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WHY I TEACH THIS COURSE: Prof. Jim Ross’s “Covering the Conflict: The Media and the Middle East”

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James RossThe conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has dominated the news for decades. It also has led to divisive debates on college campuses, including Northeastern. This course provides an opportunity to discuss the conflict in a less charged setting.

I have one unbreakable rule: It’s about the coverage, not the conflict. We examine media coverage of  Israel and Palestine in the United States, Europe and the Middle East and, for the most part, avoid the innumerable fault lines.  How can you tell whether a story is biased? How do different word choices (retaliation or response? security fence or wall?) affect the story? What about the use of emotive language (atrocity, brutal murder)? The students look at whether stories have proper context and verification. And we look at reasons for bias—censorship, lack of access, sensationalism and, in some cases, prejudice.

I established the coverage-not-the-conflict rule when I moderated a panel of American, Israeli and Arab journalists at Northeastern 10 years ago. When a columnist for the Lebanon Daily Star dismissed a reference to the Holocaust by saying that people in the Arab world “also have their own high-ticket items,” I cut off the discussion with a simple “It’s about the coverage, not the conflict.”

We followed the same rule the following year during a three-week seminar I ran for 10 visiting Israeli and Palestinian journalists. The journalists arrived in the middle of one of the biggest snowstorms in Boston history. They made their way to the isolation of Northeastern’s Ashland conference center where they could exchange ideas freely. I discovered that the Palestinians knew almost everything about Israelis and the Israelis knew almost nothing about daily life in Palestine. The Palestinians got training on how to be better journalists; the Israelis learned how to better understand their neighbors. One of the Israelis returned to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz after the seminar to live in a West Bank village and write a series of stories on Palestinian life.

The media, by its nature, tends to focus on violence and death. That’s news. There are very few stories about individuals or about arts and culture in Israel and Palestine. Peace negotiations, particularly those that seem to make no progress, don’t make news.

Jodi Rudoren, the current Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, recently wrote a column about how the meaning of words is “politicized, distorted or undermined in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.” The International Press Institute even has published a guide (titled “Use With Care”) with more than 75 “alternative words and phrases” for “loaded language” in covering the conflict. One of my students this semester commented: “…such an esoteric ‘code’ likely makes the Israel-Palestine conflict inaccessible for most average observers. It might even be intimidating. This only serves to make readers around the world less inclined to study or comment on the conflict, which probably isn’t good for either Israelis or Palestinians.”

Throughout my course, we examined how the American, Israeli, Arab and international media–print, broadcast and online—have covered some of the major stories in recent years. Why, for example, did the British press report there was a “massacre” when the Israeli Defense Forces entered the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002?  How do the Israeli and Palestinian media personalize their own victims and give little coverage to those on the other side? How do stories like the shooting of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy (Mohammed al-dura) or the murder of two Israeli soldiers at a Ramallah police station evolve into powerful myths that grip entire societies? Al-dura quickly became a martyr throughout the Arab world at the beginning of the Second Intifada. At the seminar in Ashland, even the most open-minded Israelis declined to examine the context of coverage about the two murdered soldiers.

I taught “Covering the Conflict” in Spring 2014 for the second time.  We looked at coverage of the six-day war in 1967, the 1982 war in Lebanon and the First and Second Intifadas. We examined American news media, particularly The New York Times, and advocacy groups’ challenge to the accuracy of mainstream media coverage. In the Middle East, we explored coverage from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya as well as media in Palestine and Israel, particularly Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. Each week, students prepared presentations about an ongoing story in Israel and Palestine. We looked at Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to promote a peace agreement; coverage of Ariel Sharon’s death; the continuing battles on the border with the Gaza Strip; and even the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s Super Bowl ad for an Israeli soda company with a factory in the West Bank.

We also compared coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with American media coverage of the invasion of Iraq. And toward the end of the course, we compared media coverage of the Middle East conflict with coverage of conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Rwanda.

I’ve been a working journalist since I was in college and covered the Black Panther murder trials for the Yale Daily News and served as a stringer for The New York Times. My hope is that this course will help students better understand bias and context and learn to read and watch a wide variety of media to obtain some approximation of the truth.

Read the rest of the Haverim Spring 2014 Newsletter here.