Monday, October 11, 2010

Objectivity is Hard

Headline 1: Netanyahu would extend settlement freeze in return for recognition (CNN)

8 comments:

isaac butler said...

Which one of these strikes you as objective?

CultureFuture said...

Neither. I feel like whichever one puts one side as the subject and the other as the object basically gramatically establishes bias.

Ian Thal said...

Care to clarify how you are defining "objectivity" here? I'm not sure Guy and Isaac are using the word in the same manner.

CultureFuture said...

A phrasing of fact without placing emphasis on one side or the other, or creating a frame one way or the other.

I guess what I really meant to title this post was "Objectivity is Impossible," since I can't imagine a headline that would only contain fact, phrased in such a way to do equal justice to both sides' position.

In fact, I go back and forth on the "bias" of Headline 1; on the one hand, when I first read it, the "would" in the sentence immediately put me in the mind of some petulant child, and that was the mindset when I posted it. And the complete absence of Palestinians from the headline is not surprising (CNN has a tendency to report on what individuals say or do as opposed to what's actually happneing).

The second headline has a clear undercurrent; "[group] reject ______ compromise" tends not to be a favorable framing for [group], whereas "[group] reject _____ ultimatum" (not necessarily a more correct phrasing) would have the opposite effect.

It's just tough to sum up a controversial event in 140 characters without even grammar itself conspiring to take sides.

CultureFuture said...

A phrasing of fact without placing emphasis on one side or the other, or creating a frame one way or the other.

I guess what I really meant to title this post was "Objectivity is Impossible," since I can't imagine a headline that would only contain fact, phrased in such a way to do equal justice to both sides' position.

In fact, I go back and forth on the "bias" of Headline 1; on the one hand, when I first read it, the "would" in the sentence immediately put me in the mind of some petulant child, and that was the mindset when I posted it. And the complete absence of Palestinians from the headline is not surprising (CNN has a tendency to report on what individuals say or do as opposed to what's actually happneing).

The second headline has a clear undercurrent; "[group] reject ______ compromise" tends not to be a favorable framing for [group], whereas "[group] reject _____ ultimatum" (not necessarily a more correct phrasing) would have the opposite effect.

It's just tough to sum up a controversial event in 140 characters without even grammar itself conspiring to take sides.

Ian Thal said...

Ultimately, when covering the back and forth of diplomatic wrangling in real time, all a news agency can really do is cover what the actors say. The actors are biased because they have at least one agenda (if not multiple agendas) that they are trying to advance as well as opposing agendas that they may wish to obstruct.

The sort of general "big picture" overview that might get close to what is "actually happening", is not, and cannot, be presented in real time, as the big picture is also a long view.

At the same time your point about the difference between "compromise" and "ultimatum" isn't really operative here since each party needs something from the other in order to feel like the other is negotiating in good faith on the final issues. The Abbas' government needs the settlement freeze, Netanyahu's government (actually, every Israeli government) needs recognition and he is willing to deliver the freeze in return for recognition.

That's how compromises work. Calling it an "ultimatum" is to argue that recognition is up for debate.

CultureFuture said...

All valid points. When I said "Objectivity is hard," I really was sympathizing with the journalists.

However, I do have to point out that the main story is not about Netanyahu, or about Palestinians, but about the peace process itself. I don't mean they should write the "big picture" article -- at the end of the week, the Economist and Newsweek and those magazines will get to that.

But I do mean that today, two things happened:

1) Netanyahu offered to extend the settlement freeze in return for recognition
2) Palestinians reject Israel settlement compromise

This is one story, one event for today, but strangely most news organizations tend to write the story about one or the other, with perhaps a reference to the other event.

For instance, the Jerusalem Post article reads: "Abbas to Arab League: Israel has violated all agreements." In it, there is one sentence devoted to Israel's actions; the entirety is basically a summarization of Abbas' prepared statements -- and they don't even directly quote him! They're quoting his chief negotiator quoting him!

http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=191038

To your latter point, you're right that compromise is probably an accurate word (although Ha'aretz went with "Bibi offered Abbas assisted political suicide" -- I think it's an Op-Ed but it's marked as news: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/bibi-offered-abbas-assisted-political-suicide-1.318527 ). (There is, however, a very complicated issue behind whether it is politically feasible for Abbas to accept a temporary settlement freeze in return for recognition of Israel, which is one of the few things that Fatah has to withhold from Israel.... but that's neitehr here nor there).

I simply meant to demonstrate that whatever word you happen to choose to sum this complex and roiling situation creates an atmosphere for the story beyond the denotative meaning of the word. It's impossible to avoid the connotative inflections of even the most straightforward words.

(and on a meta level, it's hard for me to talk about what connotative bias there is in a story without revealing my own biases as well!)

Ian Thal said...

Of course, the thing is that Netanyahu's insistence that the PA recognize Israel as Jewish is, as the Ha'Aretz article points out, really about ensuring that the final peace is in fact a final peace in which Israel's borders are secure (i.e. rejecting the "from the river to the sea" formulation) and not just a momentary truce so one can regroup and make another attempt to "destroy the Zionist entity." This is just a paraphrase of Barak's offer in 2000 but rephrased to appeal to Netanyahu's Likud supporters.

As far as the idea that accepting this compromise would amount to political suicide for Abbas, the same was said about Arafat's rejection of a final peace deal ten years ago-- but his rejection didn't help his career much either: it led to the Second Intifada and in which half the Palestinians killed were killed by other Palestinians in interfactional fighting, and much of the economic growth of the previous years collapsed until the Separation Wall was built.

Seems to me that Abbas might have more to lose through rejection than through compromise.

(I also suspect that it might not be helping anybody that the negotiations are happening in public.)