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The unseen bias in Middle East reporting

Journalists defy common sense when they call Fatah 'moderate' and Netanyahu's administration 'hardline'.

By Gilead Ini / September 24, 2009


In journalism, there are three types of statements: objective facts; obvious opinions; and a third, hazier category that can be called "judgment terms." This last category, which appears often (but not exclusively) in Middle East coverage, challenges both readers and reporters by testing the boundaries between fact and opinion.

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Facts, of course, are the building blocks of news stories. Consider the following example of a factual sentence: "In August, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas convened his Fatah party in Bethlehem for a major policy conference." This straightforward statement explains who did what, when and where.

Opinions, on the other hand, are kept to their own section of the newspaper. If you read that the Bethlehem conference was "great" or "worthless," it's a sure sign you are reading the opinion pages and not the news section.

Which takes us to judgment terms. These are the assessments that, although found in news stories, can resemble opinion more than fact. What, for instance, is the difference between "security-minded" and "hawkish"? Where are the lines between "left-leaning," "left-wing" and "far left," or between "nationalist" and "ultra-nationalist"? What must a government believe before it is reasonable to dub it "hardline" or "moderate"? There are no universally accepted answers to these questions.

Such language is not only subjective, but also politically loaded. When used in reporting, it allows a journalist's personal views, rather than just the facts, to dramatically influence public understanding of a controversial topic like the Mideast conflict.

One especially prominent – and highly questionable – example of a judgment term is the habitual characterization of Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party as "moderate." Most major Western news organizations have used this description at one time or another. It is time for them to stop.

While there's no doubt that Fatah is, in a number of respects, more moderate than its main rival, the Islamist Hamas party, relative moderation is hardly the same as true moderation. After all, it isn't terribly difficult to be less extreme than Hamas.

At any rate, it was not Hamas that recently declared: "The Palestinian people's right to carry out armed struggle against the armed occupation will remain an inalienable right...." It was Fatah. At its recent Bethlehem conference, statements like this intermingled with contradictory declarations that Fatah has opted for peace, raising serious concerns about what the party sees as a legitimate way to pursue its aims.

And what are those aims? Although Fatah has declared its support of a two-state solution, Abbas and other Fatah leaders continue to insist that they do not, and will not, recognize Israel as the Jewish state.