Reading the Victoria Times Colonist for 'bias
Mideast Media Analysis Group of the Victoria Peace Coalition
August 01, 2003
Summarized here is an analysis of how the Times Colonist, Victoria, British Columbia's daily newspaper covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how this coverage helps readers interpret what is happening. The Times Colonist is one of many Canadian papers owned by CanWest Global Communications Corp. The paper's Editor-in-Chief is Andrew Phillips, whose comments about his own editorial practices, including answers to my own questions in a public seminar, helped me develop the paper's analytic framework. He acknowledged the paper's policy of being pro-Israel. He also declared the Times Colonist to be a middle-of-the-road paper, and that given his concerns about declining circulation, his goal is to publish a paper that matches the preferences of the largest number of potential Victoria readers. My analytic purpose was to determine, through careful textual analysis, if and how these informally stated policies play out in the paper's news coverage. The data analysed include all the stories related to the mid-east conflict published in the Times Colonist between January 29 (just after the re-election of Ariel Sharon) and March 28, 2003 (by which time the US/UK invasion of Iraq had obliterated attention to the Israeli-Palestinian situation). Mr. Phillips subscribes to the view that readers can and do "make anything they like" of the paper's news stories and pictures. That has not been my impression and, indeed, the argument that I make here contradicts it. But, not satisfied to base a judgement of "bias" on the fact of the paper's Jewish ownership, I treated the paper's accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the fixed side of a "text-reader conversation" that I and other readers would enter. We would, of course, bring our own views and knowledge to the reading. But, as a text produced in a specific institution, the paper influences in ways that I wanted to discover and describe.
I began with a question about the strategies available to an editor who attempts to produce the kind of "balance" that, as Mr. Phillips put it, constitutes a "middle-of-the-road" paper. My reading of the Israeli-Palestinian news coverage indicated that with the exception of one or two local stories, all the reports are "wire stories". The reporting itself is not, and cannot be, the subject of this analysis. Nor am I able to explore how stories were selected, or not selected, for publication in the Times Colonist. What I could analyse was the "look" of the Israeli-Palestinian coverage and I attempted to discover the editorial strategies that accounted for that particular representation. My findings focus on two things, the first being the "emphasis" given to certain stories and ideas. The other finding concerns the representation of violence in the paper. It is my contention that editorial strategies made certain stories and certain views stand out, whereas specific editorial decisions about reporting violence muddled the picture of the conflict the paper presented. Together these editorial strategies built the perspective on the mid-east situation available for readers to pick up and treat as their own. This, far from a balanced view, constitutes the social organization of "bias".
Creating emphasis through editorial strategy
Of the thirty-nine stories that I decided were related to the mid-east situation, fifteen reported the violence and fifteen reported on the politics of Israel and/or the Palestine Authority. The remainder of the stories making up my data related to the mid-east in some other way, for example, the discussion of the war crimes case brought in a Belgian court case against Israeli Prime Minister Sharon. As I categorized the topics reported, I became interested in how the newspaper conveyed to a reader a particular message beyond just this content. Three editorial features caught my attention as ways of distributing emphasis - the headlines, the placement of stories (or, where, in the paper, stories appeared) and the illustrations. I developed a schema for categorizing each of these modes of emphasis (headlines, story placement and illustrations) and then scanned the thirty-nine stories that made up my data, to find what stories and ideas were being emphasized.
Here is what turned up regarding use of headlines. Given that the Times Colonist editorial staff choose the headlines used, they are thus drawing readers' attention to certain topics. Categorizing headlines into a hierarchy based on size (height), font ( thick and thin) and intensity of blackness, I focused analytical attention of the top three levels (Level 1: highest, thickest, most intensely black) to identify which topics were emphasized in this manner. The editors emphasized two topics with Level 1 headings. The first of these headlines reads "Anti-Semitism growing, Mulroney says" reporting a speech made in Toronto by Canadian ex-Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney. The only other Level 1 headline in my data is "Israeli tanks destroy house of key militant". There were three Level 2 headlines, somewhat less commanding of attention than Level 1. One repeats the emphasis given to "growing anti-Semitism"; the other two are "Sharon sidelines archrival Netanyahu" and "Saddam gives cash to Palestinians". The two Level 3 headlines, another step down in intensity, comment on Sharon's cabinet and add "University dumps professor accused of terrorism".
If reading quickly through a paper, readers will catch these headings and presumably, catch as well the implications within them. They will see the heavy emphasis placed on "rising anti-Semitism" and on Israeli military success. They will begin to see connections being made between Palestinians and negative images -Saddam Hussein, and the story of the "dumped professor" who is Palestinian-American. These potential interpretations are sharpened by both the editorial choices of story placement and use of illustrations. Reports of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict routinely appear in the Times Colonist near the back if the first or "A" section of the paper, under the heading "World". To be given emphasis, stories are lifted out of that section. Two stories, for instance, appear on the paper's front page. ("Haifa bus blast", appears with a coloured picture; and Mulroney's anti-Semitism speech is also noted on the front page, where there is reference made to two related articles in the body of the paper). At first glance, the paper's use of illustrations appears unremarkable. Illustrations are used most often with the most "popular" topics - violence and politics (five photos in each topic category.) What I began to query was what story, topic or image was not well represented. As my analysis of reporting of violence begins to show, violence against Israelis commands a different representation than violence against Palestinians in the Times Colonist.
Reporting of violence
A particular handling of violence by Times Colonist editors supports what I see as the perspective that the paper is building on the mid-east situation. In muddling the picture of the amount of violence and who is doing what to whom, it seems to displace the sense of outrage about the violence against Palestinians that apparently "comes naturally" in regard to killings of Israelis. How does this work as textual representation? Overall, the Time Colonist under-represents the deaths of Palestinians in the time period studied, by comparison between the "death count" in its stories and figures from other available sources (TC stories report approximately 104, Palestinian Monitor reports 173 and Deutsch Welle (radio) reports 250 for comparable, although not exactly overlapping, periods). But more to the point, the Times Colonist representation of those Palestinian deaths consistently under-emphasizes them through its editorial strategies. In contrast to the treatment of Israeli deaths, there are no pictures of Palestinian victims, no front-page stories, no bold headlines, no numerical summary . Browsing headlines, a reader would get the impression that more Israelis than Palestinians were being killed. (In this study period, Israelis are reported killed in 3 headlines vs. Palestinians reported killed in 2. And note that my actual Israeli death count is 26). A confused picture emerges from the references to violence against persons or property (as opposed to actual deaths) in headlines and subheadings. Violence to Palestinians is six times more likely to be spoken of "indirectly", for example, in the headline "Israel strikes back after bus blast kills 15". The actual story is of Israeli tanks shelling a Palestinian refugee camp, killing eleven Palestinians in one incursion and two in another. But the headline reports a "strike back" while giving the number of victims of the recent Palestinian-perpetrated violent incident in Israel. This headline manages to convey that if Palestinians are killed, it should be understood as a "strike back", not horrendous violence as is the suicide bombing it references.
De-emphasis of violence to Palestinian people begins to depersonalize them. For instance, in a headline reading "Israeli tanks destroy house of key militant", the text of the story reports that ten Palestinians were killed in that and other related Israeli army operations, with dozens more wounded, some in life-threatening ways. The headline reduces the impact of these rampant killings. Here, the Israeli army's operations are to be understood by readers of the Times Colonist as routine maneuvers to find and detain "militants" and "terrorists". In this language use, something of a "good guy"-"bad guy" impression is being created, that would have readers think of a Palestinian death being more acceptable than an Israeli death.
"Balance" and "bias": The editor's hand appears
The Editor in Chief of the Times Colonist offers his own rationale for an editorial policy that would create a middle-of-the-road paper. Presumably, this means balanced to have the widest appeal to Victorian readers. I have described and illustrated a number of (routine) textual strategies employed by his editorial staff that, I argue, constitute a sort of balancing of the impression of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is otherwise presented as straight news coverage. I suggest that the distinction between this kind of balancing and "bias" is razor-thin. While everybody in a liberal democracy sees bias in journalism as unacceptable, balance gets a decidedly positive reception. But I have shown that the Victoria Times Colonist's balancing of the Israeli-Palestinian reporting has a distinctly political effect. Although seemingly modest resources for influence, the editorial strategies that I discuss insert an interpretive frame for reading what is reported about the mid-east conflict. The editing personalizes Israelis and their struggles against world-wide anti-Semitism as well as against terrorism in their own country, while de-personalizing Palestinians. There is no parallel discussion, for instance, of current anti-Muslim sentiment and behaviour. Editorially constructed empathy for Israelis over Palestinians begins to create the impression for readers that Israelis are "our side" of the conflict. Yet, my analysis avoids the claim made by some media critics that Jewish ownership is the cause of this bias. Perhaps it does sway editorial decisions; I can't say, from this analysis. In fact, I would make the claim, one that can be empirically tested, that the editorial strategies found in this newspaper are not very different from those of other Canadian newspapers with different ownership. What I begin to show here is how newspaper editing works in everyday ways as a ruling practice. Check it out in your own local paper.
Copies of the original paper, with references, are available from Marie Campbell