Study of New York Times Coverage Severely Flawed

An April 24 column by New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent referred to the organization “If Americans Knew,” an advocacy group which accuses the Times of systematically disregarding Palestinian fatalities while over-emphasizing Israeli deaths.

Headed by Alison Weir, If Americans Knew is characterized by harsh anti-Israeli charges. Weir and her organization parrot discredited claims that Israel attacks Palestinians with “mysterious poison gas,” called Israel an “apartheid nation,” describe Palestinian violence as a “legitimate right and … moral duty” and even refer to the founding of Israel as the start of a “holocaust.” (“I listened to old people who described the start of this holocaust – over fifty years ago, at the end of an earlier one,” Weir writes.)

This, along with the fact that Weir describes the partisan al-Jazeera and the virulently anti-Israel Washington Report on Middle East Affairs as some of “the best online sources” on the Middle East and Israel, raises serious doubts about the ability of her organization to credibly comment on American media coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The validity of these doubts are confirmed by the group’s highly questionable study of New York Times Mideast coverage.

The 2005 study claims “the Times reported Israeli deaths at rates up to seven to ten times greater than Palestinian deaths,” and that this discrepancy is “based on the ethnicity of the person killed.” It further purports that “Times reporting regularly gave readers the impression that equal numbers of people on both sides were being killed – or that more Israelis were being killed,” and that “the majority of Palestinian deaths … are never reported by the Times at all.”

The bulk of the study is based only on the headline and first paragraph – often just one sentence – of New York Times news reports, and completely ignores the remaining text of the articles. In other words, most of the news reports condemned by the study are not even read.

Frequent Mention of Casualty Breakdown

Only by ignoring most of the news coverage in this way can Weir reach her conclusions. Take, for example, the declaration that “Times reporting regularly gave readers the impression that equal numbers of people on both sides were being killed.” This claim is quickly disproved with a glance at the newspaper’s full coverage, since Times stories frequently cite casualty figures.

During the first year of violence (one of Weir’s “study periods”), Times readers were told:

At least 20 Palestinians and 10 Israelis have died in a cycle of violence that has barely abated since the cease-fire took effect on June 13. Since the Palestinian uprising began last September, at least 479 Palestinians, 124 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed. (“Israeli Tanks Shell Palestinian Police Posts in Response to Attacks”, 7/12/01)

The death toll in this conflict is nearing 700. Though figures are somewhat imprecise, the count is put at about 525 Palestinians, 155 Israeli Jews and 14 Israeli Arabs, whose casualties came almost entirely in the intifada’s earliest days. (“Israelis and Palestinians Prepare for a Long Struggle,” 8/17/01)

At least 580 Palestinians and 167 Israelis have been killed since a Palestinian uprising began a year ago. (“More Violence, and Western Peace Efforts, in the Middle East,” 9/18/01)

And so on.

Clearly, the Times does not mislead readers about the number of fatalities sustained by both sides. If anything, it would be more accurate to say that such casualty breakdowns downplay Israeli losses – readers are informed that more Palestinians than Israelis have died, but are not told that most of the Israeli victims were non-combatants targeted by Palestinians, whereas Palestinian fatalities were overwhelmingly combatants or Palestinians killed by other Palestinians

Most Palestinian Deaths are Reported

Weir also falsely states that most Palestinian deaths “are never reported by the Times at all,” again basing this contention only on the headline and first sentence or two of news stories.

In fact, Weir’s own numbers belie this claim. In the one month sub-study where If Americans Knew did actually examine news stories from start to finish, the group found the Times reported 82 percent of Palestinians killed. That is, Weir’s statistics show that most Palestinian deaths are in fact reported in the newspaper.

Study Miscounts by Counting Repetitions

Weir further manipulates the data by treating an attack mentioned more than once as more than one death. So when the Times mentioned the killing of a 3-year-old Israeli in front of his kindergarten in a story about that day’s violence, and then repeats this fact twice more in the following days’ stories about Israel’s reaction to the slaying, Weir counts this as the Times reporting on three Israeli deaths. When a story later in the month about a Palestinian family deliberating over whether to allow rockets to be launched from their fields mentioned the boy, Weir then claims that the Times reported on “400 percent” of Israeli children’s deaths in this period of time.

