How wire services amplify biases against Israel

Slanted news gets recycled on a massive scale when it comes from wire services and reference guides that are go-to resources for thousands of media outlets. Part Two of a two-part report on Israel and language usage in the media.

When a single publication reports a news story with errors, the damage can be contained with letters to the editor and corrections. Slanted narratives and inaccuracies circulated by a news service such as Reuters or the Associated Press, however, risk being recycled on a massive scale.

It’s the difference between shouting with your hands cupped around your mouth or using a high-wattage public address system.

Every media outlet that subscribes to United Press International’s news service, for example, gave their readers a narrow view of the plight of Palestinian refugees in a Dec. 1 story on impoverished Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The UPI story, by Dalal Saoud, was conspicuously devoid of context by reporting that a financial crisis facing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees, along with a sagging economy and the Covid-19 pandemic, was to blame for the poverty.

But the article, as noted by Honest Reporting, which monitors the media for anti-Israel bias, failed to mention policies in these countries that encourage Palestinian poverty and keep them from becoming integrated into society. In Lebanon, for example, Palestinians are prevented from applying for citizenship and are legally barred from working in law, medicine, engineering and other prime occupations.

The damage can be even more magnified when journalists refer to trusted reference books such as dictionaries and language style guides with skewed and inaccurate content. The first of four definitions or explanations for “Samaria” in an online edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th Edition), for example, identifies the area as a region in West Jordan, west of the Jordan River.

Jordan never had a legal claim to the land. Even the Arab League did not recognize then-King Abdullah’s 1950 annexation of the land. The Webster’s inaccuracy is included with an online edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, the go-to style and usage guide for thousands of newspapers and other media.

The AP Stylebook publishes a print edition every two years and updates an online edition as needed. Though it does not repeat the error in its 55th print edition, its latest, released in May, AP Stylebook editors have called the West Bank Jordanian territory in the reference guide’s online edition.

Stylebook editors and other journalists risk passing along inaccuracies if they rely on faulty sources and inherently biased popular language or political bodies such as the United Nations as barometers. Both “Myanmar” and “Burma,” for instance, are considered viable. Even the AP Stylebook’s online pronunciation guide notes the Southeast Asian country is “also known as Burma.” Yet the AP Stylebook favors “Myanmar,” according to an AP response to a reader’s online query, in part because the UN accepts the term.

But that standard discourages a fair narrative and can erode balanced reporting. A press that takes language usage cues from the UN, where serial human rights violators including Cuba and Venezuela sit on the Human Rights Council, shows the folly of not digging deeper for a fairer use of language.

Consider the UN draft resolution adopted last month that refers to the Temple Mount solely as an Islamic holy site and employs only its Muslim name of Haram al-Sharif. Or former President Barack Obama describing in his new memoir the Temple Mount as “one of Islam’s holiest sites,” with no mention that it is the holiest site in Judaism.

The media would grossly misinform their readers and viewers while slapping world Jewry in the face if they were to model those skewed references and begin naming Judaism’s holiest site solely by its Arabic name.

Many mainstream media outlets, in fact, strive for balance when referencing the Temple Mount.  For instance, a Washington Post story last year about efforts by Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar to enter Israel reported that they had planned to visit “the city’s flash point holy site, called the Haram al-Sharif by Muslims and the Temple Mount by Jews.” 

Many media use some variation of that language, a relatively balanced model for how the press can identify Judea and Samaria alongside “West Bank.” (Some might take issue with the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif equivalence, however, since it is Islam’s third-holiest site, and many of Israel’s foes, despite the overwhelming historical evidence, deny any Jewish connection to the place at all.)

On first blush, the AP Stylebook appears impartial about the holy site. The online edition features separate citations for the Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif, and it refers to both in each entry. But a closer look at the Temple Mount citation, both online and in print, shows a striking lack of balance. The citation for the Jewish site uses five times the number of words to describe its significance to Muslims while glossing over its import to Jews.

The limited Jewish-centric wording in the stylebook’s Temple Mount entry merely states it “was the site of the ancient Jewish temples.” Yet the same Temple Mount entry uses the site’s Arabic name and English translation, Noble Sanctuary, and notes the spot houses the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. “Muslims,” the stylebook entry continues, “believe the Prophet Muhammad made his night journey to heaven” from the site.

AP editors could have put those latter details in the stylebook’s Haram al-Sharif entry, while offering more specifics in the Temple Mount entry on the two temples—that Jews to this day on the Tisha B’Av holiday mourn their destruction, for example, and yearn to also pray at the site.

By explaining in its Temple Mount description that the spot was the site of the ancient temples (my emphasis), the AP Stylebook implies the Temple Mount is today obsolete and irrelevant. There is no debate the site is the holiest in Judaism, however, and spirituality, and therefore the site’s importance to Jews, is timeless despite the physical absence of the temples.

The AP Stylebook is more balanced in addressing Jerusalem. Many media cite East Jerusalem, uppercase, to denote the area’s Arab majority and presumably separate identity (made so after Jordan ethnically cleansed the city of Jews). Using an uppercase ‘e’ for East Jerusalem also lends support to Palestinian claims to that half of the city.

But AP Stylebook editors, in response to an online query, correctly suggest using lowercase east Jerusalem “because the eastern part of Jerusalem isn’t an official entity.”

Balance is lacking, however, in the AP Stylebook entry on the term “Palestine,” which references the West Bank and Palestinian territories but omits any mention of Judea and Samaria.

To their credit, however, AP Stylebook editors recognize important subtleties in the use of “Palestine.” The reference guide recommends that writers and editors refer to Palestine only in the context of “activities in international bodies to which it has been admitted” but never use “Palestine or state of Palestine in other situations, since it is not a fully independent, unified state.”

In fact, there never was a sovereign Arab state known as Palestine. That name is derived from the Roman term Palaestina, applied in 135 CE to erase Jewish ties to the land. If the press must use such terms, including “West Bank,” readers and viewers of those news reports should contact editors and make the case for also including Judea and Samaria.

A good start would be for the Associated Press Stylebook to add, both online and in its next print edition, an entry for “Judea and Samaria.” It should also include the term in other relevant entries such as “Palestine.” Readers should especially seek “Judea and Samaria” included in ongoing news reports from the Associated Press, Reuters and UPI news services.

Greater recognition that the land is strikingly emotional and spiritual for Jews might bring about other fair usage changes, such as encouraging journalists to move from using “occupied” to “disputed” territory. Using the language of only one party to a conflict is for op-ed pieces, not the news pages.

About the Author
Allan Richter is a journalist in Long Island, New York. In addition to writing articles, he educates students about Israel through letter-writing campaigns dealing with current affairs.
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