The Palestinian story in the shadows: The media's role in covering the war in Gaza

November 18, 2023

With the ongoing war in Gaza dominating media headlines, a Northwestern Qatar panel examined the media coverage during an event, "Palestine in Wartime Media Narratives,” co-hosted by the Journalism and Strategic Communication Program and the Liberal Arts Program.

Joining as panelists were Northwestern Qatar Professors Khaled AL-Hroub, Zeina Awad, Marda Dunsky, and Ibrahim Abusharif, who discussed Palestinians’ portrayal in media narratives in a conversation moderated by Professor Eddy Borges-Rey.

The event began with AL-Hroub shedding light on the untold stories of the war in Gaza and the Western media’s approach to coverage. “The idea nowadays in this war is to have the Western media camera frozen on one event, that is October 7th,” said AL-Hroub, professor in residence in the Liberal Arts Program. “So many stories on a daily basis that I read from friends, the details of the stories are so horrifying, and these stories you cannot read, you cannot see on mainstream media.”

AL-Hroub highlighted how social media has uncovered the atrocities of the war, saying, “For the first time in the history of humanity, we are witnessing and watching 24/7, around the clock, a genocide.”  AL-Hroub added, “The media is complicit. Western media is complicit and part of the war crimes and the unique, live genocide that we are seeing nowadays. This is a historical moment, a tragic one though.”

For Awad, mainstream media’s historical portrayal of Palestinians continues to play a role in current coverage. "In many ways, the Palestinians are often seen as a subject or topics but rarely people with human emotions and agency," said Awad, emphasizing that the everyday lives of Palestinians and the challenges they face are rarely depicted in mainstream media. “[Palestinians] are either erased or only portrayed in relation to the so-called ‘conflict,’ so as a result, they only come to the discussion in relation to terrorism.”

Drawing from her analysis of the war coverage, Awad, assistant professor in the Journalism and Strategic Communication Program, explained how, by reducing Palestinians to objects in the war narrative, mainstream media has legitimized war actions against them. “So because of this, Palestinians die, but Israelis are killed,” noted Awad. She added that, while Palestinians are being dehumanized, “Israel is constructed as the more relatable, the Western democracy, a member of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Dunsky, assistant professor in residence in the Journalism and Strategic Communication Program, noted that in coverage of the war and also of the Israel-Palestine conflict in general, “U.S. policy and media impose this false equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians […] as if there is no power disparity between them.” For Dunsky, such decontextualized reporting exacerbates the dehumanization of Palestinians, because critical facts are omitted. “This [war] is not something that started on October 7th; it started with decades and decades of Israeli occupation of the Palestinians, [and] Western mainstream media narratives rarely depict the realities of occupation.”

To challenge the normalization of the occupation, Dunsky said journalists need to prioritize empathy in their reporting to bring to the forefront the harsh reality of Palestinian life under occupation. “In our work as journalists, among other things, we can try to bring out the value of empathy,” Dunsky said. “We can ask ourselves, ‘Can audiences, especially in the West and also globally, imagine themselves living the way Palestinians live under occupation? If they can’t relate, then they know that the occupation is not normal and can't be normalized.”

In examining the origins of prejudice, missing contexts, and what he called “toxicity” in media narratives, Abusharif, associate professor in residence in the Journalism and Strategic Communication Program, traced the ideological roots of these narratives as far back as medieval religious polemics aimed to counter Muslim Spain and, later, the Ottomans.

According to Abusharif, colonial narratives “picked up on the polemics and packaged them in the rhetoric and practice of narrative construction.” These colonial narratives, he argued, had seeped into journalism, shaping the way the Global South was and is currently “portrayed in the Western media and imaginations.” He also said, “This is an old attitude that has been repeated over and over again with regard to the Global South.” Colonial powers went to “various lands with the conceit of developing an underdeveloped or humanity-impaired people.”

Added Abusharif: “The Western hegemonic control over media narratives has been destabilized because I think the veils have been dropped, and many now see a glaring problem with the media portrayals of the war. Media organizations like Al Jazeera are coming forth and offering not just a counterpoint of view but new influences in the global media ecology itself.”