How Middle East Outlets Reframe the News To Fit Their Narrative

A wire report about fighting in the West Bank shows up in news editors’ feeds around the world. A Jordanian outlet wants to print it—and makes sure to replace every mention of the Israel Defense Forces with the occupation army. Across the Jordan River, The Times of Israel is also making edits, appending the word terrorist to any mention of Palestinian guerrillas. Side-by-side in a Google News search result, the articles make for a striking contrast, a kind of uncanny mirror-world.

People from around the world count on a small group of American and European agencies for their news. Wire services like the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse gather breaking news and sell the stories to news outlets for a small fee. While overall media budgets are shrinking, the internet has allowed local newspapers to get wire reports more quickly and easily than ever before.

The wire services have some advantages over local press, even when covering local stories. They tend to have better resources, and their international presence helps them avoid different countries’ censorship laws. Since these agencies are based in the West, their coverage is written for Western readers. But many of their audiences today are in other parts of the world; foreign editors spend a lot of time and effort adapting wire reports to local perspectives.

Several months ago, I received a grant from the Fulbright Program, an educational exchange funded by Congress, to research how the Jordanian press interacts with international media. I was free to conduct my research and write about the results as I wish, as long as I made it clear that my words do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. government, or any partner organizations.

For my research, I volunteered at several Jordanian news outlets. Jordan News is the English-language edition of Al Ghad, a privately owned newspaper. Roya TV is a privately-owned station that broadcasts in Arabic and publishes online content in English. Radio Al-Balad is a nonprofit Arabic-language station that has received funding from European governments. 

At all three outlets, I helped translate local content into English, and observed as editors adapted foreign stories for local audiences.

Jordanians pay close attention to English-language—especially American—media. The kingdom receives large amounts of U.S. aid and even hosts U.S. military bases. Some Jordanians received an American education, and many more are fans of American pop culture. A large Jordanian-American diaspora regularly travels between the two countries.

But there are important differences between Jordanian and American views, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While American politics has a strong pro-Israel streak, about half the population of Jordan has Palestinian roots, the descendants of refugees who were expelled by or fled from Israeli forces during the 1948 and 1967 wars.

Even straight news reporting can reflect sharp disagreements, since the very names of places are political. Israel and Palestine do not have defined borders.

The whole land was a British colony, known as the Mandate of Palestine, before a civil war broke out in 1947 and 1948. Jewish nationalists declared the state of Israel, and the rest of the old Mandate fell under Jordanian and Egyptian control. Israel captured the remaining Palestinian territories—the West Bank and Gaza—in 1967. During peace talks in the ’90s, part of those territories were placed under an autonomous Palestinian Authority, which declared itself “the state of Palestine” and won a United Nations observer seat in 2012.

Neither Israel nor Western governments recognize the state of Palestine as an independent nation. Many Western newsrooms follow their governments’ policies. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the German state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle all ban their reporters from using the word Palestine to refer to a country.

The Associated Press allows its reporters to refer to the state of Palestine when talking about the United Nations, or similar international forums like the Olympics. In other cases, Associated Press guidelines say to use Palestinian territories for the West Bank and Gaza, “since [Palestine] is not a fully independent, unified state.”

Some Jordanian journalists see things quite differently.

Roya TV always uses the term Palestine in its Arabic- or English-language content. Israel is referred to as either the Israeli Occupation or Tel Aviv. It sometimes makes for awkward reading. “Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu” becomes “Israeli Occupation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” in Roya’s parlance.

“Roya’s in-house style reflects its commitment to presenting news stories through a Palestinian lens and the aggression the Palestinian people face every day from the Israeli Occupation,” says English news editor Dana Sharayri.

Sharayri believes that it’s important to highlight “the historical context and the continued struggle for Palestinian rights,” whether in the territories set aside for the Palestinian Authority, or the territories that became Israel in 1948.

Jordan News hews more closely to the style preferred by the Associated Press. The West Bank and Gaza are occupied Palestinian territories. The Old City of Jerusalem and its eastern suburbs, which Israel captured in 1967, are occupied East Jerusalem. According to Editor in Chief Osama Al-Sharif, referring to the territories that way is a matter of “international law and U.N. resolutions.”

In May 2022, Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead in an Israeli raid in the West Bank. Her employer, Al Jazeera, accused the Israeli army of assassinating Abu Akleh, but many international news services were reluctant to point out a perpetrator at first.

