The headline intifada

News headlines can distort readers’ perception of events.

The headline is the most important part of every news story.

Most people don’t read news stories. They scan the headline—-and occasionally the blurb beneath the headline—to decide if they are sufficiently interested in reading further. The headline often reveals the author’s view of the events to be reported. It tells not only what happened, but how the author believes events unfolded and often who he perceives to be at fault in any conflict. The headline colors how the reader will interpret what follows.

Many news sources have adopted a narrative that portrays Israelis as perpetrators and Palestinians as blameless victims. This is evident in many aspects of reporting, but especially in news story headlines. Not every headline is misleading. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many are. And if the news headline is misleading, the message of the story is misleading.

What is Wrong with These Headlines?

The following headlines appeared recently in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huff Post, left-wing Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, and Qatari news network Al-Jazeera. They all describe violent clashes between Israelis and Arabs.

These headlines misrepresent events. These sorts of inaccurate headlines are so prevalent in reporting on the Israeli-Arab conflict that they reveal a widespread anti-Israel bias.

Below I show how headline authors use various strategies to slant news stories against Israel. After each bolded headline, I describe in italics the strategy used by the author to accomplish this.

Israeli Air Raids Kill Two Palestinian Teens in Gaza (Al Jazeera). (The headline begins the story with an Israeli action.)

 The defensive Israeli air raids described in this headline were prompted by the firing of a large number of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel. The implication of the headline is that Israel targeted civilians and residential areas. In fact, Israel always scrupulously avoids such targets. In this instance, they bombed infrastructure used by Hamas to prepare arson terror attacks and train Hamas fighters. Israel also bombed Gaza terror tunnels used by Hamas.

The real news story was that Hamas attacked Israel. This headline obscures the order of events as they actually occurred: Gazan terrorists began the violence.

Would a more accurate headline be?: Gaza Terrorists Fire Mortars into Israel, Leading to Escalation.

Army destroys Gaza attack tunnel that reached inside Israel (Ha’aretz). (The headline portrays Israelis as having agency, while Palestinians do not.)

How did the tunnel manage to reach inside Israel? The headline fails to mention that Palestinian terrorists built the tunnel. They are not mentioned at all.

Would a more accurate headline be?: Yet Another Terror Tunnel Discovered as Hamas Continues Boring into Israel.

Israeli Army Kills Palestinian Nurse in Gaza Border Protest (Huff Post).  (The headline uses an action verb—-kill—to portray Israelis as violent. It depicts Palestinians as passive.)

The message here is that Israelis kill while Palestinians do nothing more than get caught up in protests. The reality is different.

After international condemnation of the shooting, Israeli officials produced video showing the nurse, Razan al-Najar, hurling a smoke bomb towards Israeli soldiers. During these protests, Gazan rioters have shot live ammunition and hurled grenades and explosive devices at Israeli soldiers. The thick black smoke of Gazan bombs and burning tires impaired the ability of Israeli soldiers to avoid being killed. One Israeli soldier was, in fact, struck and killed by a rioter’s bullet.

An Israeli investigation showed that the shooting of al-Najar followed the IDF’s strict guidelines. Only those rioters engaged in violence or organizing others to engage in violence were shot by Israeli soldiers, and only after getting approval from superiors.

In this story the writer failed to mention that al-Najar had said to her friends shortly before this incident that she intended to go to the Gaza border in order to “die as a martyr.”

Would a more accurate headline be?: Chaos Continues as Hamas Leads Gaza Border Riots, Nurse Dies.

Palestinian Family says 8-month old died from Israeli tear gas in Gaza protest crackdown (Huff Post). (The headline omits key facts, essential to understanding the story.)

Neither the headline nor the story tells the reader that Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip, provided cash rewards for families to show up at the Gaza border at appointed times in order to “protest.” Hamas also provided bus transportation. Once at the border, civilians, such as this family, were used as human shields for armed terrorists intending to break into Israel to kill Israeli civilians. The operation was closely organized by Hamas with the help of its operatives and handlers, sometimes using walkie-talkies.

In the story, the author also failed to tell the reader that the infant brought to the riots by his parents was seriously ill with a heart condition, and likely died from that condition. If readers had known this, they might have wondered why a parent would bring a seriously ill child with a delicate heart condition to a riot where they knew the infant would be exposed to tear gas and billows of black smoke from tires burned by rioters.

Would a more accurate headline be?: Baby Dies After Gaza Mother Brings Him To Violent  Border Riots.

As Israeli Bulldozers Circle, a Tiny Village Takes Center Stage in Palestinian Struggle (Washington Post).  (The headline uses imagery to reinforce the narrative that Israelis are violent perpetrators and Palestinians are blameless victims.)

