A thousand words paint a picture, but it can turn out distorted and misleading. That’s one of the troubling con- clusions of a paper from Har- vard University’s John F. Ken- nedy School of Government analyzing coverage of last sum- mer’s war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
During that war, journalists gradually transformed them- selves "from objective observers to fiery advo- cates," according to The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict. In the end, the media played straight into the hands of Hezbollah, helping to propagate the Islamic militia’s version of events and influenc- ing the outcome of the war. Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Pol- icy, details how Israel became the victim of its own openness, while Hezbollah successfully manipulated the media -- and all of us.
Journalists did Hezbollah’s work, offering little resistance to the Islamic militia’s portrayal of itself as an idealistic and heroic army of the people, fac- ing an aggressive and ruthless enemy. Hezbollah managed to almost completely eliminate from the narrative the fact that it deliberately fired its weapons from deep within civilian popu- lation centers, counting on Israel to have no choice but defend itself by targeting rocket launchers where they stood.
Hezbollah’s strong support from Syria and Iran -- includ- ing the provision of deadly weapons -- faded in the cover- age, as the conflict increasingly became portrayed as pitting one powerful army against a band of heroic defenders. Soldiers kidnapped
Gradually lost in the cover- age was the fact that Hezbollah triggered the war when it infil- trated Israel, kidnapping two of its soldiers (still held to this day) and killing eight Israelis. Despite the undisputed fact that Hezbollah provoked the war and deliberately targeted civilians, Israel was painted as the aggressor, as images of the war overtook the context.
Israelis by the hundreds of thousands became the target of rocket fire aimed at civilian centers. Women and children, Jews and Arabs, young and old, spent more than a month living in underground shelters, seek- ing protection from the almost 4,000 rockets launched by Hez- bollah. In living rooms around the world, the pictures from Israel quickly moved away from the shelters to the front,
showing armed Israeli soldiers. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s care- fully choreographed media access made its armed men all but invisible. Also invisible were the thousands of rockets and rocket launchers strategi- cally positioned near schools, hospitals and apartment build- ings.
Within Hezbollah territory, journalists were led through scenes of the destruction caused by Israel. Journalists rarely complained about Hez- bollah’s restrictions, but they frequently complained about Isra- el’s efforts to limit cov- erage deemed useful to the enemy. Still, cir- cumventing restrictions proved easy in a coun- try like Israel. Cameras enjoyed full access to Lebanese victims of Israel’s actions, but never to the perpetrators of violence against Israel.
Before long, Hezbollah had achieved a definitive propa- ganda victory. One Reuters photographer even altered pho- tographs to make Israeli attacks look more damaging. Israel labeled aggressor
The Arab network Al Ara- biya portrayed Arabs as the vic- tims in 95 percent of its stories, while Al Jazeera did it in 70 percent of its reports. Arab journalists’ tilt against Israel is hardly surprising, but Al Jazee- ra’s coverage portrayed Israel as the aggressor just as often as did the four main German tele- vision programs. And if you think American journalists showed no bias, you may be surprised to know that, "On the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, Israel was portrayed as the aggressor nearly twice as often in the headlines and exactly three times as often in the photos."
The Harvard research shows the need for journalists to increase their vigilance when covering conflicts between open societies on one side and media-controlling militias on the other. These conflicts, which we will undoubtedly continue to see, demand that journalists make a greater effort to provide context and to keep from become propaganda tools.
Islamic militant groups, such as al Qaeda and others, have openly described their media strategy for winning in the “information battlefield.”
The challenge for the next war will fall on journalists in the field, editors back home and, most difficult of all, on the public, to spot the bias when journalists become instruments of savvy media manipulators, in an age when a picture can be worth a thousand bombs.
Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs.