and Monsignors: The Press
and Canadian Policy Towards
the Middle East
B. E. Burton
T. A. Keenleyside
University of Windsor
Canadian Journal of Communications, Volume 16, Number 3/4, 1991
Abstract: Press coverage of the Middle
East by Canadian daily newspapers is analyzed and compared over the last
quarter of 1985 and the period December 1987 to September 1988. The
principal areas explored are press bias vis-à-vis Israel and the
Arabs/Palestinians and the implications of the coverage for Canadian
Résumé: Cette étude analyse et compare
la couverture de presse du Moyen-Orient par les quotidiens canadiens
pendant le dernier trimestre de l'année 1985 et la période décembre
1987 à septembre 1988. Les domaines principaux examinés sont le préjugé
de presse en face d'Israël et des Arabes/Palestiniens et la portée de
la couverture pour la politique étrangère canadienne.
In December 1985, the Canadian press reported
the death by suicide of hundreds of field mice in the Middle East. In an
apparently instinctive reaction to a problem of over-population, the mice
wilfully plunged to their doom off the cliffs of the Golan Heights. This
bizarre story was the subject not only of straight news coverage in the
Canadian press, but also of an editorial in the Globe and Mail on
December 20. On November 1, 1985, the Globe and Mail also ran a
photograph of a visiting Roman Catholic priest from Brazil, saying prayers
on the banks of the Jordan River at the site where Christ is said to have
been baptized. Standing alertly near the priest was an Israeli soldier
with a rifle slung over his shoulder, his eyes carefully scanning
Jordanian territory across the river.
For the analyst of the media and media
image-making, these rather unusual press items raise an interesting
question about news selection and presentation by the editorial
departments of the daily press. Had the mice toppled off Mount Kilimanjaro
would this essentially scientific story about animal behaviour have found
its way so prominently into the Canadian press? Had the priest been
peacefully saying mass on the Mattawa would this religious item have been
deemed worthy of coverage? Or was it the newspapers' sense of the irony of
these events, of their news value as symbols depicting the pervasive
conflict and violence we have come to associate with the Middle East that
led to their selection for publication from the reams of teletype
endlessly flowing into the editorial departments of the Canadian press? It
would seem that even when the subject matter is scientific or religious --
about mice or monsignors -- the press is inclined to remind its readers of
the inherently violent nature of the Middle East, and a fundamentally
negative image is developed or reinforced. It is, Canadians are told in
effect, a region so bleak and hopeless that even its despairing mice are
driven to take their lives.
The purpose of this study is to examine in
an empirical fashion Canadian daily press coverage of the Middle East to
establish, inter alia, what type of image of the region and of its
principal actors (Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states) is, in
fact, presented to the Canadian reader and what impact, if any, the
character of that coverage has had on the shaping of Canadian foreign
Hypotheses and Methodology
A review of the existing, limited literature
on Canadian media coverage of the Middle East together with the more
extensive literature on the Canadian media and international affairs
generally led us to advance five hypotheses to test in our study of press
coverage of the Middle East:
(1) It was anticipated that treatment of
the region would be relatively substantial, given the prominence of Middle
East events in the context of East-West relations and issues of global
peace and security, and that the predominant coverage would be of Israel,
the Palestinians, Egypt and Lebanon because of their central role in
Middle East conflict (Hackett, 1989; Keenleyside, Soderlund, & Burton,
1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985; Sinclair, 1983).
(2) It was expected that there would be
relatively limited coverage of Canadian relations with the Middle East
unless some specific development, most likely within Canada, prompted
attention to the region (Cumming, 1981; Keenleyside, Soderlund, &
Burton, 1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985; Schroeder, 1977).
(3) Conflict rather than cooperation, it
was hypothesized, would be the dominant orientation of the press with
articles focusing on political divisions, disasters, violence and war
rather than on softer news related to such subjects as culture, education
and development (Cuthbert, 1980; Dewitt & Kirton, 1989; Hackett, 1989;
Inyang, 1985; Onu, 1979; Schroeder, 1977; Sinclair, 1983).
