The BBC’s pictorial portrayal of conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip

During Operation Protective Edge the BBC News website’s ‘In Pictures’ section produced five separate features, all of which were also promoted on the site’s Middle East page. Most of the images selected by picture editor Phil Coomes and his team are from agencies such as Reuters, AP and AFP, although usually without their original captions. In Pics 1

The first of those features appeared on July 11th under the title “In pictures: Gaza conflict escalates” and as we noted here at the time it included nine images in all:  six from the Gaza Strip and three from Israel. Of the images photographed in the Gaza Strip, four show destroyed buildings, one shows a long-shot of missiles being launched and one shows mourners at a funeral. Two of the three photographs taken in Israel show onlookers at locations where missiles landed in Netivot and one shows the aftermath of a missile hit on a petrol station in Ashdod.

On July 20th a feature titled “In pictures: Gaza conflict intensifies” was published. Of the eight images appearing in it, six show scenes in the Gaza Strip and two are intended to depict Israel. Two of the pictures taken in Gaza show casualties being evacuated by medical personnel, one depicts what is described in the caption as “intense shelling”, one shows a long-shot of a missile being launched from the Gaza Strip, one shows an Israeli helicopter and one shows a view of an urban landscape in the Gaza Strip with Israeli armoured vehicles in the foreground. Both the images depicting Israel show soldiers.In Pics 2

July 29th saw the appearance of another collection of photographs under the title “In pictures: Gaza hit again after ‘heaviest night’“. Of the eleven images featured, six were taken in the Gaza Strip and five in Israel. The photographs taken in Israel show a military funeral, the evacuation of a wounded soldier, soldiers standing on an armoured vehicle, a group of civilians taking cover in the street during a missile attack and a man looking at the Gaza Strip through binoculars. One of the pictures taken in the Gaza Strip shows a woman and children apparently evacuating their home, one shows onlookers near a shrapnel damaged car, one shows illumination flares and three show fires and explosions.

The next feature – headlined “In pictures: Israel-Hamas ceasefire collapses” appeared on August 1st and it includes eight photographs. Two of the images depict a riot near Ramallah on that date. Four of the images were photographed in the Gaza Strip: one shows a child in hospital, one shows an urban landscape and an explosion, two show damaged structures. Of the two photographs depicting Israel, one captioned “Israel’s Iron Dome defensive system intercepted rockets over Beersheba in southern Israel as the ceasefire collapsed” does not show the Iron Dome at all, but soldiers firing artillery. The second picture shows Israeli civilians in an air-raid shelter in Ashkelon (although the location is not clarified by the BBC), with the caption “In Israel, normal life is continuing despite air raid sirens and rocket alerts. Israeli public support is overwhelmingly in favour of the army’s operation in Gaza”.In Pics 3

The fifth feature appeared on August 4th under the title “In pictures: Faces from Gaza“. In contrast to the usual BBC practice of using agency photographs, all the pictures in this item were taken by the BBC’s own Jon Donnison and all eleven photographs depict civilians in the Gaza Strip. Captions to the photographs include the following statements, which of course cannot be verified, but in contrast to the few photographs of Israeli civilians in other features, use names and short stories to personalise the people portrayed.

“A young girl and her mother shelter in a UN school in Rafah. The girl’s brother is in hospital after an Israeli bombing.”

“Three-year-old Aya was injured in Rafah when the family house was bombed as she slept. Aya cries for her mother, but she has been killed.”

“Ahmed, left, is being treated for severe burns in hospital in Khan Yunis, watched over by his brother Mahmoud. Their other brother, Mohammed, 17, was killed by Israeli bombing in Rafah. Mahmoud said they had all eaten dinner together and were laughing and joking a few hours before the attack.”

