Proving media bias on settlements: Digital analysis, an academic approach

Auto-generated word cloud analysis of biased al-Jazeera article

Few world issues today are as controversial as the Israeli settlements.  Many people consider the word “settlements” itself to be controversial – denying the permanence of Jewish existence over a massive area of Israeli land.  Even within Israel, there exists a range of opinions when it comes to settlements.

This article was created as part of a course in Digital Humanities, a field which takes an academic approach, using a variety of tech tools, to examine bodies of text of all kinds, from historical documents to modern-day news articles, to reach data-driven conclusions.

In this case, I’ve looked at a range of newspaper articles – both international and Israeli – around a 2017 decision by the Israeli government to release a building freeze which was in place since the Obama administration and approve the construction of 2,500 new homes in the West Bank region of the country. This research was done back in 2017 and I apologize if links to the original articles are missing.  I chose this topic and these articles because they reflected a good selection of views on the issue of settlements.

All of these publications follow their own consistent ideology designed to appeal to their particular readers without challenging preconceived notions of a situation of global significance which surfaces often within the news.

Note that this paper was written in a Canadian university setting where readers were not necessarily familiar with the issues, which is why I’ve started with a little background on the subject.  If you’re already familiar, skip that part and dive right in.

Because it’s Canadian, I’ve given special emphasis to Canadian media, which in my experience tends to skew liberal anyway.  But again, this is an objective, data-driven analysis, in which I did my very best to leave my own assumptions out of things and just see what the data had to say for itself. 😉

Background and Terminology

In order to further discussion, it is worth taking a moment to define terms.  The word “settlements” is generally used to refer to Jewish towns or cities built in mainly Arab areas beyond Israel’s original 1949 armistice borders (“Green Line”).

This land became part of Israel in 1967, when Israel was attacked by five surrounding nations and roughly tripled its size.  Since that time, part of that territory, like the Sinai peninsula, has been returned.  Some has not – such as the Golan Heights, which is held for strategic reasons given the difficulties in nearby Syria.  Some area has been used to create living space for a growing population, including the region along the west bank of the Jordan River, known as the “West Bank,” and this is the area where the disputed settlements are located.

Some of the international community considers this region illegal for Israeli habitation because it lies beyond the 1949 armistice lines – as does much of Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem.

Since the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s, part of the West Bank region has been under Palestinian self-government under the former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), since renamed the Palestinian Authority (PA).  Other areas continue have been inhabited by Jewish communities since the 1960s – these are known as the “settlements.”

Almost every term used in conversation around these housing developments will be controversial to one side or another.  In this paper, terminology used will include:

  • Settlements – as opposed to simply towns, villages, cities, homes, or housing units
  • West Bank – as opposed to Occupied Territories, Occupied West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territory, “Judea and Samaria” or “Yehuda and Shomron” (Biblical geographic areas of Israel)
  • Palestinians – as opposed to Arabs; Palestinians are Christian or Muslim, but since 1948, not Jewish (earlier, most Jewish Israelis spoke Arabic and many considered themselves to be Arabs, particularly if they came to Israel from Arab countries such as Iraq)

Two issues are entirely separate from the settlements issue and are not part of conversation around the West Bank settlements.  First is the issue of Palestinian refugees.  Some refugee camps are located in Israeli territory; others are located in Palestinian territory.  Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority has to date (since 1948) allowed the refugees to move out into their land.  The second issue not dealt with here is the situation of Israeli Arabs, who may be Christian, Muslim or Druze (some also include Bedouin in the count of Israeli Arabs).  Arabs living within the borders of the State of Israel are full citizens, with voting rights, education, healthcare, and the right to serve in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.

Unfreezing the Settlements

The eight news stories analyzed here deal with a decision by the Israeli government in late January 2017 to approve building construction in the West Bank.  This decision was seen – both within Israel and internationally – as a reaction to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.  It was believed, and evidence ultimately bore out the fact that Trump would look more favourably on the cause of settlement than his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who generally condemned any perceived move on Israel’s part to assert a claim on the disputed region.  Here are the eight news articles, in alphabetical order according to news outlet:

and

Toronto Star, “In response to Trump’s win, Israel approves huge settlement expansion in West Bank,” January 24, 2017, https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/01/24/after-softer-signals-from-trump-israel-approves-2500-settlement-homes-in-contested-west-bank.html

and

CBC, “Israel approves 2,500 new West Bank settlement homes,” January 24, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/israel-announces-new-settlement-homes-1.3949589

In an attempt to specifically cover Canadian media response, it was slightly disappointing to realize that three major Canadian news outlets had simply adapted wire service articles.  The Toronto Star and the National Post, in specific, both based their coverage on the same wire story.  Nonetheless, differences among the three will be discussed separately below.

