You may have noticed that, since the tragedy of 7 October in Israel and its aftermath in Gaza, the Russo-Ukraine War has almost disappeared from the news agenda.[i] It is hardly mentioned on the 24-hour news channels and relegated to the back pages of major newspapers.
In this and other ways, the Israel-Hamas War has showcased the major agenda-setting function that news coverage can play in national and international arenas. It has been particularly apparent with the 24-hour news channels, such as Sky News and Al Jazeera.
Since early studies of media effects, it has been widely accepted that the media often fail to have direct effects on opinions – what people think – but they can have a major impact on what people think about, which has been called an ‘agenda-setting’ function.[ii] This is often portrayed positively, as it means the media matter – they have an effect. But this process can interject a major bias in shaping public opinion.
Since the horrendous 7 October 2023 attacks by Hamas on Israeli soldiers, attendees at a rock concert, farmers, settlers, and other ordinary citizens in Israel, video coverage of the murders and hostage taking in Israel were immediately central to all news channels. However, within a matter of days, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the ensuing humanitarian crisis dominated all news coverage, essentially sidelining the atrocities committed in Israel, as well as I’ve noted above, pushing the continuing struggles in the Russo-Ukraine War to the back pages of the news.
The bombings of Gaza, the body counts, and the ensuing humanitarian crises merited major coverage. Israel’s attacks on Hamas led to sophisticated tanks, artillery, and jets destroying major parts of the city and killing innocent civilians as well as terrorists. Coverage was obviously justified, but how can this be balanced with other newsworthy tragedies.
It seems apparent that the overwhelming, almost continuous coverage of Gaza, throughout the days and nights over weeks, relegated discussion of Israeli losses to side stories – despite the horrendous nature of the Hamas terrorist attacks, captured on the body cams strapped to terrorists, and even though missile attacks on Israel continued. Likewise, it dramatically sidelined coverage of the Russo-Ukraine War, which fed into claims of American and other publics losing interest in the war.
Biases of media coverage are a major issue, always, and has been an issue during the Israel War on Hamas. I realize there have been claims that the media under-reported the events in Gaza, or exaggerated attacks on Israel. But discussion has focused on claims and counter claims, illustrated by the controversy surrounding a prominent BBC reporter, misattributing responsibility for a missile striking (the parking lot of) the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza, killing as many as 500.[iii] Media appear to have too quickly and mistakenly assumed it was an Israeli missile when it appears more likely to have been an errant Hamas rocket.[iv] When learning of this likely misattribution, a BBC pundit dismissed it, saying it is too late now and doesn’t really matter! Other news outlets apologized for being too eager to attribute blame to Israel. This is a classic case of the biases of journalists shaping their reporting. Likewise, Al Jazeera even lapsed into calling the Israel-Hamas War the ‘War on Gaza’ with no mention of Hamas.
It is important that journalists and researchers investigate and hold the media accountable for what might be called conventional media biases. I expect this will be done. However, I have not heard serious details or discussion of the amount of time focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza versus other aspects of the Israel-Hamas War, such as its historical context, versus other seriously important news.
There are many factors that shape news coverage. It need not be conscious bias against Israel. For instance, take the availability of video. The proverbial “if it bleeds, it leads” as violence, death, and vivid live images of destruction attract audiences. Mobile phones add to a constant stream of new visual images of suffering that feed the all-news channels and hold their audiences. This real time record and documentation of events is a critical resource provided by smartphones and the Internet, what I’ve called a Fifth Estate role.[v] Less valuable are the easily arranged interviews done with pundits from around the world who are watching this news coverage, but not necessarily the most informed on the issues at stake. It is inexpensive and fills time, but such interviews are often weak and biased.
But more attention needs to focus on the agenda-setting function of the time allotted to different topics in this round-the-clock coverage. I suspect it is huge and likely to shape public beliefs and opinions about responsibility for these wars in ways that have less to do with the merits of the case than with what people watch on TV and listen to on social media and radio. Round-the-clock news tells us what to think about.
If you think your agenda has been reinforced by the airtime given to the humanitarian issues in Gaza, think about what has been called the ‘issue-attention cycle’.[vi] Where was the media coverage before 7 October? How long will it last before media move to the next new issue? The biases of airtime should concern all sides of all issues.
In short, there needs to be more transparency and accountability in the airtime given to issues. The media have greater responsibilities than attracting audiences or feeding their own prejudices. Any life lost in these conflicts is a tragedy. However, the impact of time spent on coverage is shaping issue agendas and with the potential to directly impact public policies and actions. For those in the audience who lack knowledge of the overall context, the media effects are likely to be even greater. This media effect is simply too great to ignore. But while we used to study the column inches given different political issues, we have largely ignored the hours given to issues covered by 24-7 round-the-clock news.
[i] I would like to thank Robert G. Meadow for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of this blog.
[ii] See, for example: McCombs, M (2005). “A Look at Agenda-Setting: Past, Present and Future”. Journalism Studies. 6 (4): 543–557.
[v] William H. Dutton (2023), The Fifth Estate: The Power Shift of the Digital Age. New York: OUP.
[vi] See a seminal piece on this issue by Anthony Downs: https://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5720/downs_1972.pdf