(4) On the perennial subject of bias
towards Israel or the Arab states and the Palestinians, it was expected
that, while the press would be critical of the party deemed responsible
for any specific violent acts, it was likely to show reasonable balance
even at such times on the central issue of a resolution of the Palestinian
(5) Finally, many authors have noted the
potential relevance of media coverage to the making of foreign policy,
particularly in terms of setting the policy agenda and shaping public
opinion which, in turn, establishes the broad parameters within which
policy is made.2 We thus
hypothesized that the nature of the Canadian press coverage of the Middle
East would be found to have some policy relevance.
This study analyzes Canadian press coverage
of the Middle East during two contrasting periods. The first is the last
quarter of 1985, a time of hostage-takings, bombings and killings
perpetrated largely by Palestinians and their supporters. The events of
this period included the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille
Lauro, and the murder of an elderly U.S. passenger; the hijacking of
an Egyptian airliner, flying from Athens to Cairo with 60 passengers
perishing when Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft in Malta, bombings
at the El Al check-in counters at the Rome and Vienna airports that left
eighteen dead; and several developments related to hostage-takings in
Lebanon. The latter period is from December 1987 to September 1988 and is
one dominated by the Palestinian uprising (intifadah) in Gaza and the West
Bank. During these months, world attention focused on the harsh measures
employed by Israel to quell the unrest in the occupied territories,
including shootings, beatings, the denial of food and the use of
deportations. Accordingly, this study affords an opportunity to compare
press treatment of the principal protagonists in the Middle East during
periods in which each party stood before the court of world opinion as a
perpetrator of violent acts, making it possible to establish if the
respective events had similar or different effects on the Canadian press's
tilt towards the Israelis and the Arabs/Palestinians. Finally, since it is
during times of crisis, when dramatic, turbulent events offer graphic and
emotive material to present to the public, that the media is most likely
to have the capacity to influence the policy process, these two periods
provide an opportunity to examine the press's possible impact on Canadian
Given the differing lengths of time
involved in our two study periods, the data base for each is rather
different. For the last quarter of 1985, we content-analyzed five major
Canadian daily newspapers: the Chronicle Herald (Halifax), Le
Devoir (Montreal), the Globe and Mail (Toronto), the Sun
(Vancouver) and the Winnipeg Free Press. These papers were chosen
on the basis of their national and regional importance and in order to
reflect both official languages. Beginning with a randomly selected date
within the first three days of October (October 2), we sampled each of
these papers every third day until December 31. Each of these issues was
examined in its entirety for material dealing with the Middle East and all
items identified were coded under several categories of analysis. All
coding was done by the authors, with intercoder reliability calculated at
86%. Further, for purposes of exploring press bias, in order to enlarge
our data base, we examined all editorials on the Middle East in the five
newspapers from October 1 to December 31, 1985.
Since a longer period was deemed necessary
to analyze the character of Middle East press coverage at the time of
emergence of the intifadah and since we were operating under constraints
of time and budget, a different data base was employed for the second
phase of this study. For the period December 1987 to September 1988, the Canadian
News Index, which provides the headlines of stories, was used for the
purpose of counting and coding Middle East items into various categories.3
This source indexes seven English language dailies, four of which were
used in the 1985 collection of data. It is important to note that the Canadian
News Index is selective, based, in the words of the publishers, on the
``significant reference value'' of items. The figures reported below for
frequency of coverage of different countries and subjects thus do not
represent the totals for stories in the seven newspapers and direct
comparisons with the 1985 data are not possible. Nevertheless, the numbers
are a good indicator of the emphasis in coverage and that is what is
important for the purposes of this study.
(1) Frequency and Focus of Middle East
Over the three-month sample period of 1985,
altogether, 542 items appeared on the Middle East in the five newspapers
examined, an average of 3.5 stories per newspaper issue, with the Globe
and Mail at the top end averaging 4.6 items per issue and the
Vancouver Sun at the bottom only 2.3.
While overall for the five newspapers the
coverage could be described as reasonably extensive, measured in terms of
quantity alone, it must be pointed out that 96 or 17.7% of the items
comprised stories that were only three paragraphs or less in length.
Further, on average for the five newspapers, 76.4 per cent of the cases
were inside page, factual news stories while editorials and features, the
principal categories providing the reader with contextual background and
evaluation of developments, accounted together for just 5.4% of the total
number of items.
