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.
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). 3) 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).
4) 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. )
Frequency and Focus of Middle East Coverage Over the three-month sample period of 1985, altogether, 542 items appeared on the Middle East in the five newspapers examined, an average of 3. 5 stories per newspaper issue, with the Globe and Mail at the top end averaging 4. 6 items per issue and the Vancouver Sun at the bottom only 2. 3. While overall for the five newspapers the coverage could be described as reasonably extensive, measured in terms of quantity alone, it must be pointed out that 96 or 17. 7% of the items comprised stories that were only three paragraphs or less in length.
Further, on average for the five newspapers, 76. 4 per cent of the cases were inside page, factual news stories while editorials and features, the principal categories providing the reader with contextual background and evaluation of developments, accounted together for just 5. 4% of the total number of items. When the Middle East actors featured in the Canadian press coverage in 1985 were analyzed, it was discovered that the press did, in fact, concentrate on the so-called ”core” of the Middle East. Israel dominated the coverage with 256 items (47. 2% of cases) dealing wholly or in part with that country.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (coded in 143 stories), other Palestinian actors (141), Egypt (123), and Lebanon (86) followed as the most significant foci of attention. The press devoted little space to reporting on developments in other Middle East countries unless they related to the Palestinian question or Lebanon. In the 1987-88 period, the Middle East continued to be the subject of considerable attention, substantially in excess of that accorded all other third world regions. Once again, too, the emphasis was heavily on factual news rather than evaluative pieces and on the ”core” of the area.
However, during this period, that core was much more specifically Israel itself. Over the four-month span, December 1987 to March 1988, for instance, the Canadian News Index listed 621 stories related to Israel. On the basis of their headlines, 500 of these, or 81%, dealt principally with the intifadah and more specifically Israeli repression in dealing with this problem, making this the unquestioned focus of Middle East coverage. Other actors trailed far behind the attention devoted to Israel and this particular aspect of Israeli affairs over this four-month period.
Through the late spring and summer of 1988, the intensity of the coverage of Israel declined somewhat and the Canadian press devoted markedly increased attention to the Iran-Iraq war, then in its concluding stages, and to the Persian Gulf region generally. By the autumn of 1988, however, the continuing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank and the Israeli election shifted the press focus back to Israel again. In sum, with respect to our first hypothesis, there was relatively extensive Canadian press coverage of the Middle East in both periods under analysis, measured simply in terms of the number of items.
However, in both 1985 and 1987-88 the press relied very heavily on straight news treatment, with little attention being given to providing the reader with the background and analysis necessary to understand the complex unfolding of events within the region. Moreover, coverage was largely confined to the ”core” of the area, Israel and the Palestinians in particular, with peripheral actors–regardless of the importance of their relations with Canada or the significance of events occurring within their jurisdictions–largely excluded from serious treatment.
Canada’s Relations with the Middle East A striking feature of the press coverage in 1985 was the lack of Middle East stories related to Canada. Only 48 items or 8. 9% of the total made any reference to Canada. Further, many of the Canadian items had only a tangential connection with this country. Of them 32 pertained to the various violent incidents in or related to the Middle East, and in most cases simply noted the presence or absence of Canadian victims. In 1987-88, the Canadian press certainly devoted much greater attention to Canadian relations with the Middle East than in 1985.
However, in our view, the overage remained episodic in nature and did not reflect a new concern to inform readers about a range of Canadian relations with the countries of the region and Canadian policy with respect to the central issue of an Arab-Israeli reconciliation. The press’s preoccupation with the Canadian dimension was principally a product of highly controversial statements by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark regarding Israel that set off a debate in Canada which the press reported on with some frequency, especially between December 1987 and May 1988.
On December 22, 1987, the Prime Minister remarked that, in his view, Israel was showing restraint in its handling of the unrest in the occupied territories. The observation provoked protest in Canada which the press duly reported. On January 21, Mr. Clark asserted that Israel was systematically abusing the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and the following day he met with the ambassadors of the Arab countries in Ottawa to express his growing concern with Israeli actions.
Again, these initiatives triggered press coverage and there were also reports in the days that followed on oth positive and negative reactions in Canada to Mr. Clark’s apparently tougher position. The controversy over Canadian policy culminated on March 11 when, in a speech before the Canada-Israel Committee, Mr. Clark described the military actions of Israel in Gaza and the West Bank as ”totally unacceptable and in many cases illegal under international law. ” His speech created a furore at the meeting and precipitated a plethora of ”reaction” stories in the Canadian press in the weeks and, indeed, months that followed.
Altogether, over the period December 1987 to September 1988, the Canadian News Index listed 100 stories examining Israel’s policies in the occupied territories from a Canadian perspective (almost all of them related to the two leaders’ controversial statements), compared to 19 stories pertaining to other aspects of Canada’s relations with the Middle East. Thus, the coverage in the two periods supports the view that only when there are special developments within Canada do Canadian newspapers, to any significant degree, inform their readers about aspects of Canada’s relations with the Middle East. )
Orientation of Middle East Coverage In the last quarter of 1985, all sample stories were assessed in terms of whether or not they were conflictual or non-conflictual in character. Items were coded as conflictual if they dealt with violent events in the Middle East (e. g. , fighting, bombings, assassinations, hostage-takings, etc. ) or with non-violent conflict that extended beyond what would be perceived by the Canadian reader as normal societal competition (related to political parties, leadership, etc. ) and was suggestive of political, economic or social turmoil, decay and/or disintegration.
Using this broad definition, 86. 7% of items were classified as conflictual in nature or both conflictual and non-conflictual. Of these, 340 or 72. 3% dealt with violence in or related to the region. Canadian press coverage from December 1987 to September 1988 was also very heavily conflictual in character. As indicated, Israel was the dominant focus and the majority of stories dealt with its actions in the occupied territories. It is clear from the headlines that almost all of these reported on the use of violent means to repress the Palestinian uprising.