Was the writer aware that this headline portrayed Israelis as vultures? According to this headline, the Arabs did nothing to provoke the powerful bulldozers.

This headline topped a story about the Bedouin encampment of Khan al-Ahmar, a collection of tents and shacks in the West Bank. This “village” of about 180 Bedouin residents was established in the 1950s when the State of Israel relocated members of the Abu Dahuk clan from the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Despite demolition orders approved by Israel’s Supreme Court, in October 2018 the Israeli government agreed to allow the village to remain until the government and village residents are able to negotiate a resolution.

The Khan al-Amar residents are squatters on land to which they never had a claim. Their encampment is located on a major highway leading south from Jerusalem, and thus represents a security threat. The Israeli government offered to re-settle the residents a few kilometers away and to provide them with improved living conditions, including water, electricity and sewer. The Khan al-Amar residents have refused resettlement offers.

Would a more accurate headline be?: Arab Squatters Refuse Resettlement to Free Land.

Israel’s Detention of Alleged BDS Activist Lara Alqasem Isn’t Something Democracies Do (Huff Post). (The headline sows doubt about Israeli contentions—-in this case by using the word “alleged”—-while it takes those of Palestinians as fact.)

The writer must have known that Alqasem had a long history of pro-BDS activism. At the University of Florida she had been president of the campus Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that aggressively campaigns for BDS. Before she scrubbed her social media pages they were full of anti-Israel propaganda. She organized an event to honor Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh who planted a bomb that killed two Jewish college students. After years of anti-Israel activism, Alqasem’s claim of having abandoned her allegiance to the BDS movement is suspect. She must have known of Israel’s law barring BDS activists from Israel. So why did she choose to study in an Israeli university?

Further, the author of this article is wrong when he claims that Israel’s attempt to bar Alqasem from entering Israel isn’t “something democracies do.” Many western European democracies have lists of individuals who are banned from entry.

By using the word “detention” in the headline, the Huff Post implied that once she arrived in Israel, she was not free to leave. Although she was initially refused entry into the country, at no time was she barred from leaving.

Would a more accurate headline be:? Former BDS Activist’s Puzzling Decision to Study in Israel is Under Review.

Israel’s Violent Response to Gaza’s Peaceful Protests (New York Times). (The headline uses words that “soft-sell” Arab actors, for example, describing them as militants rather than terrorists, or protestors rather than rioters.)

Anyone who has seen videos of the violence on the Gaza side of the border with Israel could not deny that these were rioters, not protestors.

The word protestors conjures images of civil rights marchers in the southern US, who did nothing more than assemble, march and chant. But the actions of Gazans at the Israeli border are violent and sinister.

Gazan terrorists have directed live fire at Israeli troops, in one instance killing an Israeli soldier. They hurl stones; fly kites into Israel loaded with incendiary and explosive devices (which have burned thousands of acres in southern Israel); and launch grenades at Israeli soldiers. They plant explosives that blow open the border fence. Gazan terrorist organizations embed their trained and armed fighters into crowds of civilians. Once the border fence is blown open, the terrorists head into Israel with the avowed intention of entering nearby Israeli communities and killing Jews.

Hamas leader Yayah Sinwar declared recently that the people of the Gaza Strip “will eat the livers of those besieging” the Strip, that is, the Israelis.1 This is an Arab expression that shows the speaker’s intention to seek revenge.

These are not peaceful protests.

Would a more accurate headline be?: Hamas’ Violent Incursions Continue at Gaza Border.

What is to be Done?

News headlines can distort readers’ perception of events.

In the case of news accounts of violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, misleading headlines have created and reinforced an anti-Israel narrative that portrays Israelis as violent perpetrators and Arabs as blameless victims.

Understanding how news headlines distort reality can help the reader to detect bias in news reporting. Armed with that understanding, readers can demand that news media be less partisan and more accurate in their reporting.2

Footnotes

 

  1. Abu Toameh, K. Hamas Head Sinwar Says Gaza Protest Will Continue Until Border Is Erased. Times of Israel, March 30, 2018. Retrieved October 20, 2018 from:

https://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-head-sinwar-says-gaza-protests-will-continue-until-border-erased/

  1. A number of pro-Israel organizations have regularly called dishonest reporters to account. One of the best is Honest Reporting, an organization solely devoted to identifying offending news stories and pressuring media to issue retractions and corrections. Their website is: https://honestreporting.com/
About the Author
The author is a life-long Zionist and advocate for Israel. He believes that a strong Jewish state is invaluable, not only to Jews, but to the world-wide cause of democracy and human rights. Dr. Berger earned a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has twenty-seven years of teaching experience. He has authored and co-authored three books as well as over 45 professional journal articles and book chapters. His parents were Holocaust survivors. Dr. Berger also blogs at: https://realbulletpoints.wordpress.com/
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