New Study: Swedish Press Failed in Gaza

April 16, 2009 at 06:42 Leave a comment

Roland Poirier Martinsson is a philosopher and the head of the media institute at the Swedish think tank Timbro. RPM got his Ph.D. in theoretical philosophy at Lund University (where yours truely incidentally was his student at an eye-opening summer course some ten years ago).

RPM recently published a report on how the Swedish press handled the coverage of Operation Cast Lead. He has analyzed the news coverage of the four national newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet, Dagens Nyheter, Expressen and Aftonbladet, and concludes that they failed to live up to their own professional standards in their reporting on the war in Gaza.

RPM’s low-key and logically stringent criticism focuses on three points. First of all, the papers (with the exception of DN) failed in providing any explanation for the Israeli attack — instead making it seem as if an irrational and brutal war machine unleashed its fury on innocent civilians. Secondly, RPM criticizes the way the papers treat the issue of war crimes. He points out that the only case of war crime that was beyond any doubt — and even confessed, proudly, by those who committed it — even before the start of the operation, was the continuous Hamas shelling of Israeli civilians in the south. However, nearly all discussions on war crimes in the press focused on Israeli actions. Thirdly, the greater narrative into which the reporting was placed, was over all the Palestinian narrative of a poor, downtrodden people, victim of an aggressive colonial power.

RPM is careful to point out that he doesn’t claim that the coverage in these four papers was erroneous. He doesn’t know. The point is, however, that neither did the people who decided to publish. Nonetheless, they followed a publishing pattern that lead them in a consistent anti-Israeli direction. Even though there are very few examples where individual articles step over the line of what can be described as honest reporting, RPM stresses that the over-all coverage creates a picture that’s highly problematic.

The report was launched at a seminar, where the editors of Expressen, Thomas Mattsson, and of Aftonbladet, Jen Helin, participated in a discussion about RPM’s findings. Though the two editors agreed that the operation possibly should have been provided with a wider context, both of them defended their respective papers and their coverage.  

In my view, their defense only reinforced the criticism put forward by RPM. For instance, both Mr. Helin and Mr. Mattsson seem to take Palestinian sources from Gaza at face value, whereas Israeli sources are treated with the professional skepticism that is called for in these situations. One example that springs to my mind is when Mr. Helin from Aftonbladet, during the discussion, claimed that the IDF would have used white phosphorus in an illegal manner during the fighting. He does this even though he knows by now, not least since it’s pointed out by RPM in his report, that this is an unsubstantiated rumor questioned even by the International Red Cross.

In an interesting remark, Mr. Helin defended why his paper — Aftonbladet — wrote so little about Hamas’ role in the escalation of the conflict. He said that it’s obvious that Hamas is a terror organization that commits war crimes. Therefore it doesn’t have to be reported (ca 21:30 into the broadcast). He also delivered the most noteworthy remark of the discussion, when he questioned RPM for wanting the press to contextualize the conflict in the first place. Some 34:30 into the broadcast, he said that “if it becomes so incredibly important for you to explain why one sends an army against someone who shoots rockets, then you want something with your reporting”, implying that attempts to explain or contextualize is in fact justifications and attempts at pro-Israeli apologetics.

RPM’s report is available on the internet and can be downloaded free of charge here. The discussion at the launch is also available on the internet, and can be watched here.

So far, Svenska Dagbladet has written about the publication of the report, and the editor-in-chief at Expressen, Thomas Mattsson, comments on the seminar.

My own earlier survey of the op-ed coverage of Cast Lead can be read here.

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Entry filed under: Media, Politics.

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