Jordan News ran Al Jazeera’s claim as a headline: “Israel kills journalist Shireen Abu Akleh ‘in cold blood.'” Al-Sharif said that looking at all the sources and his “40 years of experience” led him to run that headline.

After first implying that Palestinian guerrillas were to blame, Israel later admitted that one of its soldiers shot Abu Akleh, and claimed the killing was an accident.

Most strikingly, Jordan News never refers to the Israeli military by its official name, the Israel Defense Forces. Instead, they are the Israeli occupation forces. “We are calling it for what it is,” says Al-Sharif.

Less than 100 miles away, Israeli editors are busy taking out references to occupation. The Times of Israel, an English-language newspaper, removes the word occupied from foreign newswires about Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, a territory Israel conquered from Syria in 1967.

Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli government has formally annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan. Referring to those places as occupied will “get you labeled with a certain bias” by Israeli audiences, says Deputy Editor Joshua Davidovich. 

“We’re not in the business of endorsing or not endorsing annexations,” Davidovich says. “It’s just an expression of our Israeli point of view.”

Other Israeli newspapers do not even use the term Palestinian Territories or West Bank. The Israeli government officially calls it Judea and Samaria, the name of the West Bank in Jewish scripture, as do most Israeli media outlets in Hebrew and some in English.

Perhaps the most dramatic disagreement comes when talking about the Palestinian guerrillas who fight Israel. Over the past few decades, these groups have targeted both the Israeli army and civilians, including with indiscriminate shootings and bombings. The Israeli government calls them terrorists, and the U.S. government has also listed many Palestinian rebel groups as terrorist organizations.

The Associated Press discourages using the term terrorism in general, because it “is often used loosely by governments and leaders to condemn any rival political group or act of resistance.” Hamas, the Palestinian rebel group that controls Gaza, is simply a “political party, which has an armed wing.” Jordan News follows the same rules.

The Times of Israel, however, has a policy of explicitly calling Hamas and other Palestinian rebels terrorists. Davidovich claims “the word has a use in delineating the difference between a non-regular combatant targeting other combatants, as we would describe a militant, and someone who deliberately targets civilians.”

Roya, on the other hand, avoids using the terms terrorist or militant, instead referring to the Palestinian resistance. Sharayri argues that the guerrillas are “defending their homeland” and “resisting the inhumane acts perpetrated by the Israeli Occupation Forces.”

Given all the ways that wire reports clash with local sensibilities, it’s reasonable to ask why local newspapers don’t just cover the stories with their own reporters. Al-Sharif and Davidovich are unanimous on that point: The wire services tend to be fast, trustworthy, well-sourced, and good at explaining context to unfamiliar audiences.

“A lot of times when you’re in the thick of it, you lose sight of the overall picture…and what the rest of the world thinks is going on,” Davidovich says. “Strange as it is to say, [the wire services] might have access to places we might not,” he added. For example, he says Netanyahu “does not like talking to the Israeli press,” but is more talkative with foreign media.

Then there’s the censorship issue. Israeli journalists have to get a military censor’s approval to write about certain national security topics. Jordanian authorities often use gag orders, “cybersecurity” laws, and the threat of defamation lawsuits to reign in the local press. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have arrested and tortured journalists for criticizing them.

Wire services have a simple workaround for censorship. If a journalist in Gaza or Tel Aviv gets a sensitive scoop, their organization will publish it under the name of staff in New York or London.

That isn’t to say that wire journalism is risk-free. Hamas held several wire reporters at gunpoint in 2017, and Israel blew up the Associated Press offices in Gaza in 2021, claiming that Hamas fighters were stationed in the building.

In turn, news published abroad allows the local media to indirectly report on sensitive topics. For example, Israeli newspapers will almost always add the disclaimer “according to foreign reports” when alluding to Israel’s nuclear weapons program. When Jordan carried out secret air raids against drug traffickers in Syria earlier this year, Jordanian media reported it as a claim by the British wire service Reuters.

Wire services and local news both have their problems. Bringing them together may be the best solution—especially in a world where censors and border guards want to squelch the flow of information.

“We use all media sources including Times of Israel, [right-wing Israeli newspaper] Jerusalem Post, and [left-wing Israeli newspaper] Haaretz,” Al-Sharif says. “We look at all and decide how best we can present objective and balanced news.”

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Matthew Petti