When the Middle East actors featured in the
Canadian press coverage in 1985 were analyzed, it was discovered that the
press did, in fact, concentrate on the so-called ``core'' of the Middle
East. Israel dominated the coverage with 256 items (47.2% of cases)
dealing wholly or in part with that country. The Palestine Liberation
Organization (coded in 143 stories), other Palestinian actors (141), Egypt
(123), and Lebanon (86) followed as the most significant foci of
attention. The press devoted little space to reporting on developments in
other Middle East countries unless they related to the Palestinian
question or Lebanon.
In the 1987-88 period, the Middle East
continued to be the subject of considerable attention, substantially in
excess of that accorded all other third world regions. Once again, too,
the emphasis was heavily on factual news rather than evaluative pieces and
on the ``core'' of the area. However, during this period, that core was
much more specifically Israel itself. Over the four-month span, December
1987 to March 1988, for instance, the Canadian News Index listed
621 stories related to Israel. On the basis of their headlines, 500 of
these, or 81%, dealt principally with the intifadah and more specifically
Israeli repression in dealing with this problem, making this the
unquestioned focus of Middle East coverage. Other actors trailed far
behind the attention devoted to Israel and this particular aspect of
Israeli affairs over this four-month period. Through the late spring and
summer of 1988, the intensity of the coverage of Israel declined somewhat
and the Canadian press devoted markedly increased attention to the
Iran-Iraq war, then in its concluding stages, and to the Persian Gulf
region generally. By the autumn of 1988, however, the continuing unrest in
Gaza and the West Bank and the Israeli election shifted the press focus
back to Israel again.
In sum, with respect to our first
hypothesis, there was relatively extensive Canadian press coverage of the
Middle East in both periods under analysis, measured simply in terms of
the number of items. However, in both 1985 and 1987-88 the press relied
very heavily on straight news treatment, with little attention being given
to providing the reader with the background and analysis necessary to
understand the complex unfolding of events within the region. Moreover,
coverage was largely confined to the ``core'' of the area, Israel and the
Palestinians in particular, with peripheral actors -- regardless of the
importance of their relations with Canada or the significance of events
occurring within their jurisdictions -- largely excluded from serious
(2) Canada's Relations with the Middle
A striking feature of the press coverage in
1985 was the lack of Middle East stories related to Canada. Only 48 items
or 8.9% of the total made any reference to Canada. Further, many of the
Canadian items had only a tangential connection with this country. Of them
32 pertained to the various violent incidents in or related to the Middle
East, and in most cases simply noted the presence or absence of Canadian
In 1987-88, the Canadian press certainly
devoted much greater attention to Canadian relations with the Middle East
than in 1985. However, in our view, the coverage remained episodic in
nature and did not reflect a new concern to inform readers about a range
of Canadian relations with the countries of the region and Canadian policy
with respect to the central issue of an Arab-Israeli reconciliation.
The press's preoccupation with the Canadian
dimension was principally a product of highly controversial statements by
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Secretary of State for External Affairs
Joe Clark regarding Israel that set off a debate in Canada which the press
reported on with some frequency, especially between December 1987 and May
1988. On December 22, 1987, the Prime Minister remarked that, in his view,
Israel was showing restraint in its handling of the unrest in the occupied
territories. The observation provoked protest in Canada which the press
duly reported. On January 21, Mr. Clark asserted that Israel was
systematically abusing the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and the
West Bank and the following day he met with the ambassadors of the Arab
countries in Ottawa to express his growing concern with Israeli actions.
Again, these initiatives triggered press coverage and there were also
reports in the days that followed on both positive and negative reactions
in Canada to Mr. Clark's apparently tougher position.
The controversy over Canadian policy
culminated on March 11 when, in a speech before the Canada-Israel
Committee, Mr. Clark described the military actions of Israel in Gaza and
the West Bank as ``totally unacceptable and in many cases illegal under
international law.'' His speech created a furore at the meeting and
precipitated a plethora of ``reaction'' stories in the Canadian press in
the weeks and, indeed, months that followed.
