Middle-east media coverage must start counting lives equally

Until today, I treated all diplomacy over the Israel-Palestine conflict as indicative of its moral ambiguity. That is, any deliberation over the moral stance of Israel in the media made me question the extent to which Israel should be held accountable for the current situation. Perhaps its actions were to some extent justified as a response to an ongoing and persistent Hamas campaign, I wondered. Perhaps it is faced with few alternatives in the face of aggressors who would steam-roll them given half a chance.

My intuitions, however, were not facing the same moral quandary. In terms of the number of casualties – around 1800 of which have so far been Palestinian (80% of which have been civilians) compared to Israel’s 63 (of which only 3 have been civilians) – the statistics speak for themselves, and there are only so many images of dead children, flattened schools and ruined hospitals you can excuse or ignore, before it feels fairly obvious as to who is doing wrong to whom.

Nonetheless, this atrocity continues to be treated with a degree of diplomacy and moral relativism that seems undeserved. Whilst our politicians publicly condemn Israel’s actions (even if they haven’t been as vocal as they should), their condemnation has been purely within the realm of words, not actions. Even the word ‘conflict’ is suggestive of a situation in which it is possible to see either side’s point of view, and the media seems unable to portray the situation in a way reflective of the atrocity it is. Why are we being so judicious in the face of such an obvious humanitarian crisis?

Today I came to realise that the issue is not as morally ambiguous as I had previously been lead to believe. I realised the extent to which the media is able to, and does, govern the stance we take on the conflict – that it is able to tone down and tame the disgust we should naturally experience in response to what is being carried out in Gaza.

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All this became clear this Sunday, as I observed the coverage of the Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin, captured by Hamas militants and subsequently killed. The tragic story of Hadar was reported in all major UK news outlets including the BBC and the Guardian.  The BBC’s coverage of the story included not only autobiographical details of the young soldier, but also images of the 23 year old, and of his grieving relatives looking like any devastated family that has just lost their son.

In the margins of the various news sites that covered this story, ran other stories from the conflict. “10 dead in strike on school in new Gaza fighting” ran one headline. The BBC article above even contains the line, “30 Palestinians died early on Sunday as Israeli air strikes continued.” Here death is just a number – a number to be added to the growing Palestinian death toll fast approaching two thousand. No names or autobiographies here. No image of a distraught family, or a photo of the victim. The media has deemed that some lives do not deserve the same coverage as others, that some are more important simply because they were taken on one side of a border rather than the other.

Human empathy – limited in its capacity for proportionality and objectivity – is drawn towards the stories such as that of Hadar. The media thus encourages greater anger and disgust towards one Hamas murder than is raised by thirty IDF murders. Our outcry in turn becomes misplaced and disproportional, as we are unable to fully register the extent of the cruelty being carried out on the Palestinian people. 

I do not intend to suggest that there is anything deliberate lurking behind this skewed coverage; If anything, this is perhaps unintentional, related to our tendency to treat a ‘Western’ life with more significance and respect than we grant to the lives of those in the Arab world whose culture is undeniably more distant to ours. Perhaps this is a consequence of a numbing caused by two bloody Middle Eastern wars, which saw a similar distortion in terms of the reporting of death tolls incurred by the respective sides.

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Whatever it is, and it scarcely needs saying, each life is as important as the next. The media needs to make sure it does not pander to reporting deaths it thinks will pull at the reader’s heartstrings. Doing so only dampens our anger and reduces our cries for a resolution. 

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