Biased reporting from Reuters?

According to its own website, Reuters is “the world’s largest international news agency, [and] a leading provider of real-time, high-impact, multimedia news and information services to newspapers, television and cable networks, radio stations and websites around the globe.”

Reuters prides itself that its thousands of journalists employed “in every corner of the globe deliver unbiased, trusted information to a billion people a day;” and the company’s “Trust Principles” explicitly promise “integrity, independence and freedom from bias” and the supply of “unbiased and reliable news.”

Given these high principles and the indisputable reach and influence of the news agency, it is only reasonable if Reuters is held to the standards it has set for its output. Obviously, this is not an easy task, because an occasional “glitch” does not prove bias – which, by definition, implies an inclination or tendency, that is to say, something that can be observed repeatedly.

There is a blog that focuses on doing just that for – you guessed it – the Middle East coverage of Reuters. Some of the more widely noted controversies are documented there, and the blog aims to serve as “an open, public, evidentiary database documenting Reuters’ violations of its own Trust Principles, Handbook, and generally accepted standards of professional journalism.”

Now there is some additional support for the charge that Reuters reporting doesn’t live up to the company’s own standards. A new study by Henry I. Silverman of Roosevelt University, published in the November/December issue of the Journal of Applied Business Research, examines fifty news-oriented articles on the Middle East conflict published by Reuters over three months and comes to the conclusion “that Reuters engages in systematically biased storytelling in favor of the Arabs/Palestinians and is able to influence audience affective behavior and motivate direct action along the same trajectory. This reflects a fundamental failure to uphold the Reuters corporate governance charter and ethical guiding principles.”

While this conclusion – and some of Silverman’s rather provocatively phrased claims – will certainly arouse controversy, not everyone interested in this study will have the time or patience to actually read the 24-page paper.

Since judging the paper’s academic merits also requires considerable technical expertise, I would like to focus here on a “common-sense” argument that has already come up in a debate about the study on Harry’s Place, where commenter Gabriel argued (8 December 2011, 11:12 pm):

In order to satisfy everyone, every single small article would need books of “context” and every single statement would need to be qualified a million times. Every single story would need to have every angle reported on, every person involved give their side of the story, etc…It’s just not feasible as well as being ridiculous. I saw a report on bias against the Palestinians in the English media once and it was the same kind of crap.

This may at first sound like an eminently reasonable argument – but aside from the fact that it would require Reuters to amend its own “Trust Principles” by declaring that unbiased reporting is simply an unachievable ideal – Silverman’s study provides several examples of bias that could have been easily avoided.

Consider this example (p. 104; pdf: 12) from a Reuters “Analysis” of August 30, 2010:

“Over 500 Israeli civilians died in 140 Palestinian suicide bomb attacks from 2000 to 2007. More than 4,500 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the same period.”

As Silverman rightly points out:

In an instance of card stacking, Perry includes all Palestinians killed by any means but willfully excludes Israeli security personnel and those Israelis killed by means other than suicide bomb attacks. When these groups are included, the number of Israelis killed rises to more than double Perry’s appraisal.29 And note how Perry describes the Israelis as having (passively) “died” while Palestinians were (actively) “killed”. The use of the word ― “died” here reflects another euphemism, and the asymmetric distorting of the casualty figures represents the propaganda device of error of statistical inference as well as being a violation of the Reuters’ Handbook admonition to its journalists to take no side, tell all sides.

That is indeed a fascinating example, because there is no distortion of facts per se, but the facts are so carefully chosen that the result is clearly biased – ingeniously biased, I’m tempted to say. In addition to the points made by Silverman, it should be noted that, by mentioning only Israeli civilian casualties who “died” in suicide bombings and “balancing” this information with all Palestinians “killed” by Israeli security forces, this “analysis” also subtly suggests that all the Palestinian casualties were “civilian.”

Another interesting example cited by Silverman is the Mavi Marmara incident, where Reuters (like most other news agencies) simply parroted the claim of the “flotilla” organizers that all the boats were on a “humanitarian” mission to bring “aid” to Gaza. But there was no humanitarian aid whatsoever on board the Mavi Marmara – just activists itching for a confrontation to draw attention to their efforts to break Israel’s (entirely justified and legal) blockade of Gaza.

The fact that Reuters willingly adopted the claims of the flotilla organizer about their humanitarian aid mission is particularly remarkable in light of Reuters’ controversial refusal to describe any terrorist as a terrorist. Commenting on a Reuters report of a bombing in Jerusalem last March that stated “Police said it was a ‘terrorist attack’ – Israel’s term for a Palestinian strike,” Jeffrey Goldberg sarcastically responded:

Those Israelis and their crazy terms! I mean, referring to a fatal bombing of civilians as a “terrorist attack”? Who are they kidding? Everyone knows that a fatal bombing of Israeli civilians should be referred to as a “teachable moment.” Or as a “venting of certain frustrations.” Or as “an understandable reaction to Jewish perfidy.” […] I suppose Reuters will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by referring to the attacks as “an exercise in urban renewal.”

It sounds hilarious – but perhaps it’s not so funny after all: the fact that there is no terrorism in the world of Reuters news ultimately means that Reuters refuses to see the difference between facts and “narratives.”

5 responses to “Biased reporting from Reuters?

  1. This study is a long-due exposure of what we have all stood by and noticed helplessly. The lack of balance of course also extends to what they choose to report and what they don’t, which portions of a speech are highlighted and which aren’t. The news agencies have tremendous political power.

    Thank you for an illuminating & lucid gloss on a long dull academic paper, Petra.

  2. Great post.

    I will circulate the link.

  3. Thanks, Margie and Clap!
    Agreed, Margie, the news agencies do have enormous political power, and that we live in an age where facts and “narratives” are often accorded the same weight is certainly also due to the practice of Reuters.

  4. peterthehungarian

    What I’m going to write here is off-topic but the subject is important.

    The poster quoted by you (Gabriel) is a typical representative of the kind of “Israel-critics” used by anti-Israeli propagandists – let’s call them ASAN Israeli paraphrasing their sister category the ASA Jew Israel bashers.
    According to himself Gabriel has a dual Canadian-Israeli citizenship, but apart of this fact he has nothing to do with the Israeli experience. He hasn’t been educated in Israel, he didn’t serve in the IDF, arrived to Israel as an adult, obviously hasn’t a clue about the life of the average Israeli, all of his knowledge of the country is limited to some fashionable Tel-Aviv cafes. Judging by his posts on HP he never travelled to or visited any other part of Israel, he doesn’t know any Israelis apart from the small circle of the bubbledwellers of North-TA. Reading his rants this is obvious that he thinks that outside TA there is no hi-tech industry, there are no scientific workshops, and there is no culture at all, only social rejects, barbarians and population living on the Tel-Avians expense.
    His kind of ASAN Israelis who are totally and absolutely ignorant about and disconnected from the real Israel and Israelis are being used by the delegimitisers as genuine Israelis – the best example of this kind of persons is Seth Freedman of CIF.

  5. Right, I also remember Gabriel expressing some of the views you describe on HP — I guess this “ASAN Israeli” posture you describe so well also provides the sense that one belongs to the tiny elite of those who know better. However, I would also acknowledge that, in my view, Silverman overstates (and thus weakens) his case on several occasions — which is a pity since he does present some very good examples. Unfortunately, it would take much more to effectively make the case that Reuters doesn’t live up to its own standards.
    E.g. Cif Watch has shown that with a lot of persistent and dedicated work it is possible to get the attention of the “watched” media (as e.g. reflected in the recent musings of the Guardian’s Readers’ Editor on antisemitism) — but I think what counted for a lot in their case is that they’ve managed to build an impressive online presence by gaining a large audience.

    Anyway, thanks for popping in — I’ll never forget how, years ago on Cif, you stood up for me when SF was bullying me in a really nasty way.

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