Tag Archives: Mass media

Media Coverage of Israel-Palestine — Update

The findings demonstrate a persistent bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian issue — one where Israeli narratives are privileged and where, despite the continued entrenchment of the occupation, the very topics germane to Palestinians’ day-to-day reality have disappeared. . . . While subtle, a consistent disproportion in article headlines — which by default gives a greater airtime to one side or occludes certain key issues — can impact public perception. — Owais Zaheer

It calls to attention the need to more critically evaluate the scope of coverage of the Israeli occupation and recognize that readers are getting, at best, a heavily filtered rendering of the issue.

. . . .

Since 1967, the year that the Israeli military took control of the West Bank, there has been an 85 percent overall decrease in mention of the term “occupation” in headlines about Israel, despite the fact that the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestinian territory has in fact intensified over this time. Mention of the term “Palestinian refugees,” meanwhile, has declined a stunning 93 percent. 

But there is also a hopeful silver lining:

Despite this grim political reality, there have been significant changes in U.S. media coverage of the conflict, driven in part by popular pressure coming from social media. There are also signs that Israel is becoming a partisan issue dividing liberals and conservatives in the United States, with polls showing that growing numbers of Americans would like their government to take a more evenhanded stance on the conflict.

U.S. government policy has yet to reflect these shifts in public sentiment, with the Trump administration falling over itself to project an unprecedentedly hostile and uncompromising stance toward Palestinian claims. Hard-line supporters of the Israeli government have seemingly shifted their approach from winning “hearts and minds” to punishing opponents: publishing blacklists of Palestinian activists, censoring public figures vocal about the conflict, and advocating for laws to restrict boycotts of Israeli goods.

Nonetheless, people who have followed U.S. debate on the conflict for decades say that there are serious tectonic changes occurring at the level of the American public, both in media and popular sentiment.

“Although news coverage is not evenhanded and is still generally skewed towards the Israeli perspective, there has been a massive shift over the past five years in how this issue is both reported and discussed in the United States,” said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a D.C.-based progressive think tank.

“We are seeing a shift in the types of stories that are being covered by major outlets, as well as the stances that public figures are willing to take. There are still huge problems, but things are changing. The discourse on Israel-Palestine is nothing like it was in decades past.”

From The Intercept

The full report:

Download (PDF, 617KB)

News, Information and Propaganda (How the Three Become One)

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

In a recent post I pointed out how information overload, even of hard facts, can function as propaganda rather than as a genuinely educational resource. At the time I made mention of Jacques Ellul as the source for this particular point. Here are Ellul’s words (in translation and with my own bolded highlighting for the tl;dr types) from his 1965 book, Propaganda:

That propaganda has an irrational character is still a well-established and well-recognized truth. The distinction between propaganda and information is often made: information is addressed to reason and experience—it furnishes facts; propaganda is addressed to feelings and passions—it is irrational. There is, of course, some truth in this, but the reality is not so simple. For there is such a thing as rational propaganda, just as there is rational advertising. Advertisements for automobiles or electrical appliances are generally based on technical descriptions or proved performance—rational elements used for advertising purposes. Similarly there is a propaganda based exclusively on facts, statistics, economic ideas. Soviet propaganda, especially since 1950, has been based on the undeniable scientific progress and economic development of the Soviet Union; but it is still propaganda, for it uses these facts to demonstrate, rationally, the superiority of its system and to demand everybody’s support.

Here Ellul presents examples of modern “rational and factual propaganda” such as

  • the French economic film Algérie français which is “overloaded with economic geography and statistics. But it is still propaganda.”
  • education in Mao’s China being based on “pseudo-rational proofs”
  • American propaganda in the form of “rational and factual” news bulletins of the American services “based on ‘knowledge’ and information”.
9 Ernst Kris and Nathan Leites have correctly noted the differences, in this connection, between the propaganda of 1914 and that of 1940: the latter is more sober and informative, less emotional and moralistic. As we say in fashionable parlance, it is addressed less to the superego and more to the ego.

We can say that the more progress we make, the more propaganda becomes rational and the more it is based on serious arguments, on dissemination of knowledge, on factual information, figures, and statistics.9

Purely impassioned and emotional propaganda is disappearing. Even such propaganda contained elements of fact: Hitler’s most inflammatory speeches always contained some facts which served as base or pretext. It is unusual nowadays to find a frenzied propaganda composed solely of claims without relation to reality. It is still found in Egyptian propaganda, and it appeared in July i960 in Lumumba’s propaganda in the Belgian Congo. Such propaganda is now discredited, but it still convinces and always excites.

