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April 01, 2024
Social Justice

The illusion of neutral journalism: how words construct imagery and public opinion in the Palestine

Insight by Cecilia Dalla Negra, Orient XXI

Ryszard Kapuściński argued that "true journalism is intentional, meaning it sets a goal and seeks to bring about change. Good journalism can only be like that". In a book aptly titled “The Cynic Is Not Suitable for This Profession" (E/o, 2012), the great Polish reporter attempted to outline a possible horizon for a profession that, perhaps even in his time, risked taking a wrong turn. He tried to explain how journalism, in his view, should be a quest for truth, a megaphone for those without a voice, a tool for those suffering oppression, and certainly not, as it has largely become today, for those exercising hegemonic force. His view of journalism did not consider the idea of "neutrality" credible - nor fundamentally just - starting from the evidence that every human being has positions, values, worldviews, and tends to bring them into their profession; preferring, therefore, a more credible, and plausible, honesty.

"To be journalists is by definition to spend the day making choices," says French journalist Salomé Saqué in a recent article published in the magazine Socialter, titled "The Illusion of Neutrality", which seems to trace a genealogy with Kapuściński's vision. In the journalist's profession, she tells us, everything is the result of a choice. And indeed, in a situation of blatant injustice, not being neutral becomes urgent.

By doing so, however, she reminds us, we are immediately relegated to the definition of "militant journalists" (otherwise known as: partisans, lacking clarity, ultimately emotional), a definition useful for discrediting work based on the assumption that it is less reliable because it is carried out with a declared value positioning.

Yet journalism is not only about reporting facts but also about conveying values. Thus, the only criterion for evaluating its quality should be adherence to ethical principles, journalistic method, and punctuality in verifying sources. In other words, respecting that "pact of trust" towards which one must be responsible. And responsibility also lies in the narrative one chooses to produce: because that will guide public opinion.

The "Palestine case", or the unspeakable

Unlike other contexts, the "Israel/Palestine case" is unique even in its media coverage. Indeed, we have always observed serious levels of censorship and self-censorship in the Western media field, which could be overcome only through adherence to facts and their contextualization. Yet, after October 7th, "context" became an unspeakable word. Simply mentioning it was enough to risk the accusation of "supporting terrorism." If it is true that "only what is named exists," as a saying dear to feminism goes, we can affirm without fear of contradiction that context, in Palestine, does not exist in our media.

As scholar Somdeep Sen writes in a recent article for Al Jazeera, "words construct reality. In times of war, those used by journalists are supposed to help us understand what is happening and why. But too often they serve instead to distract, confuse, protect power from its responsibilities".

And it is precisely from the words used to describe the context that perhaps we need to start. From that deviant language, aimed not so much at informing as at directing public opinion, used by the Western mainstream media system. The language with which this "war" is described is anything but neutral and indeed constitutes an aspect of the war itself. And the choice of words with which it is narrated is never random.

The first problem that arises in media representation is the choice between the conceptual framework of "conflict" and that of "colonialism". By choosing the former, we imagine a fair fight between two parties that do not agree. Preferring the latter, we frame instead a process of settler colonialism operated by Israel against the Palestinian population, which began in the late 1800s and continues to this day, using management devices such as apartheid, ethnic cleansing, military occupation.

By doing so, it would be consequential to have a less emotional and more lucid reading of the context, considering those who operate to dismantle the colonial system not as "terrorist groups", but as political subjects with military structures, engaged in an armed struggle for national liberation. Hamas and other factions operating in Gaza could thus be examined in comparison with similar movements in other historical and geographical contexts, which have always resorted to practices certainly disturbing to those who do not live within the colonial experience, and which can be construed as "war crimes" when they target civilian objectives, but which fall within the logic of an asymmetric clash compared to the traditional annihilation attempt carried out by colonial powers against colonized populations.

Since the first hours of the Israeli military offensive, however, it has been evident the narrative device adopted by most Western mainstream media: within the framework of what has always been described as a "conflict," Hamas is "a terrorist group" and Israel "has the right to defend itself". This approach has significant consequences: not surprisingly, there have been numerous appeals from the Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate to information operators in the West. Because - they tell us - the way we report the news has two orders of consequences: on what happens in the field, here and now; and in the construction of the perception of peoples and contexts.

The long road to de-humanization

The Western media environment regarding the Palestinian context has always been marked by significant biases and cultural distortions.