Altogether, over the period December 1987
to September 1988, the Canadian News Index listed 100 stories
examining Israel's policies in the occupied territories from a Canadian
perspective (almost all of them related to the two leaders' controversial
statements), compared to 19 stories pertaining to other aspects of
Canada's relations with the Middle East. Thus, the coverage in the two
periods supports the view that only when there are special developments
within Canada do Canadian newspapers, to any significant degree, inform
their readers about aspects of Canada's relations with the Middle East.
(3) Orientation of Middle East Coverage
In the last quarter of 1985, all sample
stories were assessed in terms of whether or not they were conflictual or
non-conflictual in character. Items were coded as conflictual if they
dealt with violent events in the Middle East (e.g., fighting, bombings,
assassinations, hostage-takings, etc.) or with non-violent conflict that
extended beyond what would be perceived by the Canadian reader as normal
societal competition (related to political parties, leadership, etc.) and
was suggestive of political, economic or social turmoil, decay and/or
disintegration. Using this broad definition, 86.7% of items were
classified as conflictual in nature or both conflictual and non-conflictual.
Of these, 340 or 72.3% dealt with violence in or related to the region.
Canadian press coverage from December 1987
to September 1988 was also very heavily conflictual in character. As
indicated, Israel was the dominant focus and the majority of stories dealt
with its actions in the occupied territories. It is clear from the
headlines that almost all of these reported on the use of violent means to
repress the Palestinian uprising. The results for both periods thus bear
out the third hypothesis that press coverage of the Middle East is, not
surprisingly, essentially negative in nature.
(4) The Tilt of Canadian Middle East
On the recurring question of the bias of
Canadian press coverage, Table 1 reports on the perspective of all
editorials on the Middle East in the five newspapers examined from October
1 to December 31, 1985.
|Perspectives of Editorials on Middle
East Issues, 1985
|Favourable to Arab
|Unfavourable to Arab
- There were 45 editorials during the
study period; some covered more than one issue.
The table indicates that while there was
virtually no favourable editorial treatment of either Israel or the Arab
states, unfavourable comment was directed primarily at the Arabs. The
whole series of Palestinian violent incidents, starting with the seizure
of the Achille Lauro in early October and culminating in the Rome
and Vienna airport killings just after Christmas, provoked strongly worded
editorial denunciations of the terrorist actions of certain radical
Palestinians and their supporters, of the alleged role of Yasser Arafat
and the PLO in these incidents, and of the responses of the Egyptian and
other Arab governments to them. By contrast, criticism of Israel was
largely confined to reaction to an Israeli Air Force raid on the PLO
headquarters in Tunis which occurred at the very beginning of the coding
Despite the strong condemnation of some
Arab governments and organizations in the wake of the hostage-takings and
killings, there was generally even-handed treatment of Israel and the
Arabs in discussion of the overall Middle East peace process. All five
newspapers ran editorials that were coded as neutral in their perspectives
on the continuing quest for peace in the region. While there were
differences in their focus and mood, the general tenor suggested that all
of the writers, however strongly they deplored the Palestinian terrorist
acts, recognized that the rights of that community must be reflected in
any peace settlement. The Chronicle-Herald's editorial of December
14 was representative: ``It would seem to be axiomatic that no significant
agreement in the Middle East can be reached without the PLO.''
In contrast with 1985, it was Israel rather
than the Arabs and Palestinians that was subjected to unfavourable
coverage in 1987- 88. The news stories dealing with the intifadah
frequently appeared under negative headlines, of which the following are
only examples: ``Violence scarring face of Israel''; ``Israel bares iron
fist''; ``Brutal Israel sees no alternatives''; and ``Iron fist policy
straining loyalty of Jews to Israel.'' While there were editorials and
features both favourable and unfavourable to Israel, the tendency was
clearly towards the latter, although we did not undertake a precise count
as in 1985. Most opinion pieces centred specifically on Canadian responses
to Israeli policy, but in a manner that reflected a lack of sympathy for
Israel. Thus, in a January editorial, the Sun asserted that as the
death toll mounts and world opinion grows increasingly impatient with
Israel, ``the lack of protest from the Canadian government becomes more
and more inexplicable.'' Mr. Clark's March address to the Canada-Israel
Committee prompted a substantial outpouring of press support with the Chronicle-Herald,
for example, asserting that the minister had ``served up a cold but
correct stew to people who could be relied on to translate his message to
Israeli leaders.'' Just as in 1985 we noted that the negative coverage of
Palestinian violence did not affect the Canadian press's recognition of
the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, so, too, in 1987-88,
we found no evidence to suggest that the harsh criticisms of Israel
diminished the Canadian press's traditional support for the rights of that
country. Indeed, several of the negative opinion pieces included at the
same time reaffirmations of Canada's friendship for and commitment to
Israel, arguing, as Keith Spicer did in the Ottawa Citizen, that it
was important ``to shout our horror'' at Israel's treatment of the
Palestinians ``while insisting on our firm attachment to Israel's
existence and legitimacy.'' Thus, like that of 1985, the coverage of
1987-88 indicates that the Canadian press inclines towards negative
treatment of that side seen as principally responsible for the most
immediate and publicized acts of violence, but that it does so within an
overall balanced view of the rights of both Israel and the Arabs.
