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Middle East and Canada

In December 1985, the Canadian press reported the death by suicide of hundreds of field mice in the Middle East. In an apparently instinctive reaction to a problem of over-population, the mice wilfully plunged to their doom off the cliffs of the Golan Heights. This bizarre story was the subject not only of straight news coverage in the Canadian press, but also of an editorial in the Globe and Mail on December 20. On November 1, 1985, the Globe and Mail also ran a photograph of a visiting Roman Catholic priest from Brazil, saying prayers on the banks of the Jordan River at the site where Christ is said to have been baptized.

Standing alertly near the priest was an Israeli soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, his eyes carefully scanning Jordanian territory across the river. For the analyst of the media and media image-making, these rather unusual press items raise an interesting question about news selection and presentation by the editorial departments of the daily press. Had the mice toppled off Mount Kilimanjaro would this essentially scientific story about animal behaviour have found its way so prominently into the Canadian press? Had the priest been peacefully saying mass on the Mattawa would this religious item have been deemed worthy of overage?

Or was it the newspapers’ sense of the irony of these events, of their news value as symbols depicting the pervasive conflict and violence we have come to associate with the Middle East that led to their selection for publication from the reams of teletype endlessly flowing into the editorial departments of the Canadian press? It would seem that even when the subject matter is scientific or religious–about mice or monsignors–the press is inclined to remind its readers of the inherently violent nature of the Middle East, and a fundamentally negative image is developed or reinforced.

It is, Canadians are told in effect, a region so bleak and hopeless that even its despairing mice are driven to take their lives. The purpose of this study is to examine in an empirical fashion Canadian daily press coverage of the Middle East to establish, inter alia, what type of image of the region and of its principal actors (Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states) is, in fact, presented to the Canadian reader and what impact, if any, the character of that coverage has had on the shaping of Canadian foreign policy. Hypotheses and Methodology

A review of the existing, limited literature on Canadian media coverage of the Middle East together with the more extensive literature on the Canadian media and international affairs generally led us to advance five hypotheses to test in our study of press coverage of the Middle East: (1) It was anticipated that treatment of the region would be relatively substantial, given the prominence of Middle East events in the context of East-West relations and issues of global peace and security, and that the predominant coverage would be of Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt and Lebanon because of their central role in Middle East conflict (Hackett, 1989; Keenleyside, Soderlund, & Burton, 1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985; Sinclair, 1983). (2)

It was expected that there would be relatively limited coverage of Canadian relations with the Middle East unless some specific development, most likely within Canada, prompted attention to the region (Cumming, 1981; Keenleyside, Soderlund, & Burton, 1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985; Schroeder, 1977). ) Conflict rather than cooperation, it was hypothesized, would be the dominant orientation of the press with articles focusing on political divisions, disasters, iolence and war rather than on softer news related to such subjects as culture, education and development (Cuthbert, 1980; Dewitt & Kirton, 1989; Hackett, 1989; Inyang, 1985; Onu, 1979; Schroeder, 1977; Sinclair, 1983). )

On the perennial subject of bias towards Israel or the Arab states and the Palestinians, it was expected that, while the press would be critical of the party deemed responsible for any specific violent acts, it was likely to show reasonable balance even at such times on the central issue of a resolution of the Palestinian question. 5) Finally, many authors have noted the potential relevance of media coverage to the making of foreign policy, particularly in terms of setting the policy agenda and shaping public opinion which, in turn, establishes the broad parameters within which policy is made.

We thus hypothesized that the nature of the Canadian press coverage of the Middle East would be found to have some policy relevance. This study analyzes Canadian press coverage of the Middle East during two contrasting periods. The first is the last quarter of 1985, a time of hostage-takings, bombings and killings perpetrated largely by Palestinians and their supporters.

The events of this period included the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, and the murder of an elderly U. S. passenger; the hijacking of an Egyptian airliner, flying from Athens to Cairo with 60 passengers perishing when Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft in Malta, bombings at the El Al check-in counters at the Rome and Vienna airports that left eighteen dead; and several developments related to hostage-takings in Lebanon. The latter period is from December 1987 to September 1988 and is one dominated by the Palestinian uprising (intifadah) in Gaza and the West Bank.

During these months, world attention focused on the harsh measures employed by Israel to quell the unrest in the occupied territories, including shootings, beatings, the denial of food and the use of deportations. Accordingly, this study affords an opportunity to compare press treatment of the principal protagonists in the Middle East during periods in which each party stood before the court of world opinion as a perpetrator of violent acts, making it possible to establish if the respective events had similar or different effects on the Canadian press’s tilt towards the Israelis and the Arabs/Palestinians.

Finally, since it s during times of crisis, when dramatic, turbulent events offer graphic and emotive material to present to the public, that the media is most likely to have the capacity to influence the policy process, these two periods provide an opportunity to examine the press’s possible impact on Canadian policy. Given the differing lengths of time involved in our two study periods, the data base for each is rather different.

For the last quarter of 1985, we content-analyzed five major Canadian daily newspapers: the Chronicle Herald (Halifax), Le Devoir (Montreal), the Globe and Mail (Toronto), the Sun (Vancouver) and the Winnipeg Free Press. These papers were chosen on the basis of their national and regional importance and in order to reflect both official languages. Beginning with a randomly selected date within the first three days of October (October 2), we sampled each of these papers every third day until December 31.

Each of these issues was examined in its entirety for material dealing with the Middle East and all items identified were coded under several categories of analysis. All coding was done by the authors, with intercoder reliability calculated at 86%. Further, for purposes of exploring press bias, in order to enlarge our data base, we examined all editorials n the Middle East in the five newspapers from October 1 to December 31, 1985.

Since a longer period was deemed necessary to analyze the character of Middle East press coverage at the time of emergence of the intifadah and since we were operating under constraints of time and budget, a different data base was employed for the second phase of this study. For the period December 1987 to September 1988, the Canadian News Index, which provides the headlines of stories, was used for the purpose of counting and coding Middle East items into various categories. This source indexes seven English language dailies, four of which were used in the 1985 collection of data.

It is important to note that the Canadian News Index is selective, based, in the words of the publishers, on the “significant reference value” of items. The figures reported below for frequency of coverage of different countries and subjects thus do not represent the totals for stories in the seven newspapers and direct comparisons with the 1985 data are not possible. Nevertheless, the numbers are a good indicator of the emphasis in coverage and that is what is important for the purposes of this study.

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