“Ali, 11, was injured as he played outside his home in Rafah when an Israeli bomb hit his neighbour’s house. Doctors are treating him in the car park of the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah as all the beds inside are full.”In Pics Donnison

In total forty-seven images appeared in these five photo essays. Two of those pictures were taken near Ramallah, thirty-three in the Gaza Strip and twelve in Israel, meaning that the Palestinian view of the story was given almost three times as much coverage as the Israeli one. Whilst several of the pictures show Israeli soldiers, there are no pictures whatsoever of members of Hamas or other terrorist organisations. Although six of the photographs show dead or injured civilians in the Gaza Strip, there are no pictures at all of injured Israeli civilians. Numerous pictures of damaged buildings in the Gaza Strip contrast with one picture of damage to a structure in Israel. Several photographs show explosions attributed to Israel in the Gaza Strip, compared to one photograph of a fire at a petrol station in Israel.

In common with its written and verbal depictions of the hostilities, the BBC’s pictorial portrayal presents audiences with a view which frames the conflict in terms of its effects on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip but largely removes Hamas’ terrorist activities from the picture and downplays the effects of that terrorism in Israel. 

BBC pictures editor apparently not sure where missile that landed in Israel came from

A photo feature titled “Gaza conflict escalates” appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on July 11th.

The feature includes nine images: six from the Gaza Strip and three from Israel.

Four of the photographs taken in the Gaza Strip show buildings after air-strikes which are described in the captions as “houses” but no context is given regarding the frequent practice of dual-purpose use of such locations as weapons storage facilities and/or command centres for terrorist organisations. Some of the captions also cite Hamas-supplied casualty figures, with no attempt made to distinguish between civilian and combatant casualties.

One image shows missiles being launched from a residential area in the Gaza Strip and one shows a group of grieving women at the funeral of members of the Kaware family, but fails to note that those killed were voluntarily acting as human shields.

Of the three pictures taken in Israel, there are none of any of the numerous houses damaged by missile fire.  One image shows a petrol station in Ashdod which was hit by a missile from the Gaza Strip and two show scenes from the town of Netivot. One of those has the curious caption shown below.

In pics 11 7 netivot a

 

 

BBC coverage of prisoner release in pictures

The story of the recent release of another twenty-six Palestinians convicted of murdering Israeli (and Palestinian) civilians has of course two aspects to it: the Israeli aspect and the Palestinian one.

The imbalance in the BBC’s coverage of those two aspects is apparent not only in the word count and the language used in its various reports on the subject, but also in the images selected to illustrate those articles.

In the article appearing on October 28th on the BBC News website, two images were used.

Images 1

Images 2

In the article from October 29th one photograph was used.

Images 6

In the filmed report of October 30th all the footage was of celebrations in Ramallah.

Knell filmed pris

The written article from October 30th included the video clip of the filmed report as well as two additional images.

images 3

Images 4

Also in that article, one photograph taken at the October 28th demonstration against the prisoner release held outside Ofer prison (which was not covered at all by the BBC) was featured. 

Images 5 I

Not one image of any of the twenty-five victims of the murders committed by the twenty-six prisoners was shown by the BBC and yet again the faces of family members of the victims also remain unseen.  That is not because such photographs do not exist; it is an editorial decision.

Below are just some of the other pictures taken at the same demonstration by photographers from the same agency – Getty Images – as credited on the image the BBC did choose to use. 

G I 1

G I 2

G I 3

Seeing Israel through the BBC’s lens

There is a standing joke in my family that British people who have never been to Israel, and whose main source of news is the BBC, are likely be under the impression that only soldiers and politicians inhabit that country because the BBC rarely shows images of anybody else – unless they belong to the minority (10% according to the most generous of estimations) ultra-orthodox community. 

An article titled “Worrying time for Israelis as US Syria strike looms” which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page at the end of August 2013 and throughout the first week of September would surely have provided a good opportunity for the use of an illustration showing Israeli civilians coming to renew their gas masks. Instead, this is the photograph which was chosen.

pic gas masks

The illustrations used in other Israel-related articles which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page during September were dominated by pictures of what is perhaps the most photographed army in the world. 

pic army 1

pic army 2

pic army 3

pic army 4

There was also an ‘In Pictures’ feature on Yom Kippur. 

Pic YK feature

And of course, politicians were also featured – though not always Israeli ones.

pic politicians 1

pic politicians 2

 Can the BBC News website claim that its visitors are being presented with an accurate and balanced selection of images of Israel?  