(5) Implications for Canadian Foreign
Finally, there are grounds for arguing that
the character of the Canadian press coverage of the Middle East during our
two periods of study had relevance for the making of policy in at least
two respects. First, regarding the agenda-setting role of the media, the
heavy coverage of hostages, hijackings, assassinations and bombings in the
Middle East during the last quarter of 1985 clearly elevated the issue of
terrorism on the agenda for public debate and thereby helped to determine
the degree of attention that the Government paid to the formulation of
policies designed to counteract terrorism domestically and
internationally. Thus, following the 1985 incidents, within Canada, the
government stepped up security measures at airports, while at the external
level it combined with other states within the fora of NATO and the UN to
consider ways of dealing with the spectre of terrorism. Similarly, in
1987-88, the extensive, graphic coverage of the protests in Gaza and the
West Bank and of Israel's reported ``iron fist'' response elevated the
issue of Israeli policy on the Canadian political agenda, just as occurred
during the 1982 war in Lebanon. Both private diplomatic and public
responses to Israeli behaviour were called for as a result of the scope
and character of the coverage it received.
Second, the nature of the media's coverage
of the Middle East arguably had an impact on public opinion and the public
mood, in turn, had some effect on policy. For example, it seems likely
that the late 1985 portrayal of radical Palestinians and their allies as
perpetrators or sponsors of violent actions influenced the public's
perception of these actors in such a way as to facilitate the Canadian
Government's participation in the economic sanctions organized by the U.S.
against Libya in January 1986 as well as its rather oblique support of the
subsequent U.S. naval and air attacks on that country. The responses to a
Gallup Poll conducted across Canada in early November 1985 lend support to
this argument. Of the respondents 73% stated that they had seen or heard
something about the episode involving the Achille Lauro and the
American interception of the Egyptian plane carrying the supposed
hijackers of the ship, a finding which indicates the extent to which
Canadians are exposed to crises in the Middle East by the media. In
addition, 80% of those respondents who expressed awareness of the episode
(compared to 33% of those unaware) agreed with the view that the U.S. was
``justified in acting against terrorism that endangers American citizens''
(Gallup Report, December 16 1985). Doubtless, in deciding to
support U.S. measures against Libya, the Mulroney government was aware of
the impact that media coverage of the Achille Lauro incident and of
other violent acts by radical Palestinian groups over the preceding months
had had upon Canadian public opinion.
Similarly, there seems little question that
the Canadian press's generally negative treatment of Israeli actions in
the occupied territories from December 1987 on affected public attitudes
in Canada toward Israel. As indicated in Table 2, Gallup polls have shown
a progressive decline in Canadian sympathy for the Israelis since the late
1970s, with the number of respondents showing that sentiment reaching a
low of 12% in February 1988.4
Further, a Globe-Environics poll, published on March 30, 1988, indicated
that 53% of Canadians surveyed disapproved of the way Israel was handling
the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, while only 9% approved. The same
poll revealed that those whose sympathies were strongly or somewhat
pro-Arab had increased since October 1987 from 8 to 14% (Globe and Mail,
March 30, 1988, pp. 1-2). While the latter poll results were published
subsequent to both of Mr. Clark's critical public statements regarding
Israeli policy, the government was clearly aware throughout the first
quarter of 1988 of the anguish Israeli actions, as reported in the media,
were causing for Canadians, and this realization presumably lent support
to the minister's determination to rebuke Israel. As David Dewitt has
argued in a recent article, ``the sustained television coverage, news
reporting, and public analysis of the uprising created tremendous
pressures for `adjustment' '' (Dewitt, 1989, p. 22).
