Many news junkies — myself included — begin the day by scanning the headlines, and only afterward read the articles that particularly interest them. Reading the headlines last week, I came to realize just how misleading this practice can be and how the nature of headline writing informs public opinion.
The day after the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza and promised the Hamas government there $400 million, Hamas operatives launched close to 80 rockets and mortars into southern Israel, damaging houses, wounding several Thai workers, and forcing the closure of schools and other public buildings. Israel, seeking to protect its people, responded with targeted air strikes that killed four of the perpetrators and led to what would prove to be a short-lived ceasefire, as the Hamas barrage resumed.
Most of the media headlines that introduced this story seemed intent on obscuring who was responsible for starting the hostilities. They did this in a number of ways.
One approach was to give the impression of equivalence between the two sides, as if they attacked each other simultaneously. “Israel and Hamas Escalate Fighting Across the Border,” read a headline in The Wall Street Journal. The Los Angeles Times announced, “Israel, Palestinian militants exchange strikes in Gaza Strip flare-up.”
Another, more insidious headline strategy was use of the passive voice to avoid pinning explicit responsibility on anyone, but finding a way nevertheless to blame the victim, Israel. “Israel Bombarded and Militants Killed,” was Sky News’ headline, conveying the message that the “militants” suffered more than Israel, where no one was killed, and avoiding any mention that Hamas was the aggressor. The Voice of America headline began with “Israel-Gaza Violence Escalates,” as if through some mysterious outside provocation. But not content to leave matters that vague, the headline continued with “Four Palestinians Killed,” suggesting that Israel was at fault. Only deep into the report do we learn that “dozens of rockets and mortars hit Israeli homes.”
Perhaps the most outrageous headline was provided by The New York Times: “Four Palestinian Militants Killed in Israeli Airstrikes.” While the other news sources obfuscated Hamas responsibility by suggesting moral equivalence or hinting that Israel was at fault for the “escalation” leading to four deaths, the Times headline makes it appear that Israel killed the “militants” out of the blue, without provocation. Only when we get to the body of the article do we learn about the multiple Hamas rocket attacks. And even that piece of news is deprived of much of its significance by the juxtaposition of a pair of emotionally charged photographs, a large one at the top of the page of a Palestinian grieving over the dead Hamas fighters, and a smaller one toward the bottom of an Israeli woman looking at the damage a Hamas rocket inflicted on her house. Avoiding the key issue of who instigated the fighting, the photos seem to ask how property damage could possibly warrant bloodshed.
This brief headline review of one incident in the long history of clashes between Israel and the Palestinians sheds considerable light on media coverage of the conflict as a whole. The Palestinians have been so successful in painting themselves as victims that even when reporters and editors know that they were the instigators of violence and include such information in their news stories, too many media outlets shy away from conveying Palestinian responsibility. But even when the articles themselves get it right, headlines can literally tell another story. And since many people get no further than the headlines, falsehoods about the Middle East are conveyed every day.
Is it too much to ask that editors take responsibility for making sure that headlines accurately reflect the content of articles? Meanwhile, readers should be alert to headline bias, protest its occurrence, and be sure to read the full article.