Related articles:

BBC ‘In Pictures’ on prisoner release: no mention of crimes

Disproportional representation: every (BBC chosen) picture tells a story

BBC pictorial portrayals of conflict in Israel and Gaza

BBC’s “In Pictures” fails to meet editorial standards

BBC ‘In Pictures’ on prisoner release: no mention of crimes

Among the extensive coverage of last week’s release of 26 convicted terrorists which appeared on the BBC News website was an item titled “In pictures: Palestinian prisoners released” dating from August 14th.

The pictorial feature includes seven pictures – five of which show the released prisoners being received by family and crowds. None of the captions to those pictures make any mention whatsoever of the crimes they committed. In the pictures, the subjects are seen to be happy and smiling, sometimes making triumphal gestures, and with their faces well-lit. 

In pictures prisoners 1

In pictures prisoners 2

In pictures prisoners 3

In pictures prisoners 4

In pictures prisoners 5

The last two images show the ‘Israeli side’ of the story. Picture number six shows Israeli police and prison service vehicles at the entrance to Ayalon prison. The only people in the photograph are uniformed officers whose faces cannot be seen.

In pictures prisoners 6

The final picture shows Israelis – mostly male – protesting against the prisoner release. Notably, we do not see their faces except for one small child and a blurred side-view of a woman’s face half hidden behind a sign and so their protest – unlike the celebrations of the prisoners and their families – does not take on a human face with which audiences can connect.

In pictures prisoners 7

Here are some examples of other pictures of Israelis protesting the prisoner release which were not selected for this ‘In Pictures’ feature.

Manipulating BBC audience opinions with pictures

The BBC News website’s ‘In Pictures’ section includes a daily feature titled ‘Day in Pictures’ which mostly showcases photographs (taken by non-BBC photographers) relating to the particular day’s news and events. The section is edited by BBC Picture Editor Phil Coomes

The image below appeared in the ‘Day in Pictures’ feature for August 2nd.

In pictures August 2

The picture’s caption reads: [emphasis added]

“Israeli soldier removes a ladder placed by Palestinians who used it to climb over the controversial barrier, near Ramallah.”

The pop-up caption to the thumbnail version of the picture reads:

“An Israeli soldier removes a ladder placed by Palestinian males (not seen), not permitted to cross into Jerusalem from the West Bank by Israeli security forces, after they used it to climb over Israel [sic].” 

The picture was taken by Reuters photographer Mohamad Torokman and on the Reuters website we find another photograph from the same series with the caption:

“Palestinian males not permitted by Israeli security forces to cross into Jerusalem from the West Bank due to an age limit, climb over Israel’s controversial barrier, in the village of Al-Ram, near Ramallah, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan August 2, 2013.” [emphasis added]

Reuters photo A Ram

Reuters is of course not bound by the same editorial guidelines as the BBC. If the BBC is going to use photographs from agencies, it obviously needs to ensure that accompanying captions meet BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality. The inclusion of the word “controversial” clearly represents a breach of impartiality, pushing readers towards a specific political viewpoint which regards the building of an anti-terrorist fence to thwart terror attacks against Israeli civilians as “controversial”.

Likewise, the presentation of this photograph and its accompanying caption without any mention of the fact that record numbers of Palestinian civilians have received permits to enter Israel during Ramadan this year, together with the omission of any explanation regarding the criteria which form the basis of considerations for the granting of permits and why the entry into Israel by Palestinian males of a certain age might be considered a security risk, clearly also breaches editorial guidelines.

If all that relevant context is too much for one photo caption, then obviously the photograph is not suitable for use by the BBC. But when the BBC does elect to run such an image, accompanied by a caption which uses a politically loaded adjective and omits crucial context, then the only conclusion readers can reach is that this is another case of the BBC trying to shape a particular viewpoint in the minds of audiences.

 

Disproportional representation: every (BBC chosen) picture tells a story

h/t Dan

Even the highest estimates – and there is plenty of conflicting opinion on the subject – put those belonging to ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) streams at about 10% of the total population of Israel. 