Modern man needs a relation to facts, a self-justification to convince himself that by acting in a certain way he is obeying reason and proved experience. We must therefore study the close relationship between information and propaganda. Propaganda’s content increasingly resembles information. It has even clearly been proved that a violent, excessive, shock-provoking propaganda text leads ultimately to less conviction and participation than does a more “informative” and reasonable text on the same subject. A large dose of fear precipitates immediate action; a reasonably small dose produces lasting support. The listener’s critical powers decrease if the propaganda message is more rational and less violent.

Propaganda’s content therefore tends to be rational and factual. ….. Besides content, there is the receiver of the content, the individual who undergoes the barrage of propaganda or information. When an individual has read a technical and factual advertisement of a television set or a new automobile engine, and if he is not an electrician or a mechanic, what does he remember? Can he describe a transistor or a new type of wheel-suspension? Of course not. All those technical descriptions and exact details will form a general picture in his head, rather vague but highly colored—and when he speaks of the engine, he will say: “It’s terrific!”

It is exactly the same with all rational, logical, factual propaganda. After having read an article on wheat in the United States or on steel in the Soviet Union, does the reader remember the figures and statistics, has he understood the economic mechanisms, has he absorbed the line of reasoning? If he is not an economist by profession, he will retain an over-all impression, a general conviction that “these Americans (or Russians) are amazing. . . . They have methods…. Progress is important after all,” and so on. Similarly, emerging from the showing of a film such as Algérie française, he forgets all the figures and logical proofs and retains only a feeling of rightful pride in the accomplishments of France in Algeria. Thereafter, what remains with the individual affected by this propaganda is a perfectly irrational picture, a purely emotional feeling, a myth. The facts, the data, the reasoning—all are forgotten, and only the impression remains. And this is indeed what the propagandist ultimately seeks, for the individual will never begin to act on the basis of facts, or engage in purely rational behavior. What makes him act is the emotional pressure, the vision of a future, the myth. The problem is to create an irrational response on the basis of rational and factual elements. That response must be fed with facts, those frenzies must be provoked by rigorously logical proofs. Thus propaganda in itself becomes honest, strict, exact, but its effect remains irrational because of the spontaneous transformation of all its contents by the individual.

We emphasize that this is true not just for propaganda but also for information. Except for the specialist, information, even when it is very well presented, gives people only a broad image of the world. And much of the information disseminated nowadays—research findings, facts, statistics, explanations, analyses—eliminate personal judgment and the capacity to form one’s own opinion even more surely than the most extravagant propaganda. This claim may seem shocking; but it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener: they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image. If a man is given one item of information, he will retain it; if he is given a hundred data in one field, on one question, he will have only a general idea of that question. But if he is given a hundred items of information on all the political and economic aspects of a nation, he will arrive at a summary judgment—“The Russians are terrific!” and so on.

A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them. They are caught in a web of facts and must remain at the level of the facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modem information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information. His opinion will ultimately be formed solelv on the basis o£ the facts transmitted to him, and not on the basis of his choice and his personal experience. The more the techniques of distributing information develop, the more the individual is shaped by such information. It is not true that he can choose freely with regard to what is presented to him as the truth. And because rational propaganda thus creates an irrational situation, it remains, above all, propaganda—that is, an inner control over the individual by a social force, which means that it deprives him of himself.

Ellul, J., 1973. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Reprint of the 1965 ed. Vintage, New York. pp. 84-87

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How News Media Can be Dangerous

A day after I posted The Limits of News Media as Information Sources Mano Singham posted what could even be called a companion piece, We need more analysis, less reading of tea leaves. He begins (I have reformatted it)

Political news coverage consists of roughly three parts.

  1. First there is the reporting of an actual event that occurred (i.e., what makes up the ‘new’ in news).
  2. Second, there is an explanation of the context in which the event occurred that consists of the history and background that led to the event and the people involved, plus any actual consequences, such as how a new law that has been passed will be implemented in practice and how it will affect people.
  3. And finally there is the question of What It All Means, which consists of drawing broader conclusions and predicting future events based on the news event.

It is that middle bit that gets omitted or at best seriously abbreviated from most news reports.

Without that middle bit consumers of news are left without the most important details of all.

The second part requires not only some knowledge and expertise but also time spent in careful analysis.

Without that middle bit the news story is open to feeding popular beliefs, prejudices, misinformation, ignorance. Without that middle bit news stories potentially add fuel to bigotry and stereotypical and political, cultural, racial, etc biases.

How can it be otherwise? The news stories have to be selected and presented on the basis of what will catch the attention of the consumers and give them material they find interesting. Naturally the stories be selected and presented in a way that will tap into what is going to emotionally involve readers and viewers.

Many years ago I was required to study a couple of books by Jacques Ellul, one of them titled Propaganda. One counterintuitive detail he mentioned really pulled me up. He said that the very fact of mass media overloading consumers with enormous amounts of information, that is factual information, can in effect be a way of propagandizing a society. Information overload does not allow time for analysis or reflection and investigation. It ends up fueling the beliefs and attitudes that are taken for granted, “correct”, and so forth.

Jacques Ellul

The Limits of News Media as Information Sources

Frequently when I post something on topical subjects (e.g. “understanding Hamas”) someone will comment that my views are grounded in ignorance and supply a link to a webpage, often a mainstream news media article, to enlighten me of the facts.

When I see a news media article I will read it but I will also be conscious that it is but a single report that cannot possibly tell the “whole story”. We know the proverbial many witnesses of a car accident.

But let’s break that down a little.

Firstly, the news media report is usually the work of a journalist who needs to collect information. How often are they an eyewitness of the event? And even if they are an eyewitness, is that enough to report “the whole story”. (Again the proverbial soldier in the trenches reporting on a battle of which he necessarily witnessed only a part.) Who does the reporter interview for the information? And recall that the questions one asks and how they are framed can determine the types of answers one gets.

We know that very often reporters will rely upon official statements. Official statements themselves are generally the claims of certain politically interested parties. So again, how can we be sure we are reading “the whole story”?

And the media organization itself needs to generate revenue. They need to produce a product (news) that will in turn be sure to generate that revenue, so it is necessary for them to best study how to present the news, as well as to make decisions about what news should be prioritized. News has to sell to a particular market for the media organization to survive.

And that will always necessarily mean much detail needs to be stripped from the story, if background informative details were ever collected in the first place.

People who work for the organization are no doubt on the whole very sincere and believe wholeheartedly that they are doing a public service. That’s good, too, for the organization because it doesn’t want to struggle with any sort of cognitive dissonance.

So I keep in touch with “what’s happening” through mainstream media but at the same time I understand how filtered what I am reading necessarily is. It can never tell me the whole story.

For the whole story I always need to do a little bit of digging behind the media reports. That usually means finding reputable research into the actors of various news events. I mean scholarly and/or investigative journalist research. And I can never rely on just one piece of research. I always need to follow up the sources of certain works (via following through the sources mentioned in endnotes) and comparing with other research by other scholars, perhaps with a different perspective or background.

Or at least it means searching out news reports from diverse and often contrary political and other points of view. Such diversity won’t give final answers, in most cases, but it will generally make one aware of questions that need to be asked of each report and where further information is required.

And what I invariably learn is that one comes to have a very different perspective and understanding of what one reads in the news media when one comes to know a little of the persons, the organizations, the history of what is being reported.

Just to reduce this to a micro and personal example:

Some years back there was a newspaper and tv news report of a man who had shot another, killed him. In the news media he was a murderer, a villain in a dramatic story that caught the public’s attention. It just so happened that I knew that man personally for some years and considered him a friend. I spoke to him while he was waiting for his trial and later visited him a few times in prison. I knew a side of him that never made it to the media, or if it did, it was always in a distorted fashion. I am thinking of the many times his wife had betrayed him, his daughters turned against him, and I could only say I would have absolutely no idea what I would have done had I been in the same situation as he had been. But through the media the story was always black and white, or at most just a few hints of grey but never enough to lead anyone to question the core of the narrative.

Stories of events in the mainstream media are never comprehensive and can never, by definition, provide a genuine understanding of what has happened, why, or seriously inform us about the persons involved.

 

Still True After All These Years

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

From George Orwell’s 1945 Preface to Animal Farm

It surely applies to more than just the media industries in countries like the UK, USA, Australia . . . . .

