Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Dutch Media:

A study of NRC Handelsblad
winter 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 (Gaza War)

summary

Last update March 7, 2010

  Berichtgeving Israël door NRC Handelsblad (Dutch version)

  1. Introduction
  2. November 2007 – January 2008
  3. December 2008 – January 2009
  4. Examples
  5. Perspective given
  6. Fact and opinion
  7. Conclusions
  8. The results in tables

Introduction

There is an almost constant spotlight in Dutch media on Israel and the Palestinian issue. No other foreign problem is so frequently reported about, and no other conflict arouses so many emotions and fierce responses among the public. The media greatly influence our view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they are not always as careful in their reports as should be expected. Moreover, partisans from both sides accuse the media of one-sidedness and bias against their party.

To investigate the objectivity of its reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ratna Pelle in collaboration with the Stichting W.A.A.R., a foundation which monitors media bias on the Middle East conflict, did a study of the articles in NRC Handelsblad, one of the most respected newspapers in the Netherlands. NRC Handelsblad has, according to Wikipedia, the most foreign correspondents of all Dutch newspapers and is politically situated in the center. It calls itself ‘liberal’ in the broad sense, and states that it is averse to dogma and champions diversity of opinion.

The main question investigated in the study 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.

Two time periods were examined, the winter of 2007-2008 and the Gaza War of 2008-2009, together counting 203 articles dealing with the conflict and 6 about Israel or the Palestinians unrelated to the conflict. These articles were evaluated on the basis of several criteria: Whose perspective is given in the article, which people are being cited or interviewed, are both sides heard, are events and actions put into a broader context, are claims being 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, and which sources were used? These criteria were used to systematically grade articles as neutral or somewhat, moderately, or strongly shaded in favor of the Palestinians or to the detriment of Israel, or in favor of Israel or to the detriment of the Palestinians, according to the following rating system:

* Neutral: no biased language, use of sources from one side only, giving context from one side only, etcetera, and no factual errors. Mostly these were short news articles from the big news agencies. One minor point of bias may be disregarded if the overall purport of the article is balanced.

* Somewhat shaded: one or two instances of biased language or use of sources, quotes or factual errors etcetera. Sometimes also articles with three instances were classified as somewhat shaded, depending on the overall tone of the article.

* Moderately shaded: several instances of biased language etcetera, so that the article gives a clearly distorted picture of what happened and who was wrong and right.

* Strongly shaded: articles full of distortions and one sided language and accusations against one party without giving that party’s view. Mostly these were op-eds by known advocates of the Palestinian side (Gretta Duisenberg, Rami Khouri, Mohammed Benzakour) or reports from Gaza filled with accusations and biased descriptions. Also interviews with pro-Arab people (for example the Lebanese Georges Corm) were mostly classified as strongly shaded, especially as the interviewer did not ask any difficult questions and did not put some of the allegations of the interviewee into question.

In this study, 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 (one interview with a rabbi and one column from a regular columnist) – less than 1 percent of the total studied – leaned in Israel’s favor. (See tables below.)

Hostile Media Effect

Due to the so-called “hostile media effect“, one could argue that the researcher is biased towards the Israeli side, and the NRC news coverage was in fact overall balanced. It is indeed difficult if not impossible to perform a study like this with criteria that friend and foe of either side would agree on, and when applied to the subject matter would in each case get the same results. For that reason the criticized media often dismiss studies like this one as being subjective and revealing more about the researcher than about the newspaper or news station.

Both the Dutch TV news program NOS Journaal and the ombudsman from De Volkskrant newspaper explicitly stated in response to criticism for being biased toward the Israeli or the Palestinian side, that since both sides accuse them of bias, chances are they are right on spot. This is a too convenient excuse. Furthermore, the bias revealed in this study of NRC Handelsblad is so strong that the results would be negative even if a substantial number of articles were judged more lenient. Even if every single article were to be shifted one column in the tables (neutral being judged as somewhat pro-Israel and somewhat shaded toward the Palestinian side as being neutral, etcetera), the outcome would be that the news articles would have been neutral on average, but the background and opinion articles would still be shaded in favor of the Palestinian side for 71 and 76 percent respectively.

 

Annapolis conference table     Gaza Rafah fence breach

The Annapolis conference and the Gaza – Rafah fence breach

November 2007 – January 2008

Two topics were central in the news coverage of this period: the Annapolis peace conference and the situation in the Gaza Strip, where Israel tightened its blockade of the border in reaction to the ongoing rocket attacks from Hamas. The coverage ignored the rockets and focused almost exclusively on the growing shortage of many basic products and energy supplies in Gaza, and on the spectacular breach of the border with Egypt by Hamas.

