Study shows Dutch newspaper's bias against Israel
Original content copyright by the author
Zionism & Israel Center http://zionism-israel.comNRC Handelsblad is one of the leading quality newspapers in the Netherlands, and thus a logical subject for a study of bias in reporting about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I conducted such a study in 2008 and 2009, in collaboration with the WAAR foundation, a group of volunteers who are alarmed by the anti-Israel bias in Dutch media in recent years. I picked two time periods to monitor: the winter of 2007-2008 and last year's Gaza War and its aftermath.
Last September I published the findings on the Internet in Dutch, after the newspaper itself declined to comment on the study. Recently I added an English summary of the study. See: Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Dutch Media: A study of NRC Handelsblad.
The main question investigated was whether NRC Handelsblad reported in an evenhanded and impartial way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Did it give attention to all relevant facts and views on the conflict, without pushing the reader in a particular direction? Another important question was how NRC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relates to its own journalistic principles.
The two time periods examined included 203 articles dealing with the conflict. These articles were evaluated on the basis of several criteria:
* Whose perspective is given in the article?
* Which people are cited or interviewed?
* Are both sides heard?
* Are events and actions put into a broader context?
* Are claims substantiated?
* Do reporters bring their own opinions into the article?
* Is the wording neutral or shaded?
* Does the article contain factual errors?
* Are headlines or illustrations suggestive or misleading?
* Which sources were used?
These criteria were used to systematically grade articles as neutral or biased. The grading system ranked articles according to three degrees of bias --- somewhat, moderate, or strong --- and also differentiated between material that favored one side and that which worked to the detriment of the other side.
The study found that only 33 percent of NRC Handelsblad news articles, 14 percent of background articles and 10 percent of opinion pieces dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict maintained a posture of neutrality, while 66 percent of news articles, 84 percent of background articles and 86 percent of opinion pieces examined showed bias in favor of the Palestinians or to the detriment of Israel. Only 2 articles in NRC Handelsblad - less than 1 percent of the total studied - leaned in Israel's favor.
NRC Handelsblad is not religiously or ideologically bound and says in its own charter that it promotes a diversity of opinions and is wary of every form of authority. The newspaper, however, turned out to be very biased in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It reserved more space for Palestinian views, treated Palestinian sources differently and used them more frequently, and published only op-eds from the pro-Palestinian side. Often the reporter or journalist gave his personal view in news articles.
In its own op-eds NRC Handelsblad made clear that it blamed Israel for the siege of the Gaza Strip, for the continuation of building over the green line, for the failing of the peace process, for Israel being to aggressive towards the Palestinians, and during the Gaza War for excessive violence and collective punishment of the Palestinian population. Also, it argued that Hamas had become more pragmatic and that the boycott of Hamas turned out to be counterproductive.
All these views could also be found in the news articles, in the choice of people being interviewed and the questions being asked, and in the op-eds by others that it published. NRC Handelsblad also published many unsubstantiated reports and accusations by Palestinians about Israeli misbehavior and cruelty, without quoting anyone from the Israeli side. Palestinian violence and incitement were ignored almost completely.
In background articles, the NRC correspondent in Israel explained about Israel's successful and sophisticated PR war, and how it was also winning this war from the helpless Palestinians. One article quoted Economist correspondent Gideon Lichfield as writing in Haaretz that Israeli hasbara is so well-developed that its spokespeople could talk the hind legs off a donkey and then persuade it to dance the hora. (January 8, 2009, "Een oorlog verslaan ver van het front".) The reporter wrote about Israeli press kits with addresses and information about all the Qassam victims and spokespeople who walked around and offered the foreign journalists their help in perfect English. This was during the Gaza War, and he was probably referring to the hill near Sderot where journalists gathered and complained because they were not allowed into the Gaza Strip. Of course, the fact that they were not allowed into Gaza was also an important subject in such articles and it was claimed that journalists were only able to see the Israeli side for that reason. In reality, readers of newspapers and viewers of television in the Netherlands had plenty of footage and information from Gaza, from Palestinian cameramen and reporters and from journalists from Al Jazeera who were already in Gaza before it was closed to journalists.
