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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Today's photo bias

I always browse the wire-service photos to see how the mainstream media are covering major stories. As readers of this blog know, this is a good way to uncover bias and worse.

Since the cease fire, I have seen a steady stream of pictures such as this one:

Lebanese youths are silhouetted as they climb on the shaded rubble of a building in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which was destroyed by an attack by Israeli forces during the 34-day Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006. The densely populated residential area was bombed repeatedly by Israeli forces during the recent conflict. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Notice the problems: dramatic silhouettes, small against the seemingly huge amount of rubble; a caption that highlights that Israel bombed a densely-populated residential area without mentioning that Hezbollah's headquarters were deliberately placed in that same densely populated residential area, or the fact that Israel dropped leaflets repeatedly warning residents to get out.

In other words, the only context provided by the caption writer is designed to make Israel look like it deliberately targeted people in a city. And the photographer framed the picture to give the exact same impression.

Here's something more subtle:

Lebanese men, who did not wish to give their names, stop their work to pose for a photograph as they redecorate a third storey apartment in a building in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which was damaged by an attack by Israeli forces during the 34-day Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006. The densely populated residential area was bombed repeatedly by Israeli forces during the recent conflict. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this photo from a news perspective. It shows people rebuilding, which is a fine and interesting topic. Of course, it includes the exact same biased caption that the previous picture did, but the picture itself is not framed to cause bias against Israel.

But there is still a problem. Israel suffered many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage as well, and the residents in the north are rebuilding their homes too. Thousands of houses and buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Where are those pictures?

They simply don't exist. Since the cease fire, we are still treated to daily images of Lebanese suffering, three-week old damage, and even funerals (which is very interesting, since Islamic law requires burial as soon as possible after death.) But the wire services do not find any parallel Israeli pictures to be worth photographing. Undoubtedly Lebanon suffered more damage than Israel, but for some reason the damage that was done as a result of targeting terrorists is considered newsworthy three weeks after the fact but the damage that came as a result of thousands of missiles deliberately targeting civilians is yesterday's news.

News is framed by the medium that captures the news. Wars fought without any video will not get the same coverage on TV as wars that include dramatic footage. Bias is inevitable based on availability of reporters, footage and photos.

But here, it is not that no AP stringer exists in Northern Israel. It is not that no equally dramatic pictures could be taken within the hour. It is simply that the media does not deem Israeli suffering and rebuilding to be newsworthy, today, while Lebanese suffering and rebuilding is worthy of dozens and hundreds of pictures - today.

That is just as much of a bias as purposefully posing pictures for dramatic effect. The goal is not to reflect reality; it is to shape it.