Advertisement Close

A Study in Media Bias on Gaza: An Interview with William Youmans

posted on: Feb 13, 2024

While many Americans who have watched the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza feel there is a profound pro-Israel bias in mainstream American media, they usually cannot offer data to back up their impression. Media studies scholar William Youmans recently conducted a study of US Sunday news talk shows to measure just how tilted towards Israel they are. He published the results of his study with the Arab Center Washington DC (Arab Center DC). Arab America had a chance to sit down with him. Professor Youmans teaches at George Washington University and is a board member of the Arab American Foundation.

Your study focused on one type of news program, the Sunday news talk show, that airs on the broadcast networks ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Why?

“Historically, these programs are highly influential politically, attracting larger audiences than cable TV news. One show, Meet the Press, had an average audience of almost 3 million in September. That’s double the leading cable news outlet, Fox News. Sure, they are not as central as they once were, but they are still tied in closely with what the political elite wants the public to think about regarding specific issues. I had to focus on one dimension since the US media system is so large and complex. Had I studied newspapers, the findings would likely be different. Still, these shows are a much stronger barometer of the views of policymakers and media elites since they are the most common guests. But as I find, this means excluding the opinions of those who dissent.

Out of the 140 guest appearances I analyzed, they only booked one Palestinian guest, Hussam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom. There were also no Palestinian American or even Arab American guests. Not one! By contrast, there were 10 Israeli appearances. 

So right off the bat, I suspected there would be clear evidence of bias.  But, Israelis only appeared 7% of the time, so it could not be taken for granted that the content would have to be so one-sided. To determine that, I also measured the valence of what guests were saying on the air, from pro-Israel to neutral to pro-Palestinian. I found a very lop-sided ratio. Pro-Israeli views were aired almost five times as much as pro-Palestinian views on all the aired programs!

The number of Israeli guests was relatively small. It turned out that this lop-sided editorial imbalance was due to the high frequency of American officials, from the Secretary of State to various spokespeople from the White House to present and former members of Congress. They were essentially acting as representatives of the Israeli position.”

Photo: Professor Will Youmans

One of the most interesting parts of the studies looks at framing; that is how Gaza is discussed.

“Yes, I also gauged the frequencies of words that stand for keyframes on the conflict, such as “hostages,” “occupation,” and “ceasefire,” and others. People who understand the conflict cannot talk about what is happening without reference to the Israeli military occupation, which has been in place over Gaza since 1967. Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlements from Gaza 18 years ago. Still, it continued to enclose Gaza, control the import and export of goods, limit access to fishing waters and shipping, and invade and bomb the people every few years. In the 50 hours of programming I studied, guests only mentioned  “occupation” 15 times! This can only be explained by the small number of Palestinian and Arab guests they booked.  

Another frame I studied was “ceasefire.” It was barely discussed, and most of the time, guests rejected it without much thoughtful discussion.

Most shockingly, it was “genocide.” It came up 23 times, but only once about Israel’s conduct in Gaza! A host of one show read a social media post by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) regarding the ICJ case. Guess what other references to “genocide” were about? The notion that American university campus protest slogans like “Free Palestine” are tantamount to calls for genocide against Jews. My jaw dropped. Not only is this a gross misrepresentation of calls to freedom, but these shows spoke more about a fictitious chant for genocide rather than a mass bombardment and starvation campaign that the ICJ said it could plausibly find violating the Genocide convention.”

And what did you conclude?

“It’s all so very broken.”


Check out our Blog here!