The European Media’s Anti-Israel Confirmation Bias

by John O'Sullivan

Why is Israel getting harsher media coverage for its artillery and bomb attacks on Gaza than the media coverage devoted to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel? If we knew nothing of the conflict other than that Israel’s attacks are essentially a response to a deliberate Hamas policy of firing rockets into Israel to weaken it and extract concessions from it, we would almost certainly be disposed to treat Hamas more harshly than Israel. And that would be so even if we thought Israel’s broader policy on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to be wrong or mistaken or counter-productive. No one believes that Hamas fires its rockets (or builds its tunnels) as a response to Israel’s bombs. We should therefore be disposed to condemn Hamas more strongly.

Yet not only is European media coverage of the Gaza campaign far more hostile to Israel than to Hamas, but public opinion there seems to go along with it.

Many reasons for this odd sympathy can be imagined. One is a rising anti-Semitism in Western Europe (to which I’ll return in a separate posting) which biases people against the Jewish state. The usual analysis is to blame that anti-Semitism on the behavior of Israel — to root anti-Semitism in an allegedly more justifiable anti-Zionism. But the mere fact that anti-Israel demonstrators in Western Europe resort to straightforward anti-Jewish incitement without losing all support and respectability suggests that this hatred goes in both directions. And Muslim anti-Semitism has made European anti-Semitism more numerous, more powerful, bolder, and thus more influential.

Another may be the perception that Hamas is the underdog and Israel a powerful bully with unassailable power. That may be true in the short to medium term. But a dispassionate analysis of Israel’s strategic position — a small, rich, energetic, and creative country surrounded by far larger states with wealth, religious hostility, weak governments, and rising jihadist movements–suggests its long-term prospects are precarious. To put it simply, Israel cannot afford to lose a war or to make political concessions that seriously weaken its national security. Failure to take this existential vulnerability into account arises from more than stupidity; it amounts to something like callousness.

But the main reason — or so it seems to me — for the skewed response to Gaza is the reporting of the media that the casualties inflicted by Israeli bombing are disproportionately civilians, including women and children. That has led in turn to the specific accusation that Israel’s military response is itself “disproportionate” and to the more general impression that Israel is a bullying monster. And these ideas have settled in the public mind.

It is probably pointless to subject these impressions to criticism since both the media and Western European public opinion apparently WANT to believe them. Also, the meaning of “disproportionate” in international law does not mean that an army cannot inflict more casualties than it receives — which would be absurd — but that the force employed should be proportionate to the likely military gain. Since Israel’s likely military gain in this campaign is a major reduction (or even elimination) of Israeli civilian casualties from rockets or attacks from the Gaza tunnels by Hamas, that is a proportionate gain by any reasonable standard — especially if the Gaza casualties turn out to be composed of more combatants and fewer civilians.

So it’s very noteworthy that the BBC head of statistics has issued here a very balanced statement pointing out that the composition of the Gaza casualties was still uncertain, according even to those who had compiled them, but that young men of military age were considerably over-represented in the figures and that women and children were similarly under-represented. Unless there is some third factor explaining these discrepancies — for instance, that young family heads take much greater risks than others in conflict zones — then the suspicion must be that Hamas fighters (i.e., legitimate military targets) are a much larger percentage of the casualties than the media coverage has led us to believe so far.

A reason for finding this explanation plausible is that this was exactly what happened twelve years ago in the so-called “Jenin massacre.” Western news reports throughout the crisis gave extremely high casualty rates as a result of Israel’s armed action — hundreds and even thousands of people were said to have been killed — but these turned out to be gross exaggerations when the conflict came to an end. The Palestinian Authority itself gave the number of people killed as 56.

This perturbed me sufficiently at the time — I was then with United Press International — that I asked my colleague, Marty Sieff, to take time away from his usual journalistic duties and investigate these very basic infractions of serious reporting standards. You can find his reports here and here.

How is it that we in the media seem to make the same mistakes again and again. The technical term for it is “confirmation bias.” The reason for it is because we like those mistakes.