Headline Analysis

Before delving into textual analysis of the content of the articles, it is worth taking a moment to simply investigate the article headlines.  These were analyzed for three factors: who is the main actor in the headline, what is being built (according to the headline only) and how large is the decision mentioned in the article?  The results are very revealing, as seen in the following table.

Media Main actor Building what? How big?
Al Jazeera Unknown Settler homes 2,500
BBC Israel Settlement homes 2,500
Jerusalem Post Israel Housing units 2,500
New York Times Trump Settlement expansion “Wave”
USA Today Israel Settlement homes 2,500
Wall St. Journal Israel Settlement expansion “Large”
Ynet News Lieberman & Netanyahu Housing units 2,500

 

Both Israeli publications use the term “housing units,” as compared to a variety of terms in the international publications.  Two headlines, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, are vague both about the size of the new development and in terms of specifying exactly what is being built, referring to it not as residential housing at all but as “settlement expansion.”  The other five acknowledge that the units being planned are for housing purposes, but differ in how they refer to the type of housing.  In none of these cases is the type of housing normalized as it is in the Israeli publications – it is difficult to humanize the situation, picturing an ordinary house or apartment, when it is referred to only as a “settler home.”

Notice as well that of the seven headlines analyzed here, the Jerusalem Post headline is the only one in which the decision is “announced” rather than “approved.”  This publication is clearly one which solidly backs the current Netanyahu / Lieberman administration, and the use of this wording for its headline is almost triumphant, as are other wordings throughout its article.

Textual Analysis

To prepare these articles’ text for analysis by the various tools, they were stripped down to plain text, with all photo captions, advertisements, extraneous link text, comments, and other miscellaneous text removed to ensure the most direct comparison possible.  The text was also run through an online tool (https://dan.hersam.com/tools/smart-quotes.html) to change “smart quotes” to straight quotes for easier processing, and saved as a plain-text file.

The first level of textual analysis was conducted using the Wordle graphical text-analysis and concordance tool.  This offers a very casual, unscientific, at-first-glance assessment of keywords which may be significant to the interpretation of the article.  Words are generally listed in the table below as they appear in the respective Wordles, from largest to smallest, but this determination was partially subjective.

News source Top 10 Keywords identified by Wordle
Al Jazeera settlement, homes, plan, Jerusalem, Israel, Palestinian, approved, Israeli, occupied, new
BBC Israel, settlement, Bank, West, plans, settlements, Netanyahu, homes, two-state, peace
Jerusalem Post settlement, Trump, building, units, new, administration, Jerusalem, settlements, announcement, Council
National Post settlement, Trump, Bank, new, White, House, Palestinians, move, Netanyahu, West, Israel
New York Times Israel, Bank, West, settlement, Israeli, Israel’s, new, Palestinian, Jerusalem, Trump
USA Today Israel, settlements, West, Bank, U.S., condemned, Trump, administration, Israeli, approved
Wall St. Journal new, administration, units, Bank, Netanyahu, approval, settlements, largest, came, resolution
Ynet News decision, Israel, Trump, Netanyahu, Bank, housing, move, new, settlement, Lieberman

 

Examining the individual Wordles reveals some key differences in particular between the two Israeli sites analyzed here.  For instance, the word “Jerusalem” is not nearly as prominent in the Ynet Wordle as it is in the Jerusalem Post.  For the Jerusalem Post, the article is an opportunity to tie in other Jerusalem-related issues recently in the news, for instance, speculation about whether Trump would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and the decision a few days earlier to build in East Jerusalem.  For the Jerusalem Post, with its pro-government, pro-settlements stance, these are positive developments, while the Wordle for Ynet News reveals that its approach is more hesitant and critical of the current administration.  While Ynet News writes that Trump “did not react” to the earlier news about the building in East Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Post sees this non-reaction as a good omen, “a sharp contrast with the Obama administration, which regularly slammed new building beyond the Green Line.”

The word “Palestinian,” in contrast, features prominently in only two of the Wordles, those of Al Jazeera and the New York Times.  A comparison of relative sizes of the words “Palestine” / “Palestinian” and “Israel” / “Israeli” in the respective Wordles may prove revealing.  All measurements are somewhat subjective on a scale from “tiny” to “huge” based on visual analysis of data as visualized by Wordle.:

News source Size of “Palestine” / “Palestinian” Size of “Israel” / “Israeli”
Al Jazeera Medium-Large Medium-Large
BBC Small Large
Jerusalem Post Tiny Small
National Post Medium Medium
New York Times Medium-Large Large
USA Today Medium Huge
Wall St. Journal Small Small
Ynet News Tiny Tiny

 

Although it would seem as those media outlets placing more emphasis on the Palestinian “side” of the issue would be more anti-Israel, as can be seen in the table above, neither Israeli publication makes extensive use of the word Israel.  That may be because within Israel, the settlements are viewed mainly as a political rather than national issue, as the Ynet News headline analyzed above reveals.  The lack of emphasis on dialogue with Palestinians most likely reflects a post-Oslo cynicism – while most Israelis were optimistic about the peace process at first, only a slim majority still believes that a two-state solution is feasible (Federman, 2016).