Of the 83 articles from this period, over half (45) were moderately or strongly shaded in favor of the Palestinians and/or to the detriment of Israel. Another 18 articles were somewhat shaded, and only 16 articles can be considered neutral, while 4 articles did not deal with the conflict. Several articles, particularly background articles and reportages, clearly gave a Palestinian perspective and focused on Palestinian problems, despair and frustrations. Not a single article primarily gave an Israeli viewpoint.

By all measures, the reporting in NRC Handelsblad proved to be shaded to the detriment of Israel, most clearly on context (51 articles), suggestive statements from the reporter (47 articles) and perspective (also 47 articles); 28 articles contained a total of 56 factual inaccuracies, all to the detriment of Israel.

News reports focused mostly on Israeli violence, the Gaza blockade and its consequences for the civilian population in Gaza (which were described with empathy in on-the-spot reports), and settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There were only vague and general references to the continuous Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza on Sderot. There was no mention at all of weapons smuggling, foiled terror attacks, extremist statements from Hamas and in Palestinian media, or of positive reports from Israel, like the thousands of Palestinians who are treated in Israeli hospitals each year. Numbers of Palestinian deaths resulting from Israeli actions were reported time and again, but mostly without giving context such as who started the fighting or mentioning whether it concerned civilian deaths or militants. Strong accusations about Israeli cruelties by ordinary Palestinians, UNRWA employees and Hamas spokespersons regarding Israel were published without an Israeli response and without the reporter checking their accuracy. Israeli critics of their government’s policies were featured in reports and interviews, while Israelis supporting their government were absent. Reporters themselves voiced strong criticism of the allegedly obstinate Israeli government while being mild towards the ‘increasingly pragmatic’ Hamas and the ‘moderate’ Abbas government. 

Israeli Tank and Al Qassam Brigade

Israeli tank and Al Qassam Brigade gunman

December 2008 – January 2009 (Gaza War)

All articles from the period of the Gaza offensive (27 December – 18 January), the week before and two weeks after were evaluated. Articles about the conflict from the months afterward were also reviewed. In this period there was a lot of attention given to several human rights investigations, revelations and reports about (alleged) war crimes committed by the Israeli army, to the Israeli elections and the increasing support for right wing parties, and to the new government’s policy concerning the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Of a total of 124 articles dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the period 18 December 2008 – 3 February 2009, 
31 can be viewed as neutral, 25 somewhat shaded in favor of the Palestinians, 52 shaded in favor of the Palestinians, 
14 strongly in favor of the Palestinians and 2 shaded in favor of Israel.

Generally there was little attention given to the context and events that led to the Gaza war, especially the large numbers of rockets on Israel in the week before. Many reports gave the impression that the IDF indiscriminately bombed and shot at Palestinian civilian targets, that its prime goal was to re-establish its reputation of a powerful army after the debacle of the 2006 war against Hezbollah and that Israel punished the Gaza population for its choice of Hamas. This was particularly dominant in the op-eds – almost all very shaded – and in interviews and background reports.

Accusations voiced against Israel were never accompanied by moderating comments or information from the Israeli side, and Israel’s reply was seldom included. When Israel’s viewpoint was mentioned, it was mostly briefly and in detached wordings (‘supposedly’, ‘according to Israel’), while far less restrained language was used to describe the claims of Hamas, Palestinian organizations or the UN. NRC Handelsblad mainly used Palestinian or UN sources for the numbers of deaths on the Palestinian side, sources that have been proven to have counted hundreds of fighters as civilians on their lists, a fact that NRC Handelsblad completely ignored. The Hamas policemen who were bombed heavily in the first days were described and counted as civilians, not as part of the Hamas fighting force. NRC ignored the extensive Israeli evidence of Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields, of schools, mosques and hospitals to store weapons or hide their fighters, and misuse of humanitarian aid. The aims and strategy of Hamas were also ignored or presented in a more positive light, whereas Israel’s actions were presented as more extreme and aggressive.