"It's complicated": this is the inevitable preface, the necessary premise, for any statement on the issue. To this mechanism of preventive distancing of public opinion from the risk of understanding follows the systematic removal of context: in the face of recurring explosions of "crisis," we return to talking about a "conflict" in which the Palestinian side is evoked only through the register of violence - born, however, in a vacuum - to which Israel is forced to "respond." The consequence is that Israelis are "killed," while Palestinians generally "die." The intentionally destroyed buildings "collapse," the forced expulsions of Palestinians from their homes become "catastrophic disputes," army raids become "clashes." And on the other hand, we have observed in these past five months: in Gaza, people "suffer from hunger," are "found dead" as a "collateral effect" of "surgical bombings" aimed at hitting military targets and - coincidentally - have razed hospitals, universities, mosques to the ground. In Gaza, therefore, we have "collateral victims" because the one launched by Israel is a "war." Those of October 7th, however, fell at the hands of "terrorists": the hierarchy between who must live and who can also die is quickly outlined.

However, after October 7th, there was even a qualitative leap in the re-proposal of the warlike lexical framework, with the systematic use of the category of terrorism, and the misleading overlap between Hamas and actors such as Daesh or Al Qaeda.

"However, over the past few years, extensive debates have developed about the appropriateness of using the term 'terrorism' in journalistic contexts, as it is a term with strong political connotations; a definition that can be attributed at most to actions, and not to the individuals who carry them out, thus placing them outside the human category. If those individuals cease to be human, their reasons will be removed, and anything against them will be deemed acceptable: even extermination.

If through media narrative we have internalized that Hamas is a terrorist organization, it will be difficult to take its statements seriously. Thus, the press extensively refers to 'data disseminated by Hamas' or 'from Ministries controlled by Hamas,' implicitly suggesting to approach those numbers with a certain distance. A distance rarely granted, on the other hand, to information conveyed by the Israeli Army, often reproduced without ethical verification. This is how in the first days after October 7th, outright fake news was disseminated that, once launched, is destined to remain true forever.

There have been numerous examples in this regard. It suffices to mention the sadly famous one of the 'decapitated children' in the attack on the kibbutz, news relayed by the Italian press despite later proving unverified; or the one of Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City, bombed and besieged by the Israeli Army, which considered it 'Hamas' main operational base,' a news later refuted even by the 'embedded' press escorted to Shifa by the military.

The dissemination of false news to justify disproportionate military interventions and make them more acceptable to public opinion is a mechanism we have come to know in the post-September 11th scenario, as well as the consequences in terms of Islamophobia caused by a distorted representation. In the aftermath of 2001, countries - but especially peoples - deemed responsible for a 'clash of civilizations' (according to the unfortunate definition promoted then by Samuel Huntington) were depicted as the 'axis of evil.' This rhetorical apparatus contributed to a reading that military action in Afghanistan and Iraq was necessary.

What we have seen reappear after October 7th was the same rhetoric: the Palestinian side, entirely subsumed by Hamas, a non-human subject as 'terrorist' - was definitively de-humanized. An enabling environment was created for the extermination of the population even through information, which orchestrated a mechanism of distorted empathic production, directed exclusively at the victim closest to Western standards. It is to this victim - and only to them - that not only the monopoly of pain is recognized, but also the legitimacy of the use of force.

The mechanism of de-humanization of the Palestinian people thus began a long time ago, and it is part of a broader demonization of the other, which has seen Islam and the peoples inhabiting the Arab-speaking world as the designated victims. In other words, if what is happening to the Gazan population were happening in a place perceived as closer or similar to ours, and to the detriment of a population not predominantly Muslim, certainly different media narratives would be used.

This firmly Islamophobic and racist stance did not spare colleagues from the Palestinian press, the only witnesses to the ongoing genocide attempt in Gaza since international press access is prohibited, but widely considered unreliable, as they are 'too involved.' However, this distance has never been reserved for Israeli, Ukrainian, or colleagues in other conflicts. Claiming the monopoly of authority and credibility as Western press is part of the still colonial posture that persists in our part of the world.

There is a popular saying in journalism: 'If one person says it's raining outside and another doesn't, the journalist shouldn't quote them both but look out the window'. It is then in choosing what to tell, how to do it, which words to use; and furthermore, in attempting to amplify subaltern and silenced voices, that perhaps lies the balance to be found between the exercise of the profession and what the present imposes on our conscience".

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