Collating the plain text version of all the articles together to create a single Wordle reveals a summary of the crux of the issue.  The key players here – according to these ten newsmaking sites – are Israel, Netanyahu, and Trump.  The issue at stake is settlement on the West Bank.  Minor themes here in this final Wordle are statehood, both Israeli and Palestinian (both appear at about the same size); peace, as well, is a minor aspiration, and it is hard to believe that had the same analysis been done in the late 1990s, immediately following the Oslo Accords, it would not have taken a more major place in all of the articles.  Peace has become a distant and subsidiary goal for the major players in this story.

Interestingly, Jerusalem remains a major theme in this final summarizing Wordle despite the fact that the main issue at hand here – approval of 2,500 Israeli housing units in the West Bank – really does not involve Jerusalem itself.  As part of the West Bank, as part of the disputed territories, Jerusalem functions as synecdoche, representing the whole on the world stage.

Detailed comparison using TAPoRware

Time did not allow for a full comparison and contrast among all the articles analyzed here.  However, five pairs of articles were chosen, somewhat randomly, for a sample analysis through TAPoRware’s document comparison tool, located at http://taporware.ualberta.ca/~taporware/textTools/comparator.shtml

Few interesting generalizations emerged based on this very rough analysis.  Two details worthy of further study include:

  • Israeli publications focused more on “internal” details such as names of key players
  • “Peace” was not a popular concept shared among the publications, although it did surface as a commonality between the BBC and the New York Times, both of which condemned Israel for the settlements announcement as a roadblock to peace

Part of the problem with the TAPoRware analysis may have to do with study design.  Had the publications been sorted for analysis using this tool more carefully along ideological lines, such as left/right, a clearer picture might have emerged of distinctions and similarities between and among them.  Another difficulty, realized after the fact, is that articles should probably have been of similar length to ensure valid comparison in terms of key word frequency.

Three Canadian news outlets

One final avenue of analysis stems from the fact that although two out of the three Canadian articles were based on the same Associated Press (AP) report, the National Post and Toronto Star, these articles were modified in ways which reveal significant differences among these news venues’ editorial policies.  These differences were easily tracked using Microsoft Word’s “Compare Documents” feature.  Three examples of these changes are shown below (“original” copy shown is as the article appeared in the National Post – “changes” marked in red-highlighted text represent the article as it appeared in the Toronto Star).

Example 1:

The approval of “plans to build 2,500 homes” has become, in the Toronto Star’s version, “2,500 new homes,” suggesting that the process is more immediate than it actually is.

Example 2:

Again, the Toronto Star has made the process seem more immediate by removing information about the bureaucratic process.

Example 3:

Following mention of Jared Kushner and the ambassador’s support for one of the towns involved, the Toronto Star has omitted a lengthy discussion of both Netanyahu’s optimism for the Trump administration and his calls for restraint.  The Star has also omitted a quotation from a “settler leader” calling new Israeli towns in the area, “the answer to peace.”  Instead, it leaps forward to the mention that this current settlement vote comes on the heels of a related decision approving 600 “settler homes” in Jerusalem, suggesting a closer connection between the two events than the original version of the article intended.

Comparing headlines among all three Canadian sites also reveals slight ideological differences which may also be telling.  All three headlines make the clear political connection between the decision and Trump’s inauguration.

  • CBC: Israel approves 2,500 new West Bank settlement homes (This is the only article which ran with a subheading:  “It’s the 2nd time new construction has been approved since Donald Trump took office.”)
  • National Post: Israel approves 2,500 West Bank settlement homes only days after Trump sworn in
  • Toronto Star: In response to Trump’s win, Israel approves huge settlement expansion in West Bank

The CBC headline in this case seems the most neutral if it is considered without its subhead.  With the subhead, it makes the strongest connection between the current and previous building plans, and there is undoubtedly some irony in the words “since Donald Trump took office” given that the article ran on January 24th and Trump had only taken office three days earlier.  The National Post headline does not tie the current announcement in with any other expansion plans, although it does mention the additional Jerusalem construction near the end of the article.  The Toronto Star headline seems the most overblown.  It drops the number 2,500 altogether in favour of the words “huge” and “expansion” and pins the expansion squarely on the Trump victory, leading the headline with Trump to suggest that this is a strong causal connection.  Analyzing these Canadian headlines according to the rubric above reveals similar wording to the U.S. headlines:

Media Main actor Building what? How big?
CBC Israel Settlement homes 2,500
National Post Israel Settlement homes 2,500
Toronto Star Trump Settlement expansion “Huge”

 

Here, too, for instance, with the Toronto Star, it is easy to observe a repetition of the “settlement expansion” terminology along with the vague size claim (“Huge”).  The Toronto Star has repeatedly been called to task by the Jewish community in Toronto and beyond for its ongoing and persistent anti-Israel bias (HonestReporting.com, n.d.).  Yet it no doubt serves a loyal readership who understand very clearly where it stands on these and related issues.