The newspaper mainly quoted Palestinians, often ordinary Palestinians but also, in  several instances, spokespersons of Hamas or the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. ‘Ordinary’ Israeli citizens or soldiers were hardly ever quoted. The Israelis who voiced their opinions in NRC Handelsblad were almost without exception critics of the offensive (and of Israeli policies in general) and on occasion the most militant and religious supporters of Israel’s military campaign. Nearly all reports originated from Palestinian areas or focused on the Palestinians and their suffering. The reports from Israel on the other hand were critical of Israel, and dealt with Israel’s supposedly smooth media campaign or let Israeli critics of the war give their viewpoint. One article about Israel’s successful media campaign was particularly suggestive. It quoted  former Economist correspondent Gideon Lichfield from Ha’aretz: “Israeli hasbara is so well developed that its spokespeople are able to talk the hind legs off a donkey and then make it dance the hora” (January 8, 2009, “Een oorlog verslaan ver van het front”). The whole article – and others like it – gave the impression of Israel explaining away its wrongdoings and leading the rest of the world astray. It totally disregarded Palestinian propaganda and its successes. It talked about media kits for journalists, with telephone numbers of victims in Sderot. What was not mentioned is that the NRC reporter apparently did not call these victims even once. The constant rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza on Israeli communities were nearly absent in the reports and there was no mention of their disruption of Israeli life in an area where a million people live, such as the closing of schools and public institutions and the frequent alarms which led people to run for cover. Only one single article briefly quoted an inhabitant of Ashdod who was almost hit by a rocket from Gaza, after which the reporter went on to talk to critics of the offensive. On the other hand there were many comprehensive reports of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, with quotes from Palestinian witnesses and aid workers on the spot.

Furthermore, there were endless repetitions of certain phrases and information, mostly in news reports from the major press agencies: every day the total number of deaths was mentioned, specifying numbers of civilians and children killed (never numbers of combatants). The UN and ‘Palestinian medical sources’ were generally cited as the source. Nowhere was it made clear who exactly these sources were, how they got their numbers and how reliable these were. Israeli sources were cited seldom. Incidentally it was mentioned that according to Israel a much higher number of Hamas “militants” was killed. The different treatment of Israeli and Palestinian or UN sources was clearly demonstrated in the description of the shelling of the UNRWA school in Jabalya. This incident was repeatedly mentioned, each time accompanied by UNRWA spokesperson Gunness’ assertion that Israel’s claim that the IDF was fired upon from there was untrue. The reader was also constantly reminded of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel’s actions to prevent civilian deaths, like the many leaflets and phone calls to warn the population and the daily pause in the fighting, received little attention and were described as totally insufficient. Hamas misuse of these measures in turn was not mentioned.

Repetition was also customary regarding the Israeli elections in February and the settlement policy of the new government. Again and again Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was labeled extreme-right and it was repeated that he had told Egyptian president Mubarak to ‘go to hell’, and he was falsely described as wanting to deport all Arabs from Israel. The growing popularity of right-wing parties was repeatedly highlighted, and the new government was portrayed as very hard-line and totally unwilling to make any concessions, without connecting this to the Hamas victory and coup, and to the thousands of rockets fired on Israel after its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Examples of factual inaccuracies and suggestive wordings (of both research periods):

* “Israel in my opinion is a violent and expansionist state which consistently expanded its territory in a succession of wars of conquest.” (2 November 2007, Maarten van Rossem reviewing Walt and Mearsheimer’s book on the Israel lobby).

* A brief news article headlined “Eight dead during incursion and attack on Gaza Strip” (11 December 2007) reported Palestinian deaths as a result of an Israeli incursion into Gaza, without giving the reason or context for the attack, but suggesting a link with the Annapolis peace process. Only at the end it was mentioned that the Palestinians were Islamic Jihad “militants.” The article did not mention that the incursion aimed to stop the frequent Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, and that the militants were armed with anti-tank missiles at least (according to a report in Ha’aretz).

* “That green land full of citrus trees is ploughed up, 43% of the Gaza Strip is now part of the security zones that nobody is allowed to enter”. (Quote by Red Cross director for the Middle East Megevand Roggo, in a report on the Gaza Strip, 19 December 2007)

* In several articles on the Gaza blockade and breach of the border at the Rafah crossing NRC Handelsblad misrepresented the Gaza border agreement between Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the EU. It did not mention the fact that Hamas had stated that it could not guarantee the safety of the EU monitors and that the monitors were out of work without the PA controlling the border. NRC presented the blockade of the Gaza strip as a form of collective punishment, not as a measure to prevent the smuggling of weapons and to prevent Hamas from getting more power and legitimacy.

* “Yesterday the tunnels under the Egyptian border were targeted, the only entrance for relief supplies since the borders were closed almost completely.” (29 December 2008)

The newspaper automatically justified the use of the smuggling tunnels and portrayed the attack on these tunnels as inhumane, disregarding the fact that they were also used for weapon smuggling, and that Israel let through over 100 trucks of humanitarian aid each day.