NRC Handelsblad had only a single article during the Gaza War in which one man from Ashdod briefly told that he had barely escaped death as a rocket fell near his home. About half of the article was devoted to Israeli critics of the Gaza War. There was not a single report from Sderot, not during the Gaza War and not in the other period I monitored. Of course, the newspaper never had an article about Palestinian PR efforts, about how Palestinians manipulate the news by staging things, about their sometimes exaggerated stories about massacres and atrocities. It was, in short, good against evil, the all-powerful Israel against the poor helpless Palestinians, David against Goliath.
Other newspapers and news programs in the Netherlands show a similar one-sidedness. Especially during the Gaza War, they mostly showed the Palestinian perspective, and information from Palestinian sources was used more frequently and presented as more truthfully than information from Israeli sources, except of course when the Israeli sources were critical to Israel. Israeli and Jewish critics of Israel are very popular with Dutch media, and tiny critical or even anti-Zionist organizations get a lot of media exposure in comparison to the larger and more mainstream Jewish organizations.
Comparing Israel to the Nazis and describing Gaza as the Warsaw ghetto and the like has become rather mainstream in the Netherlands recently, encouraged by columnists and high-profile critics including left-wing politicians and activists. Zionism is supposedly based on the same ideology of racial purity and superiority as Nazism proclaimed, and the Zionists were from the outset out to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians. It is a view which has become increasingly normal and acceptable to voice in Western Europe.
The Dutch WAAR foundation and the Israel-based Israel Facts monitor group together published a report on the coverage of the Gaza War by the main Dutch evening news show, the NOS Journaal. More such studies will probably be carried out in the coming year to show that it is not just a problem of one particular newspaper or news program, but a general tendency.
Despite the pro-Palestinian bias of the media in the Netherlands, many people still think the media show more understanding for Israel's side, as they did in the (distant) past. A few years ago, Joris Luyendijk, a former Dutch Middle-East correspondent, wrote a book about his experiences, which became a bestseller. He also reproduced (and reinforced) the myth that the Israeli PR is so successful and 'sneaky' and the Palestinians are the poor oppressed victims on all counts. He has been a much-seen guest in talk shows, and he wrote many op-eds about the Middle East. With these studies of the NOS news show and NRC Handelsblad we aimed to show that Luyendijk and likeminded people are mistaken, and the situation is actually the other way around, and we hope to get a discussion started about the role and responsibilities of the media regarding the conflict.
The media coverage on Israel and the Palestinians is not without consequences. People have become much more sympathetic to the Palestinians. It has become normal to view Israel as an aggressive or even rogue state that oppresses a defenseless people. Moreover, anti-Semitic feelings and utterances have grown, especially during the Gaza War and other conflicts. Jews feel increasingly unsafe, particularly in or near neighborhoods with a large population of Moroccan descent. During the Gaza War there have been several anti-Semitic incidents, and there have been demonstrations were angry young Dutch Moroccans shouted anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slogans. Their extreme views on the conflict are not corrected in our media and schools, and there is a tendency to show more and more understanding for their anger and their viewpoint.
Not all of these developments are due to the media of course, but they do play a role in the increasing polarization regarding the Middle East conflict. Anti-Zionists in particular have become more vocal and more extreme in their views and their verbal attacks on sympathizers of Israel. This is illustrated by the enormous amount of anti-Semitic reactions in talkbacks on the internet, not in the last place on the websites of quality newspapers like NRC Handelsblad and De Volkskrant. It is not possible to read just one such 'discussion' without finding Nazi comparisons and rantings that an all-powerful Jewish lobby controls the world, that Israel was only created because of the Holocaust and that the Palestinians are paying for our sins. Jews have become the perpetrators and the Palestinians have become the new Jews. It is hard to blame such talkbackers for writing things not too different from what is written in op-eds by renowned historians like Thomas von der Dunk.
Unfortunately, the reports on the coverage of the NOS and NRC have both been ignored by the mainstream media, and only pro-Israel websites and blogs have written about them. The media are extremely reluctant to write about critical studies about other media. Also, as an anti-Zionist view is trendy and viewed as new, refreshing and breaking taboos, it is much harder to get your point across when you disagree with that view than when you go with it like Luyendijk did and many with him.
(This post was revised 09.03.2010 - Thanks to Ami, Joe and Wouter for corrections.)
The English language summary is at: Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Dutch Media: A study of NRC Handelsblad
The complete Dutch study is at: Krantenonderzoek NRC Handelsblad berichtgeving Israëlisch-Palestijns Conflict
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