Conclusion

Individuals today are seeking out news streams that are increasingly customized and niche-oriented.  For many, just a quick glance at the headline of a news article offers enough information to make the decision about whether or not to read the article.  News is rarely about in-depth analysis, or the history of the present situation.  Tellingly, while seven of the articles analyzed here refer to the 1967 war, none – including the Israeli publications – explain what happened during that war.  Given that most readers choose publications aligned with their own ideological views, it may be worthwhile for the publications themselves to simply take a shortcut and publish Wordles, word clouds of relevant topics, or concordances to articles that don’t exist, to allow readers to quickly get the gist of news without having to bother clicking through and going to the trouble of reading articles or informing themselves about the world around them.

Appendix A:  Wordle

Al Jazeera

USA Today

BBC

Wall Street Journal

Jerusalem Post

Ynet News

National Post

New York Times

 

 

Appendix B:  TAPoRware – sample article comparisons – http://taporware.ualberta.ca/~taporware/textTools/comparator.shtml?

I’m not sure if this tool is still available, but it was very helpful to me at the time.  I hope it’s still out there in one form or another, even if this link doesn’t seem to be working.

Al Jazeera and USA Today

Words in common

Top 10 Words in Al Jazeera only

Top 10 Words in USA Today only

BBC and New York Times

Top 10 Words in Common

Top 10 Words in BBC only

Top 10 Words in NY Times only

Jerusalem Post and Ynet News

Top 10 Words in Common

Top 10 Words in Jlem Post only

Top 10 Words in Ynet News only

Jerusalem Post and National Post

Top 10 Words in Common

Top 10 Words in Jlem Post only

Top 10 Words in Nat. Post only

Wall Street Journal and USA Today

Top 10 Words in Common

Top 10 Words in WSJ only

Top 10 Words in USA Today only

 

 

 

 

References

Al Jazeera.  (2017, January 24).  Plan approved for 2,500 new settler homes in West Bank.  http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/israel-approves-plan-2500-settler-homes-170124134719735.html

BBC News. (2017, January 24).  Israel approves plans for 2,500 new settlement homes in West Bank.  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38734956

CBC, “Israel approves 2,500 new West Bank settlement homes,” January 24, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/israel-announces-new-settlement-homes-1.3949589

Federman, J. (2016, August 22).  Slim majority of Israelis, Palestinians still favor two-state peace settlement, poll says.  Haaretz.  http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.737973

Goldenberg, T.  (2017, January 24b).  In response to Trump’s win, Israel approves huge settlement expansion in West Bank.  Toronto Star.  https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/01/24/after-softer-signals-from-trump-israel-approves-2500-settlement-homes-in-contested-west-bank.html

Goldenberg, T. (2017, January 24a).  Israel approves 2,500 West Bank settlement homes only days after Trump sworn in.  National Post.  http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/israel-approves-2500-west-bank-settlement-homes-only-days-after-trump-sworn-in

HonestReporting.com.  (n.d.).  Tag archives: Toronto Star.  http://honestreporting.com/tag/toronto-star/

Jones, R. (2017, Jan 24). Israel approves large settlement expansion; decision to build 2,500 new units in the west bank is largest such move in years. Wall Street Journal (Online) Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/docview/1861682978?accountid=8408

Keinon, H. & Lazaroff, T. (2017, January 24).  Israel announces plans to build 2,500 new West Bank housing units.  Jerusalem Post. http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Israel-announces-plans-to-build-2500-new-West-Bank-housing-units-479456

Kershner, I.  (2017, January 24).  Emboldened by Trump, Israel approves a wave of West Bank settlement expansion.  The New York Times.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/world/middleeast/israel-settlement-expansion-west-bank.html

Kershner, I. (2017, January 25). A bolder Israel plans to expand its settlements. New York Times, p. A1(L). Retrieved from http://0-go.galegroup.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=atha49011&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA478777248&asid=fd63ea10f0b9f1a6837afe35b487c6ad

Plachta, A. (2017, January 24).  Israel approves 2,500 West Bank settlement homes.  USA Today.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/01/24/israel-approves-west-bank-settlement-homes/96987028/

Ynet News.  (2017, January 24).  Lieberman and Netanyahu approve 2,500 housing units in West Bank.  http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4912269,00.html

About the Author
A journalist, editor, translator and children's writer, Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod made aliyah with her family to the krayot, north of Haifa, in 2013. She's the author of dozens of books for Jewish children and families - click to find out more.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments