Learning to Read and Listen More Critically

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The Middle East has often been reported from a Western and anti-Muslim bias.  For example, we have become accustomed to hearing the expressions "Muslim terrorist" or "Arab terrorism," even though terrorism is neither confined to those groups nor more prevalent in them.  Other materials might be anti-Jewish in their bias.  It is important, then, to read and listen with a critical eye and ear.

Additionally, many of us in the United States have never studied anything about the history of the Middle East.  That which we have studied has often come from the writings of Westerners looking for exotic content as they write.  For example: much of what has been written about women in the Middle East before the mid 20th century was written by Western men who obtained their information from men.  (They couldn't interview the women.)  Because of this we have built up false images of Middle Eastern women.  During the Gulf War it was reported that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive in that country.  The story was true of Saudi Arabia but women drive in almost all other countries in the Middle East.  Yet, many people still think women cannot drive in the Middle East.

 Read this piece from "Via Dolorosa" on newspaper reports of bombing in Lebanon in July 1999, as an example.

One-sided American news media

 By Richard M Fawal, a political consultant and public interest professional

"In my profession I frequently interact with the American news media, and over the years, I have learned that all news is reported with a certain level of bias.  The reporters and editors' opinions creep into almost every story.  Since some lean left and some right, the biases tend to even out, so that one can usually get a clear pictures of the true story if one gets the story from several sources.

"Unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to reporting on the Middle East.  The American news media is so clearly biased against Arab viewpoints that I am amazed they even claim to be objective.  Americans are rarely told the Arab side of any situation.  Regardless of how many news sources they acquire; only the Israeli point of view is reported.

"Coverage of Israel's recent attack on Lebanon provides a perfect example.  The New York Times reported that for residents of northern Israel 'bomb shelters have become like second homes,' but the story made no mention of the plight of the Lebanese, who have endured nearly 100 Israeli air raids this year.  Nor did they mention that at least 20 Lebanese have died in these attacks.

"The Washington Post provided moving accounts of the funeral of one of the two Israelis who died in the attacks.  The Post, however, reported no account of people mourning any of the eight Lebanese who also died that day.  The story includes the opinions of 10 Israelis but not a single Lebanese.

"The Los Angeles Times included the names and personal details of the two Israelis, but no information was included about the Lebanese victims.  The New York Times and CNN went so far as to report that the Israeli attack happened after the two Israelis were killed by rockets which is absolutely false.  The rockets that killed them were fired in retaliation for the Israeli attack." 

Richard M. Fawal is discussing news articles that should report facts.  Note the missing information and the fact that people on one side are named and those on the other side are not.  This produces a sense of people and non-people.  News stories often reflect opinions as well as information.

Some books on media bias and the MIddle East are on  this reading list.

Give yourself practice in reading news critically

1.  Look for the self-interest of the author and publication.
From whatever information you have, see if you can make intelligent guesses.  What country is the writer from?  What religious group?  Does she or he represent a government or political party?  Does the basic approach of the publication itself serve some self-interest that has to be taken into account in reading?  Who benefits by this information?

2.  Distinguish between fact and opinion.  A factual statement can be proved and an opinion cannot.  But not all factual statements are necessarily true, because they may be based on false or inaccurate information. Especially in the area of Israeli-Arab differences, selective historical memory has been the norm for much of the writing.   In other words, true information is included or omitted according to whether it reinforces one's opinion or not.

3.  Distinguish between opinions based on reason and opinions based on bias.  Not all opinions are equal in value, and prejudice and emotion can be the motivating force in some opinions.  In order to decide whether to accept or reject those opinions, it helps to understand what point of view the author is trying to persuade readers to accept and what her or his motivation might be.  (Adapted from the Friendship Press study guide, From the Beginning, page 5)

4. Look for missing information.  Another approach has become a factor in Middle East reporting--that of disinformation.  News releases from presumably responsible sources are sometimes written to spread inaccurate information.  An example of disinformation is when the Mayor of Jerusalem reported that the number of Christians in Jerusalem had increased considerably.  The missing information was that the borders of Jerusalem had been redrawn by annexation to include areas containing many Christians.  Before being sure of facts see if they are refuted or changed within the week.  Another case of disinformation came recently when the reporter described the missiles between the town of Siderot and Gaza.  The reporter included the number of Israelis killed and not the number of Palestinians.  I contacted the newspaper and noted that they added another reporter on the story.

A valuable video on media bias is Peace, Propaganda, and the Holy Land.

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