* “Hamas politicians no longer emphasize the destruction of Israel, but talk about fighting corruption (…). Moreover, a few years ago the movement stated that Israel should retreat from the 1967 occupied territories – an implicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist.” (2 January 2009)

Hamas leaders also stated regularly that they will never recognize Israel and will never make peace with it, and made bellicose and inflammatory statements. NRC ignored these completely. Viewing the statement that Israel should retreat from the 1967 occupied territories as an implicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist is a subjective and very positive interpretation. Other interpretations are more likely, such as that this retreat would be the first step to total ‘liberation’ of the land, or that the state of Israel would vanish by other means, like the flood of millions of refugees and their descendants into Israel.

* In its editorial commentary of 22 January 2008 the newspaper called Gaza a ‘ghetto’, and in a news analyses of 24 January 2008 the Palestinian breach of the Gaza border was called ‘the Palestinian exodus into the Sinai desert’. The newspaper used words like ‘Bantustans’ (17 November 2007, interview with Menahem Klein) and ‘Arab’ or ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem (5 December 2007, news report, and 6 and 7 December 2007, background article and news report). Palestinian groups that fired rockets on Israeli civilians or planned and executed attacks in Israel, were never called ‘terrorists’ but mostly ‘militants’ or ‘fighters’ (e.g. 28 November 2007, interview with Islamic Jihad ‘fighters’). However, the newspaper did on one occasion write about ‘Jewish terrorists’ (6 December 2007, background article) and mentioned the pledge by both parties to fight ‘terrorist violence’ (28 November 2007, editorial commentary). It seems that NRC wants to avoid the impression that terrorism is something especially Palestinian; as long as Israel or both parties can be blamed for it the paper is willing to use this word, otherwise softer words like ‘militants’ are used.

* Photo of an old Palestinian man, against a background of the security fence (a wall at that point) with a watch tower, the caption reading: “The wall that Israel built on the border with Palestinian territory turns the land into an enclave in the region”. (17 January 2009)

A more neutral and factual caption might read: “In the wake of the Second Intifada Israel built a barrier that helped stop the suicide attacks but caused hardship to many Palestinians and was widely criticized for running over Palestinian land in a number of places.”

* “Since the radical Muslim movement Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip last June, Israel has cut of the area.” (26 January 2008, report from the Gaza Strip)

This claim is uttered by the reporters themselves in a number of articles. However, there had only been a total blockade for a few days. Temporary border closures were implemented as a response to rocket attacks or attacks on the border crossings themselves. Basic goods and humanitarian aid were let through most of the time and commercial goods and building materials part of the time. The delivery of fuel and electricity was limited moderately and only months after Hamas took control of the strip.

Perspective given

The study found that NRC Handelsblad reporting was biased and paid much more attention to the Palestinian perspective on the conflict. Palestinians (and Israelis very critical of their own state) were more often cited than Israelis supporting their country’s policy, sources supporting the Palestinian perspective were more frequently used than those supporting the Israeli perspective, and Israeli violence and misconduct received much more attention than Palestinian violence and misconduct. The Israeli view, when given, was presented as less trustworthy than the Palestinian view. Op-eds published in the periods investigated were mostly written by well-known fierce critics of Israel, such as Gretta Duisenberg, Rami Khouri and Mohammed Benzakour.

Fact and opinion

NRC Handelsblad disregarded its own principle of separating fact and opinion, and let its editorial point of view shine through in its reporting in an unacceptable way.

Some editorial positions of NRC Handelsblad that intruded on news reports were:

* The Abbas government is moderate and well meaning but weak, and Israel is incompliant to make concessions that would strengthen its position;

* The settlements and their continued construction are a major obstacle to peace and they undermine the moderate Palestinian leadership;

* Hamas should be viewed as a movement that is becoming more pragmatic and that needs to be engaged in the peace process;

* Israel used disproportionate force in reaction to Palestinian violence and took measures that harmed the whole population of Gaza, which is in violation of international law.

These editorial viewpoints of NRC were not only propagated in the editorials, but were also shown in news reports and background analyses, through a number of suggestive remarks, and by the choice of interviews. Moderate Hamas leaders were featured in interviews, news reports favorable to Hamas (like Hamas’s offer for a long-term truce) were prominently placed, while Israeli peace proposals (such as Olmert’s proposals to Abbas) as well as radical, inciting and even anti-Semitic statements by Hamas or in PA controlled Palestinian media were systematically ignored or played down. At the same time the newspaper focused heavily on the ongoing construction of houses in Israeli West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem, pointing to them as the main obstacle to peace, and on fierce comments made by Israeli leaders, while ignoring hard-line positions taken by PA president Abbas. The failure of the peace process was blamed mainly on Israel. According to NRC, Israel often used disproportionate violence in response to Palestinian rockets. Whereas the newspaper put Palestinian violence in context and explained it, Israeli violence was presented as ruthless and malicious.

