When Palestinians ‘die’ and Israelis get ‘killed’ in the same war

Federal Building, San Francisco, October 20, 2023. Hundreds of people from many backgrounds came together outside Senator Nancy Pelosi's office, to paint a giant street mural. The message: BIDEN, PELOSI: DON'T AID AND ABET WAR CRIMES, and calling for a CEASEFIRE! With Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area, The Peace Poets, Climate Justice Street Mural Arts Project. Photo by . Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

Amidst the chaos of Israel's war on Gaza, truth becomes a casualty in the battleground of information, entangled in a maze of misinformation and biased narratives, eclipsing the reality of the crisis unfolding in Gaza.

In news reporting, every semantic choice, nuanced omission, prioritization, and bias holds the power to shape how readers interpret and absorb information. Systemic issues and marginalized voices are obscured beyond headlines. Cognitive and algorithmic biases manipulate information access, notably in the “fog of war,” as seen in Gaza.

The complex information landscape is shaped by not only misinformation but also by the different narratives employing defamation and dehumanization, mirroring pattern in main stream media coverage of Palestinians and other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

Palestinians don’t just die, they get killed

The choice between “died” and “killed” in describing fatalities in Israel’s war on Gaza reflects a subtle yet impactful semantic difference because it shapes how information is perceived.

Merriem-Webster defines “to die” as an intransitive verb, implying an indirect action, potentially linking fatality to natural causes, like old age. Conversely, “to kill” is a transitive verb, suggesting a more direct action, often tied to an unnatural or violent manner of death, such as an airstrike, for instance.

In 2022, Laura Albast wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post, “This is a pattern we have seen over and over again in media coverage of Palestine. Palestinians are not killed; we simply die.”

This sentiment was echoed recently by journalist Yara Eid when she responded to a Sky News presenter, “I think language is really important to use because, as a journalist, you have the moral responsibility to report on what is happening. Palestinians don’t just die, they get killed.”

Journalist Yara Eid, explains the importance of the use of language when talking about the Israeli war on Gaza. Screenshot from eid_yara Instagram video. Fair use.

News media actively make choices about using passive or active voice, demonstrating a hierarchy in terminology beyond the die/kill dichotomy. Examining language within a news piece exposes framing that reveals inherent bias or perspective.

In one particularly confusing example, a CNN news anchor ambiguously described Palestinian fatalities by saying: “One hospital in Gaza says it received 22 bodies during the intense overnight bombardment along with hundreds of people injured.” There was no further clarification provided about whether those bodies were deceased, who was responsible, and from whom they were received.

The New York Times headline on the November 5 Israeli airstrike hitting the Al Maghazi refugee camp used indirect language, stating, “Explosion Gazans Say Was Airstrike Leaves Many Casualties in Dense Neighborhood.” This phrasing, such as “leaves many casualties” and “dense neighborhood” instead of specifying “a refugee camp,” was ambiguous.

Furthermore, the language used casts doubt about information sources, stating “Gazans say,” without explicitly attributing the airstrikes to Israelis. In the context of Israel’s month-long bombardment on Gaza, such ambiguity seems unnecessary. Notably, this strike was one of three airstrikes hitting refugee camps in Gaza within a 26-hour window.

In a CBS News article, the authors used intense language to describe Hamas’ attack on Israelis as a “murderous rampage.” However, when referring to Palestinian fatalities over the first nine days of the war, they employed comparatively lighter terms like “killed” and “death toll.”

This created a notable hierarchy in the portrayal of violence, which may diminish the impact or severity of the suffering of Palestinians. This discrepancy in language can influence readers’ impressions and create an imbalance in how violence is perceived.

Revealing a systemic issue in newsrooms

Bristol Friends of Gaza protest on the front lawn of BBC Bristol's headquarters on Whiteladies Road about biased reporting of the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. Photo by Rwendland, July 23, 2014. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Revealing a systemic issue in newsrooms, this hierarchy of terms and narrative shaping is not unique to Palestinians. The U.S. news media has long faced criticism for racism, particularly in its coverage of police violence against Black Americans, exemplified in the murder of Breonna Taylor.

Author and editor Adeshina Emmanuel pointed out, “Newsrooms often fixate on the moment of death, leaning heavily on police narratives, and — as those narratives often do — assassinate the characters of police violence victims.” This implies a narrow focus on the immediate and often dramatic events rather than the broader context.

The media’s coverage of the war in Ukraine has also raised concerns about racism. Scholar H.A. Hellyer highlighted the racist language used by reporters, emphasizing the dehumanization of non-White populations and its impact on their right to live in dignity. Beyond overtly racist coverage, other major humanitarian catastrophes, such as the war in Sudan, receive minimal attention from mainstream media.

Political influence and pressures on newsrooms significantly influence media narrative-shaping. In May 2023, it is unsurprising that a majority of US journalists expressed concerns about press freedoms. These concerns are supported by instances where numerous journalists were dismissed for expressing pro-Palestinian remarks, a trend that has intensified in recent weeks.

Amid the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken requested the Qatari Prime Minister “to tone down Al Jazeera's rhetoric” regarding Israel’s action in Gaza. This sentiment was reflected in other newsrooms, as reported by The Intercept: “Leadership at Upday, a subsidiary of the Germany-based publishing giant Axel Springer, gave instructions to prioritize the Israeli perspective and minimize Palestinian civilian deaths in coverage, according to the employees.”

A group of Jewish writers drafted an open letter condemning the notion that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-semitic and noted the pro-Palestine suppressions: 

“Now, this insidious gagging of free speech is being used to justify Israel’s ongoing military bombardment of Gaza and to silence criticism from the international community. […] Israeli journalists fear consequences for criticizing their government. […] We refuse the false choice between Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom; between Jewish identity and ending the oppression of Palestinians. In fact, we believe the rights of Jews and Palestinians go hand-in-hand.”

Global calls of solidarity

People in their tens of thousands rally in Melbourne, Australia, in support of Palestine and in solidarity with the Palestinian people. October 15, 2023. Photo by Matt Hrkac, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Despite the biased coverage by mainstream news media, the public has become aware of the genocide faced by civilians in Gaza, largely due to on-the-ground journalists providing coverage in English on social media platforms. Journalists such as Motaz Azaiza, Plestia Alaqad, and Bisan Owda, to name a few, have played a significant role in disseminating information.

Since Israel’s war on Gaza began, hundreds of thousands of protestors across major cities, including LondonNew York, São Paulo, Cape Town, and Kuala Lumpur, have regularly voiced solidarity with Palestinians. They have stepped in to address the failure of mainstream news media to raise awareness about Israel’s war crimes and disproportionate attacks on Palestinians.

These demonstrations align with a growing rift between the Global south and the West, exemplified by a chorus of accusations of hypocrisy from the global south directed at the West. The criticism underscores contrasting policy and media response, highlighting the West's condemnation of an illegal occupation in Ukraine while staunchly supporting Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As awareness of media biases grows, people around the world are driven to scrutinize information, demanding a more equitable representation of diverse perspectives. This collective effort signifies a pivotal shift where an informed public actively challenges biases, fostering a space where truth prevails, and marginalized voices resonate.

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