AMW: bias in UK press coverage of Syria ‘Scuds’

London, April 30: Arab Media Watch (AMW) expresses its disappointment at British press coverage of claims that Syria has sent Scud missiles to Hezbollah. The main areas of concern are:

– Overall, the Israeli claims, and US statements supporting them, have been given more prominence than Syrian and Lebanese government denials, as well as doubts expressed by analysts.

-Overall, the claims and supporting statements have been given more word space than the denials and doubts.

– In some articles, Syrian and Lebanese denials are absent.

– US official doubts over Israel’s claims are completely unreported.

-Hezbollah is portrayed as a threat to Israel more often than Israel is portrayed as a threat to Lebanon / Hezbollah.

Regarding the above criteria, the Daily Telegraph arguably performed the most poorly.

Claims, denials & doubts

AMW analysed coverage of the British national press – spanning 14-21 April 2010 – using Lexis Nexis. Nine articles were published in total: five in the Telegraph, and two each in the Guardian and Independent (Lexis Nexis does not include the Financial Times).

Seven articles (78%) mentioned the claims before the denials and doubts, including all of the Telegraph articles, one of the Independent articles, and one of the Guardian articles.

In two of the Telegraph articles, Syria’s denial – surely crucial to the story – came at the very end. Only one article (in the Guardian) mentioned the denials first, in the form of a statement by the Western-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The other Independent article did not contain any denials or doubts, the only article not to do so. The statements by Hariri – who cannot be described as either an ally of Hezbollah or of Syria – were completely absent in the Telegraph.

None of the articles included doubts by US officials, reported by Reuters for example, that Syria had sent the Scuds to Hezbollah. “We don’t believe it happened,” said one US official. “It’s unclear at this point that a transfer has occurred…and the United States has no indications that the rockets have moved across the border,” said another.

The Guardian came closest to this, although it only reported that a US statement “stopped short” of confirming Israel’s claims.

Of the eight articles that included both the claims and denials, six (75%) gave more word space to the former, including all of the Telegraph’s five articles.

Only one article (in the Guardian) devoted more words to the latter, with one article (in the Independent) giving almost equal word space to each side.

The results of this research echo those of an AMW study into British press coverage of CIA claims regarding Syria’s alleged nuclear reactor that was said to have been destroyed in an Israeli air strike in September 2007.

Although certain sections of the press approached the CIA claims critically, on the whole they received much more coverage than Syrian denials in terms of word count, and where both were included, the former tended to be more prominently placed.

“It is the responsibility of journalists to report both sides of the story, meaning that claims should be reported as such and evenly counter-balanced with opposing positions,” that study wrote. These words are just as pertinent regarding the recent claims of Syrian Scud deliveries to Hezbollah.

The Telegraph’s particularly poor performance in this instance is also reminiscent of the previous AMW study, which found that of the newspapers that provided both viewpoints, “the Daily Telegraph was the most imbalanced, giving almost seven times more words to US claims than Syrian denials.”

Who is a threat to whom?

Lastly, AMW monitored how often each side is portrayed as a threat to the other. Out of 29 such statements, Hezbollah was portrayed as a threat to Israel 16 times (55%), while Israel was portrayed as a threat to Hezbollah / Lebanon 13 times (45%). Respective examples of both include:

– “The weapons are assumed to be Scud Bs with a range of 300km, enabling them to hit most of Israel.”

– “Hizbollah – like the Lebanese army – fears the overwhelming air superiority enjoyed by Israeli jets.”

The Independent was the only newspaper to portray Israel as a threat (six times) more often than Hezbollah (once). The Telegraph portrayed Hezbollah as a threat almost twice as often as it did Israel (nine times to five, or 64% to 36%), while the Guardian portrayed Hezbollah as a threat three times more often than it did Israel (six times to two, or 75% to 25%).

The Telegraph contained the majority of references to Hezbollah being a threat (56%), followed by the Guardian (38%) then the Independent (6%). The Independent contained the most references to Israel being a threat (46%), followed by the Telegraph (38%) then the Guardian (15%).

Only two articles referred to Israel as a threat more often than Hezbollah: one each in the Independent and Telegraph. The other Independent article portrayed each side as a threat an equal number of times.