Conclusions

This study showed that NRC Handelsblad failed to live up to its own journalistic standards. Not only were facts and opinions insufficiently separated in the articles, context was frequently omitted, accusations against Israel were repeatedly published without a fair hearing for the Israeli side, and reporters frequently kept too little distance from their subject. Moreover, not all relevant sources were used, and the viewpoint and arguments from the Israeli side did not get a fair exposure. NRC’s self-proclaimed principles such as ‘suspicion of any authority or collective’ and ‘diversity of opinions and ideas’, were close to absent in its reporting on this conflict.

NRC Handelsblad, which advertises itself as the thinking man’s newspaper providing in-depth background information and differentiated opinions, ignored the complex realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the problem that all parties have their own agenda and there is no single objective source that can be trusted for telling the truth. It failed to tell its readers that it is hard, if not impossible, to always distinguish reliable information from propaganda. Instead, it presented only Israeli information as propaganda that cannot be trusted.

The one-sided reporting by NRC Handelsblad fits into a broader tendency in the Netherlands, in which the Palestinian narrative gets more exposure than the Israeli side. Still the claim is often made that the Israeli narrative remains predominant in the Dutch media, partially because in the distant past there was a lot of sympathy and understanding for Israel’s side.

The debate about Israel and the Palestinians has become highly polarized in recent decades, especially since the second intifada, and is increasingly being confounded with ethnical tensions within the Netherlands. In recent years the discussion is often accompanied by anti-Semitic utterances, incidents and threats. Increasingly, Israel is being compared to the Nazis and accused of ethnic cleansing and even of a ‘new Holocaust’, Gaza is called a prison, a ghetto and a concentration camp, and the Jews are said to behave like the new ‘Herrenvolk’. Such comparisons are not only voiced in rallies, but can also be found in newspapers, on websites and in publications, and can be heard in lectures and on congresses. It has become “common sense” that Israel was created at the expense of the Palestinians, that the Palestinians pay for the Holocaust and to some extent also that the victims of the Holocaust have become the perpetrators now.

The strong emphasis on Palestinian suffering, the lack of context and the omission of the Israeli version of the events in NRC Handelsblad’s reporting have a negative influence on this trend. Framing Israel as the malicious perpetrator and the Palestinians as the passive victim, presenting a black and white image of a complicated conflict between two actors, stirs up both anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments.

The entire report is available in Dutch, see: Krantenonderzoek NRC Handelsblad
The editorial staff of the NRC Handelsblad received it in August but chose not to respond to its findings. The report was published online in September 2009.

 Ratna Pelle and Wouter Brassé, the Netherlands


The results in tabels

NRC Handelsblad 
study 2007-2008: 
tabel of newspaper articles with final qualifications

neutral

somewhat shaded in favor of the Palestinians
and/or to 
the detriment
of Israel

moderatedly shaded in favor of the Palestinians
and/or to 
the detriment
of Israel

strongly shaded in favor of the Palestinians
and/or to 
the detriment
of Israel

33 news articles

12

10

10

1

13 short news

1

5

7

 

12 background

3

 

8

1

4 news analyses

 

1

2

1

8 reportages

 

2

4

2

4 interviews

 

 

1

3

3 commentaries from editor in chief

 

 

3

 

1 op-ed

 

 

1

 

1 book review

 

 

 

1

Total 79 articles

16

18

36

9

NRC Handelsblad 
study 2008-2009 (Gaza War): 
tabel of newspaper articles with final qualifications

neutral

somewhat shaded in favor of the Palestinians
and/or to the detriment
of Israel

moderately shaded in favor of the Palestinians
and/or to
 the detriment
of Israel

strongly shaded in favor of the Palestinians
and/or to the detriment
of Israel

shaded
in favor
of Israel and/or to the detriment
of the Palestinians

53 news articles

20

15

15

3

 

31 background

7

7

15

2

 

6 news analyses

 

 

6

 

 

7 reportages

 

 

5

2

 

11 interviews

2

1

4

3

1 (somewhat) 

commentaries from editor in chief

 

4

 

 

9 op-eds

2

1

1

4

1 (shaded)

2 book reviews

 

 

 

 

Total 124 articles

31

25

52

14

2


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