Much of the foreign media, however, has a tendency to disproportionately feature the ultra-Orthodox in pictures used to illustrate articles about Israel, thus creating a misleading impression of the make-up of the country’s population. The BBC is no exception. 

Take this “In Pictures” item from January 9th 2013 entitled “Storms sweep Middle East” for example. Four of the eleven pictures featured were taken in Israel – one in Tel Aviv, two in Jerusalem and one in the Golan Heights. 

Storms 1

Storms 2

Storm 3

Storms 4

The first three pictures are credited to Reuters. Perhaps, one might think, the BBC pictures editor had no choice: maybe those were the only pictures available.

Well it just so happens that Reuters is running a similar feature on its own website and the first and third pictures used by the BBC also appear there. But alongside them are many pictures which the BBC elected not to use. 

Reuters 1

Reuters 2

Reuters 3

Images can evoke a range of emotional reactions from the viewer, one of which is identification. Identification with the subject of an image in turn promotes empathy. The decision by members of the media to disproportionately feature pictures of people who represent a minority group within Israeli society and whose lifestyle, dress and customs do not promote a sense of identification – and hence empathy – for the vast majority of viewers, is therefore very significant. 

Once again, we see interesting editorial decisions from the BBC News website’s Pictures Editor Phil Coomes and/or his staff: decisions which contribute towards painting a misrepresentative picture of Israeli society. 

Antisemitic trope on BBC comments board – again

Among the already moderated comments on this article currently on display in the “In Pictures” section of the BBC News website, and also promoted on its Middle East page, is the following one.

comm 1

This is not the first instance of offensive comments being allowed to stand on BBC comments boards, as we documented earlier this month and, as we wrote then, it is the BBC’s responsibility to ensure that its moderators adhere to its own house rules which prohibit racist comments.

Those ‘house rules’ also state [emphasis added] that:  

“The blog author or host does not usually moderate the content of the boards, although it is their job to keep the discussions relevant to the topic and within the BBC’s guidelines. They may close off-topic or other rule-breaking discussions, and sometimes make a decision on comments that have been referred to them by the moderators. They may also alert the moderators to rule-breaking comments that they see in the course of their work.”

In this particular case, that would appear to be the BBC’s Picture Editor Phil Coomes. 

BBC pictorial portrayals of conflict in Israel and Gaza

On November 23rd 2012 an “In Pictures” photo essay entitled “Ceasefire” appeared on the homepage of the Middle East section of the BBC News website. 

The photo essay features thirteen photographs, of which nine depict Gaza and four are taken in Israel.

Four of the pictures from Gaza depict scenes of destruction of buildings, with interesting repeated – if transparent – use of bursts of colour against a largely grey background . One shows mourning women. Four other pictures depict Hamas leaders and operatives (finally available for photo-ops after eight days of being in hiding), with three of those pictures notably captioned as having been taken at funerals or mourning  events, thus adding a ‘human touch’. 

Of the pictures taken in Israel, none depict any kind of destruction or mourning.

One shows Israelis demonstrating against the ceasefire in Kiryat Malachi, where three people were killed as the result of a direct hit by a missile on an apartment block.

The remaining three pictures all have a military theme, with any civilians pictured looking relaxed and happy. Two of the three once again suggest a linkage between the Israeli army and religion. 

In the three photo essays we have covered here recently (see here and here), a total of 35 pictures supposedly documenting the conflict have been presented. Twenty of those pictures were taken in Gaza (and one in Hebron), with only two of those images showing Hamas terrorists, both at funerals. Fourteen of the 35 pictures were taken in Israel. 

Of the total 35 pictures, damage to homes, buildings or property was depicted in 12 of the pictures from the Gaza Strip and in four of the pictures from Israel. Images related to injury or death of civilians were depicted in seven of the photographs taken in Gaza, but in none of the photographs from Israel.

From the fourteen pictures taken in Israel, eleven show images of soldiers or other security forces. Four of those eleven pictures try to make a clear linkage between the Israeli army and the Jewish religion.  

If the BBC’s Picture Editor Phil Coomes would like to expand on the editorial decisions behind these photo essays, we would be very happy to publish his explanations here.