and our work shows is it provides the theory they helps us understand the observations that your other two guests have made, namely that partisans always complain that the media is hostile and biased against them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does your research suggest that news consumers have a strong sense of what unbiased coverage would be? Is there a clear definition of that?

LEE ROSS: Well, there's obviously not a clear definition on the part of partisans, except to say that, if the media agrees with their take, if the media shares their perspective, they think it's fair and unbiased.

In general, people tend to think that they see things the way they really are and therefore reasonable and unbiased people, including the media, should see them the same way. And to the extent that they see them otherwise, they accuse that party of bias.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andy, you watch public perceptions very carefully. Do you see any growing trends, in terms of lack of trustworthiness or a sense that there is more bias in the news from news consumers?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, citizens are tougher these days, because increasingly what we see -- not particularly in this case, but in politics generally, or in public policy generally -- voters tend to have their own versions of reality. We have wider gaps between Republicans and Democrats these days and the way they see conditions, not only in the way they look at policy options or opinions on these issues.

For example, there's now a big gap, partisan gap on the way people look at how the economy is going. Ten years ago, 15 years ago, Republicans and Democrats looked at the same economy and they might disagree about what should be done about it, but they had the same view. But increasingly, there's a more divergent view about conditions as opposed to what we should do about things. And people tend to be critical then of the messengers who seem to be not representing the reality that people think is out there.

Remaining impartial, objective

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. McNulty, if all of this is right, what we just heard from Andy and from Professor Ross, what does that mean for journalism? What kind of position does that put the editors and reporters in? How do you respond when you get these letters saying that you're biased?

TIMOTHY MCNULTY: Well, I think you have to not be defensive about it. I think you have to recognize where someone's view of world or reality, as one of my panelists said here, that that is something that they believe sincerely. And we simply have to say, "What we are trying to do with objectivity -- objectivity is something that as we're looking at it from more than our eyes, that we're trying to see the reality, the event, the action as reflected from many different points of view and try to understand the truth of it."

Often people who are complaining are only going to look through one lens, and the whole notion of journalism and objectivity is to have tests, to check it out, and to check it out in many different ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Professor Ross, turning the question around a bit, do you believe that there's such a thing as a neutral viewer when it comes to highly charged things like the Mideast?

LEE ROSS: Well, I don't know if there's such a thing as a neutral viewer. We sometimes think of neutral coverage as coverage that simply lets two talking heads on opposing sides each present their view. And that's an easy, a cheap way out. What's more difficult is to provide media coverage where the media tries to expose both sides to some critical scrutiny and to ask hard questions.

But I think the minimal definition of unbiased or objective coverage should be coverage in which each side thinks that its own case has been fairly presented. They may think that the criticisms of that case are unfair, but they should feel that their basic position was articulated in a way that they recognize and are willing to own as, indeed, being their own views.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted to jump in, Mr. McNulty?

TIMOTHY MCNULTY: Yes, I agree that 50-50 is not balanced; 50-50 is just a hollow way out, of saying what you perceive to be the truth of that. I think what he was saying is excellent, because it is a question of that someone feels that their side was represented.

Understanding public perceptions

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
When this story gets to the analytical stage -- why did it happen, who's to blame -- that's where we see the public become more critical of the way the press is reporting, because there the public looks at the press, and they say it's being divisive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. McNulty, I just note that you're in this position, public editor, ombudsman. Do you see any movement within journalism to be better at responding to the kind of criticism that Andy Kohut and you're all talking about?

TIMOTHY MCNULTY: I think that responding is -- part of responding is listening first, and I suspect that both in the newspaper and on the Internet versions, like ChicagoTribune.com, what we're trying to do is making sure that we hear readers. And then having a place for them to have their voice in the paper is one way of us responding.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Andy, I guess all of this at least keeps you in business, looking at the perceptions as they change.

ANDREW KOHUT: It does. And the one thing that I would add is, the reason you're getting relatively positive reactions to this phase of the story is because it's about breaking news. And people are responding to what they think is the press telling an unfolding story.

But when this story gets to the analytical stage -- why did it happen, who's to blame -- that's where we see the public become more critical of the way the press is reporting, because there the public looks at the press, and they say it's being divisive, more divisive in this case.

And, of course, here we have a relatively small 23 percent who see divisiveness or unfairness. But in a different stage of this kind of reporting or in political reporting, you have much sharper criticisms.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andy Kohut...

LEE ROSS: If I can jump in for a second.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead.

LEE ROSS: We actually have a research finding that's kind of interesting here, and it's that the more people know about the particular situation, the more they see the media as biased, not the less.

And the reason for that is kind of interesting, and that is people see the media as biased when their starts to be some analysis, as Andy said. They see it as biased because of what's left out more than what's there. And what partisans feel is that what's left out generally in coverage of the Middle East is the context: why things are happening, what the history was.

And, of course, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian viewers have a very different view of what that context, what that history is, and therefore what's been left out.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We have to leave it there. Very interesting. Lee Ross, Timothy McNulty, and Andy Kohut, thanks a lot.