Since Palestinian violence is often the immediate cause of Israeli counter-actions, the Times often reports the slaying of Israelis, and then mentions the attack again in a story about Israel’s reaction to the killing. For example, the opening paragraph of a Jan. 15, 2005 story stated:

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered Friday that all government officials cut ties with the Palestinian Authority and that the Gaza Strip be sealed until Palestinian leaders moved to curb terrorism. He issued the order a day after Palestinian militants killed six Israelis at a checkpoint on the Gaza border.

Since the previous day’s report broke news of this attack on the checkpoint, the attack was cited twice by the Times. Weir’s study, then, misleadingly counts these two news stories, each referring to the killing of six Israelis, as having reported on the death of twelve Israelis.

Conflating Variables

Another example of amateurism of Weir’s study is its unsubstantiated presumption that any “discrepancy” is “based on the ethnicity of the person killed.”

Even if Weir’s numbers are correct – an unlikely proposition since the study uses unreliable figures from B’tselem – her presumption is untenable.

For example, using Weir’s flawed methods, one could say the Times reported 515 percent of Israeli Arabs fatalities in the first weeks of violence. (13 Israeli Arabs were killed early after the outbreak of violence, but the deaths were often reiterated by the newspaper.) Yet it would be irresponsible to claim that this high percentage was based on the casualties’ Arab ethnicity. A competent study would have to consider conflating variables.

The Israeli Arab fatalities might have been mentioned more frequently because the deaths were a rare example of Israeli citizens being killed by Israeli forces; or because they occurred in the first weeks of violence, when casualties were still a relatively new phenomenon. (Jay Thomas Aubin, one of the very first Americans to die during the Iraq war, shows up in 345 articles when searching an online database of news reports. By contrast, Adam G. Mooney, who lost his life in the middle of the war, is mentioned only 74 times.)

Likewise, even if, as Weir alleges, specific Israeli deaths were repeated more often than Palestinian deaths in news stories, this most likely would not be a function of the “ethnicity” of those killed, but rather because it is more noteworthy when civilians are targeted for death (as is the case with most Israeli fatalities). Israelis murdered in grisly suicide bombings will likely garner more notice than Palestinians killed while attacking a soldier.

(Another example of foolishly ignoring conflating variables would be to assume that U.S. serviceman Pat Tillman, mentioned in 15 New York Times articles since his death, is cited so frequently because of his Scots-Irish heritage. A much more feasible explanation is that the repetitions are because he was a well known N.F.L. football player.)

History of Distortion

Weir’s pseudoscientific study and absurd conclusions are not so surprising in light of her history of distortion.

For example, she claims that “Israel has a record of attacking its neighbors – mounting massive invasions of surrounding territory in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1982.”

In 1982, 1967 and 1956, Israel invaded its neighbors only after repeated cross border killings, threats and acts of war aimed at the country from those neighbors. Weir, like most propagandists, neglects to mention this context. On her Web site, she even absurdly refers to the 1967 war as a “Pearl Harbor-like surprise attack on Egypt,” a laughable assertion that no sober-minded historian would take seriously. Her assertion ignores the fact that before Israel’s preemptive strike, Egypt expelled UN peacekeepers meant to separate the two sides, provocatively massed its troops on its border with Israel, threatened to destroy the country, and, in an act of war, illegally blockaded the Israeli port of Eilat. Cutting off access to Eilat by blockading the Gulf of Aqaba, an international waterway, was a casus belli under international law. In other words, even before the first shot was fired in 1967, Egypt had started the war.

But even more preposterous is Weir’s assertion that Israel “attacked” and “invaded” surrounding countries in 1948. During the 1948 War of Independence, it was Israel that was illegally attacked and invaded by its neighbors, which sought to destroy the nascent Jewish state. This attack by the Arab countries and the Palestinians was a violation of United Nations Resolution 181 (the Partition Resolution) and the UN Charter. Israel managed to fight off the attackers, but did not “invade” the attacking countries.

Other falsehoods by Weir and If Americans Knew include: the claim that Israeli soldiers “regularly targeted children”; that Israelis mistaken identity attack on the U.S.S. Liberty was deliberate; that “in 1948, Israel declared its ‘independence’ on 78% of Palestine” (when in fact the country declared independence only over the land allotted to it by the United Nations – about 10 percent of historic Palestine or 55 percent of Palestine without TransJordan); that there are “Jewish-only roads” in the West Bank; and many other prevarications.

The Times‘ Middle East coverage is far from perfect, but even farther from the false reality painted by Weir.

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