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How Does the Media Impact Public Perception about War?

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Media and news can be incredibly powerful tools to hold governments accountable, reach the masses with critical information, and open eyes to new perspectives. Media can also play a big role in how people see the world around them and how they interpret important international events, including war and conflict. 

As the Israel-Hamas war continues, we asked SIS professor Elise Labott, journalist and founder of Zivvy media, to analyze differences between how US media and international news outlets are covering the conflict and discuss how media coverage can impact how the public perceives war.

Coverage of the Israel-Hamas war has been constant since the start of the conflict on October 7. What have you observed about how US media outlets are approaching this conflict? How does this compare to how news outlets based outside of the US are covering the war?
Hamas’ horrific October 7 attack on Israel made headlines for several days, and the media still covers personal stories about individual hostages. However, the attack and Hamas’s nature as a terrorist group have been eclipsed by coverage of Palestinian causalities suffered in Gaza, as they are more current, far greater in numbers, and are captured in daily videos on television. The conflict has been cruel and tragic to everyone, but US media is often crisis-oriented and covers the war as a “play by play,” as opposed to presenting a broader picture of the impact of the conflict.
American coverage of the military campaign tends to lean towards the Israeli and American governments’ narratives, sometimes at the expense of adequately representing Palestinian viewpoints. The number of Palestinian causalities is often reported with a caveat that numbers come from the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, as if to cast doubt on their legitimacy. Although many news outlets originally blamed Israel for the explosion at Gaza’s Al-Ahli hospital on October 17, most quickly changed their minds when Israel and the US blamed an errant Palestinian rocket—even though little evidence was provided to the media. This can leave audiences with the impression that the conflict is overly complex and difficult to understand.
The language used in US media is also a point of contention. Terms like "apartheid," "ethnic cleansing," and "genocide," despite being defined by international human rights organizations, are avoided in mainstream media because they are terms defined by international law and due to their politically charged nature.
The deaths of journalists, mostly in Israeli retaliatory strikes, have been reported, but there’s criticism about the lack of widespread condemnation in Western newsrooms. More than 750 journalists from various news organizations, including Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and The Washington Post, signed an open letter condemning Israel’s killing of reporters in Gaza and criticizing the war coverage in Western media. The signatories argue for the use of precise terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing" to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, pointing out the double standards in reporting.
International media outlets tend to provide a more diverse range of perspectives, often highlighting the humanitarian impacts on Palestinian civilians. These outlets are generally more direct in critiquing Israeli policies and actions, and they demonstrate a greater willingness to use terms that US media might shy away from. The BBC, for example, has been harshly criticized for a perceived anti-Israeli bias, including referring to Hamas as “militants,” as opposed to terrorists, and interviewing guests who praised the Hamas attack. This broader and sometimes more critical vocabulary in international coverage reflects a less conservative approach to the conflict than in American media.
Some US media outlets have been criticized on social media for their coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. How does the media’s choice of what stories to cover in conflict and what photos/videos to show in their coverage impact public perception?
Through their framing, selection of stories, and use of visual media, news outlets have immense power to influence public opinion. Photos and videos have a high potential for going viral on social media, amplifying certain aspects of the conflict.
The coverage can frame the narrative of the conflict. By selecting certain stories or images over others, the media can subtly influence whether Israel or the Palestinians are viewed more sympathetically or negatively by the audience.
Just as the coverage of the attack on October 7 evoked intense empathy for Israelis, the current emphasis on Palestinian civilian casualties and the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza is evoking strong emotional responses from the public, including calls for a ceasefire and more humanitarian aid.
What the media chooses not to report can be as impactful as what it does report. Omitting certain facts, events, or perspectives can skew public understanding of the conflict and lead to a one-sided view. The perceived bias or lack thereof in media coverage can affect public trust in media outlets. This influences how the public consumes news and which sources they consider credible.
The Israel-Hamas war has generated a lot of attention on social media, where users across platforms like Twitter/X, Tik Tok, and Instagram are making posts and videos about their views on the conflict. Media outlets have also shared lots of content on social media, including breaking news updates. How is social media impacting how the public is perceiving this conflict? What role does misinformation or disinformation on social media play?
Social media has significantly influenced how the public perceives the Israel-Hamas war, impacting both understanding and opinions. It involves a mix of algorithm-driven content curation, the challenge of misinformation, and changing generational views. There is also a declining trust in mainstream news outlets, pushing people toward alternative online sources and social media for information.
The result has been a fragmented and incredibly polarized understanding of the conflict, influenced by both the content people consume and the platforms they use to access it.
Recent years have seen a shift in how young Americans perceive Israel and how the plight of Palestinian civilians is portrayed in social media. Social media is a much more significant part of youth news diets, and platforms like TikTok show users content based on their interests, which can reinforce existing views.
The abundance of information, including misinformation, on platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter) makes it difficult for users to discern fact from fiction. The changes in platform policies and moderation practices have further complicated this challenge.
Social media has been a breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation regarding the conflict. Often, people are posting information and narratives with little knowledge of the conflict itself. False or misleading information can obscure the reality on the ground, deepening social and political divisions. This is exacerbated by the viral nature of social media content and the challenge of fact-checking in real-time.
Graphic videos and images, some true and some false, are widespread on social media platforms. The authenticity of this content is often difficult to verify, leading to confusion and the spread of hate. That is why it is important to verify information and seek news from a variety of sources, including official organizations and verified media outlets.