 

Democracy, data and dirty tricks —

Are any readers old enough to recall Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders? I see Amazon sells a reissued 2007 edition of it. My copy was already old, published 1960, when I first read it. Hidden Persuaders was my introduction to the way the science of psychology was used by the marketing industry to influence potential buyers by subtle manipulation of emotions.

Much later I finally caught up with Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky; then Taking the Risk Out of Democracy by Alex Carey. Many other works on media have followed and I can now say I have some awareness of the history and methods of how stealthily propaganda has worked to guide “the masses” ever since Edward Bernays and the World War 1 era.

Tonight I watched Four Corners play the ITN documentary Democracy, data and dirty tricks. The promotional blurb reads

Four Corners brings you the undercover investigation that has left social media giant Facebook reeling through the unmasking of the secretive political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Four months in the making, this ITN investigation for Channel 4 in Britain used hidden cameras to reveal the tactics used by the UK firm Cambridge Analytica to influence elections and undermine the democratic process in several countries.

Propagandists know the importance of avoiding any message that looks like propaganda. Soviet and Nazi propaganda was too crude to genuinely persuade millions. Hence control by fear was even more important than the message. Propagandists in western style democracies are far more successful because they are far more subtle. They know how to manipulate behaviour by appealing to emotions. Head arguments and cold facts are irrelevant.

In the program key persons in Cambridge Analytica are filmed boasting how they won the election for Trump by a mere handful of 40,000 votes in key states. It was their research that led them to target those states and focus on the margin of potential swing voters.

Can we begin to raise awareness and push for the role of propaganda to be taught in high schools as part of a core civics curriculum? Without such community awareness how can we expect democracy to ever survive surface.

 

 

 

 

 

Forbes Posts Article on the Cruelty of White Evangelicalism, Then Pulls It

On 11 March 2018, Forbes posted Chris Ladd’s article, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” It didn’t last the day. You’ll probably want to read it, as well as Forbes’ weak-tea explanation for taking it down.

We’ve discussed many times here how censorship traditionally works in the West. The government rarely gets involved, nor does need to, since the press dutifully polices itself. Even in the digital age, our media gatekeepers still keep at it, perhaps out of habit, but mostly out of cowardice.

These dinosaurs, reaching the end of the line, stumbling toward extinction, haven’t given up yet. And when somebody crosses the line, they’re ready to scold the offenders and tell them their message is “way out of bounds.”

As we all know, the truth has boundaries.

Life and views of a war correspondent

A most interesting fifty-minute long interview with British journalist based in the Middle East, Robert Fisk:

Robert Fisk: life as a war correspondent

  • He does not believe a journalist should be neutral, but that he should take a position on rights and wrongs.
  • He offers interesting commentary on the media, how reporting practices have changed, and the consequences for the type of news the public receives.
  • For memory buffs, he has some interesting biographical commentary on his father’s experiences in war.
  • Contrasting today’s Western leaders who have not had personal experience with war with those of a previous generation.
  • He talks about his interviews with Osama bin Laden.
  • Lots of interesting personal anecdotes.
  • A great insight into one of the better journalists reporting on the Middle East today.

 

 

 

Terror Attacks and the Quiet Counter-Terrorist Response

I was wondering why the police spokesman addressing the media about the (presumed) terrorist attack in London had chosen not to reveal the name of the attacker. A day later I read that the media had been asked not to reveal his name. Good. I hope that request is understood to apply not just for the next 48 hours but for some weeks ahead.

The Sydney Morning Herald:

London attack: Police make multiple arrests after conducting six raids

. . . . 

On Thursday morning Assistant Commissioner of Police and Head of Counter-terrorism Mark Rowley revealed that police had raided six addresses and made seven arrests as part of their investigation, which covered London, Birmingham and other places.

. . . . 

He asked that the media not publish the name of the attacker at a “sensitive stage of the investigation”.

Presumably (hopefully) the British are following the French media decision to refuse to publish photos and names of terrorist attackers.

From July last year in The Independent:

Normandy church attack: French media bans terrorists’ names and photos to stop ‘glorification’

and in The Telegraph around the same time:

French media to quit publishing photos and names of terrorists to stop ‘hero’ effect

The Guardian/The Observer has this headline:

Media coverage of terrorism ‘leads to further violence’

The byline reads:

Clear link claimed between reports of atrocities and follow-up attacks

Hopefully the mainstream media will resist the temptation to continue spinning out this latest London attack to generate revenue for advertisers.