STUDY: Chicago Tribune Headline Bias

Headlines are meant to capture the reader’s attention and often determine whether people choose to read an article at all. In many instances, they are the only information readers derive about a story. Moreover, since the headline precedes other details, it greatly influences the reader’s interpretation of information that follows in the text. For these reasons, it is especially important that newspaper headlines be consistent, accurate and specific.

The Chicago Tribune, one of America’s most prominent newspapers, has a significant headline problem. In looking at seven months of coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, CAMERA found notable differences in the nearly 200 headlines for stories reporting Israeli versus Palestinian actions.

The analysis considered all Chicago Tribune headlines that related to Israelis or Palestinians taking, or threatening to take (often violent), action against the other party during the period of June 1, 2002 to Dec. 31, 2002. Each headline was assigned to one (sometimes two) of four categories: Israelis identified taking action, Israelis taking action but not identified, Palestinians identified taking action, Palestinians taking action but not identified. The study considered “Arafat,” “Fatah” and “Hamas” as “Palestinian.” “Sharon” and “West Bank settlers” were classified as “Israel.” The analysis included only news events that involved both Arabs and Israelis.

The results were dramatic.

When Israel was acting against Palestinians, Israel was named in the headline 78 percent of the time. In contrast, when reporting Palestinian belligerency the Tribune identified Palestinians by name in only 19 percent of the headlines.

During a seven month span in which nearly 50 suicide bombers and gunmen blew up or shot to death nearly 200 Israelis, the Chicago Tribune never used the terms “Palestinian suicide bomber” or “Palestinian kills” and only once used “ Palestinian gunman” in headlines.

When the Tribune reported Palestinian attacks against Israel, the newspaper only indentified “Palestinians” by name in three headlines. It should be noted that the Tribune regularly employed “Palestinian” to identify the target or victim of Israeli actions, underscoring that the length of the word did not preclude its use.

One Week in August
For example, a reader of the paper who only skimmed the headlines for the first week of August would extract the following information:

• 7 die in Israeli campus attack (Aug. 1) • Israel hits Nablus in wake of deadly campus bombing (Aug. 3)
Israel says deadly attack was mistake (Aug. 3)
Israeli army raids Nablus; dozens held (Aug. 3)
Israel presses searches in Nablus (Aug. 4)
Israelis comb Nablus for suspects (Aug. 4)
• Bomb explodes on bus in Israel (Aug. 4)
• Wave of attacks stuns Israel (Aug. 5)
Israel cracks down in wake of attacks (Aug. 6)
Israeli forces hit houses in Gaza (Aug. 7)

In just one week, Israel was identified to have participated in seven aggressive actions. Israel was specifically named as it “hit houses,” “crack[ed] down,” “search[ed],” “raid[ed]” and “hit” its adversary–and as it committed a “deadly attack” that was “a mistake.”

In contrast, the Tribune completely omitt ed direct mention of Palestinian participation in violence. Palestinians were not identified even once as perpetrators of violence although that week they were responsible for a suicide bombing that killed nine, a bomb planted in Hebrew University’s cafeteria that also killed nine, and lethal shootings that targeted civilians and killed both parents of three young children.

The Chicago Tribune printed more than twice as many headlines in this first week of August that described the Israeli response to the terrorist attacks than the paper printed on the assaults themselves. One might assume the Tribune ran such a disproportionate number of stories about the Israeli response because Israel engaged in more separate reportable actions than the Palestinians. However, there were many events the Chicago Tribune chose to omit.

For example, Israel foiled 10 suicide bombings in just that week, including preventing a 17-year-old girl from carryi ng out a suicide mission. No headline alerted readers to this. Yet the foiled attack was arguably as newsworthy as the demolition of terrorists’ homes, which was reported. The same week, Palestinian terrorists pulled up next to the car of a young family and shot to death the parents driving with their now orphaned children. There was no headline here either.

Seven Month Period
It is also revealing to compare the headlines of those events that entailed a high casualty count during the seven month analysis. Mass deaths were more frequently inflicted on Israelis but even in these cases the Palestinian perpetrators were rarely identified. In the many fewer events in which Israel caused a comparably large Palestinian death toll, Israel was invariably named.

“Israeli strike kills at least 12 in Gaza; Targeted Hamas chief among dead” (July 23) was the headline for the story about an air strike that killed terrorist leader Salah Shehade h along with 14 civilians. Other titles for stories involving multiple Palestinian casualties read: “5 killed as Israeli troops sweep town” (Nov. 20); “ 9 Palestinians die as Israel hits Gaza” (Sept. 24); “5 killed in Israeli Helicopter strike;” (Sept. 1);“Israeli tank fire kills 4 in Jenin; 3 children among the fatalities in curfew ‘disaster’” (June 22).

Such headlines in which Israel is clearly identified as a perpetrator sharply contrast with the portrayal of Palestinian actions that kill and wound a large number of Israeli civilians. “20 die in blast, Israel vows to retake West Bank lands” (June 19) was the headline for a story about a Palestinian suicide bomber who detonated himself on a crowded bus.

“Jewish school raid ends with 6 deaths; Israeli army holds car-bomb suspect” (Dec. 28) was the grossly misleading headline for an attack in which Palestinian terrorists infiltrated a school where students were celebrating the Sabbath meal.

“Car bomb near Israeli bus kills at least 14” (June 5) was the title for the story about a Palestinian suicide terrorist who exploded a van packed with explosives alongside an Israeli bus.

The headline that read “Wave of attacks stuns Israel” (Aug. 5) was a report about a one-day total of six attacks that killed more than a dozen and wounded nearly 100 Israelis. If the newspaper followed the style of headlines applied to Israeli actions, the story would have read “Six Palestinian attacks kill 13 and wound dozens.”

Although every one of these attacks was committed by Palestinians, the attackers were never named.

The Chicag o Tribune is also more likely to identify in headlines young Palestinian victims. While it specified in seven headlines that Palestinian children were killed, not once did the newspaper report in the headline that Israelis murdered were children.

The repeated identification of Israelis alone as perpetr ators reinforces their allegedly aggressive or belligerent participation in the conflict whereas the almost total omission of “Palestinian” in the headlines obscures Palestinian involvement in aggression. Furthermore, the disproportionate number of headlines emphasizing Israeli actions misleadingly implicates Israel as the primary initiator in the conflict and violence. One can only speculate at the cumulative effect on readers, many of whom may not read the text that follows, of headlines that continually characterize Israel as the aggressor while omitting identification of Palestinians as perpetrators.

For a complete list of Chicago Tribune headlines about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, click here.

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