|More in Sympathy with
Arabs/Palestinians or Israelis
|Neither, no opinion
- Gallup Reports for February 22, 1988;
November 27, 1982; November 11, 1978; December 22, 1973
Another poll -- this one by Angus Reid
Associates -- disclosed that Joe Clark correctly gauged the public mood in
March 1988, for 56% of those surveyed felt that his criticisms in the
address to the Canada-Israel Committee were fair, compared to 22% who felt
that they were not (Toronto Star, April 2, 1988, pp. A1, 4). Mr.
Clark's address did not, however, signal any change in Canada's position
on the resolution of the Palestinian question. According to David Bercuson,
``the important point of the speech was not that Mr. Clark castigated
Israel, but that in the remainder of it he outlined well-established
``principles of Canadian-Middle East policy,'' including ``support for the
right of Israel to exist within secure and recognized boundaries'' and
respect for ``the human rights of Palestinians,'' including the right to a
``homeland within a clearly defined territory'' (Bercuson, 1989, p. 19).
Thus, not only was the decision to rebuke Israel in keeping with the
public mood in the spring of 1988, as manifested in the media and opinion
polls, but so, too, was the overall content of the speech, which
reflected, as does our analysis of the media, the preference of Canadians
for a balanced policy on the Palestinian question whatever side in the
conflict might be responsible for the latest instances of violence.
Since the period of our press analysis,
there have been signficant new moves in Canadian policy toward Israel and
the Palestinians. Most notably, on March 30, 1989, Joe Clark announced the
removal of restrictions on official contacts with representatives of the
PLO and asserted that Canada supported ``the principle that the
Palestinians have the right to self-determination'' to be ``exercised
through peace negotiations in which the Palestinians play a full part''
(Clark, 1989, p. 2). Further, in mid-1989, Canada began to support UN
resolutions that were openly critical of Israel's response to the
intifadah, whereas previously it had largely opposed or abstained on such
resolutions. These shifts in policy were probably principally a response
to the moderate position adopted by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat toward
Israel in November 1989; the subsequent United States decision in December
to initiate diplomatic contacts with the PLO, leaving Canada in an
isolated position; and Canada's assumption of a seat on the UN Security
Council in 1989, where its voting behaviour was subject to closer scrutiny
by a UN majority sympathetic towards the Palestinians.5
Nevertheless, one cannot discount how the media's continuing coverage of
the Middle East and especially of the intifadah throughout this period
helped to create a climate of opinion that made these policy moves
palatable to Canadians.6
- The traditional view, based essentially
upon non-systematic analysis, was that the Canadian media over the
years showed strong sympathy for Israel while often reflecting a
blatant anti-Arab or Palestinian bias. See Dewitt & Kirton, 1983,
pp. 368, 383, 386, 390; Ismael, 1976, pp. 260, 264-265; Lyon, 1982, p.
4; Cohn, 1979, p. 34; Choquet, 1984, pp. 75-85; Noble, 1983, pp. 3-7;
Sajoo, 1988, pp. 9-11. Content analyses conducted in the 1980s,
however, have shown the media to be relatively even-handed in its
treatment of Middle East actors except when they are responsible for
aggressive, violent acts. See Keenleyside, Soderlund, & Burton,
1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985.
- Perhaps the most widely cited general
treatise on this subject is Cohen, 1963. For a thoughtful Canadian
perspective, see in particular, Stairs, 1976, 1977-78.
- A random check of the content of stories
was undertaken and it established that there was a high level of
congruence between the nature of stories as portrayed by headlines and
their actual substance.
- Prior to the 1988 poll, the question was
worded, ``Do you find yourself more in sympathy with the Arabs or with
the Israelis?'' In 1988, the word ``Palestinians'' was substituted for
- For a more detailed discussion of the
causes of these policy shifts, see Goldberg, 1989, pp. 25-26.
- Goldberg and Taras (1989, p. 221) arrive
at a similar conclusion.
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