Open one social media platform and you’re hit with a fake video; open another and you’re hit with bigotry. Open a news article, and you’ll find some victims “killed” but others “dying.” Each account of events in Israel and Palestine seems to rely on different facts. What’s clear is that misinformation, hate speech, and factual distortions are running rampant.
How do we vet what we see in such a landscape? I spoke to experts across the field of media, politics, tech, and communications about information networks around Israel’s war in Gaza. This interview, with journalist and news analyst Dina Ibrahim, is the second in a five-part series that also includes computer scientist Megan Squire, media researcher Tamara Kharroub, communications and policy scholar Ayse Lokmanoglu, and open-source intelligence pioneer Eliot Higgins.
Dina Ibrahim, a professor and scholar of journalism, spent 12 years reporting and producing across Egypt, United Arab Emirates, the UK, and the US, landing in 2003 at San Francisco State University’s Department of Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts. Beyond video and audio broadcasting generally, her research focuses on portrayals of the Middle East in American journalism, including media framing of Islam following the 9/11 attacks.
Ibrahim cautions all readers to “look at the funding model” of a media source. “A huge challenge that journalism faces,” she says, “is the corporate nature of most organizations.”
We spoke about the pros and cons of various news platforms, and the legacy of US coverage of the Middle East.
What is the significance of journalism right now for Israel and Palestine with respect to information and misinformation?
The significance of journalism has always been to maintain an informed public. The job of journalists right now is to present factual information as clearly as they can, to seek diverse sources, have rigorous verification procedures, and to make sure that they are doing their job in a just, equitable, and fair manner. This is an incredibly difficult endeavor. It almost philosophically clashes with our human nature and our inherent tendency to carry biases.
One way that journalism can stick to its standard of informing the public is to be careful with the use of adjectives—to really examine the words that are being used, how they’re being used, who you talk to, and how you filter facts to tell a story.
Part of the misinformation issue is that the facts and the stories will be crafted to appeal to the greatest audience. Everyone in journalism wants their storytelling to have an impact. If you want your work to reach the widest number of people, you’ll need to add spice to the story or rely on controversy. We need to shut [down] that need to be shocking. In the desire for impact, we can lose our sense of rational presentation of a fact.
Journalism is meant to counter misinformation. It is meant philosophically to be the best version of the truth that it can be. It is meant to be a tool to inform the public for a better society. And it should be as free and independent as possible, from corporate and government influences.
What is the lay of the land? How is the media handling the current conflict?
Are you referring to journalism in the United States? Or in Arab countries or Israeli publications? We should be paying attention to all of them. Each presents a different narrative and a different perspective. The only way to remain fully informed is to really take the time to understand all perspectives and use that to come to your own independent conclusion.
Let’s focus on US news outlets.
We have corporate journalism, journalism for profit. [They’re] going to try to maximize impact in a way that ultimately serves corporate interests. At the end of the day, they want to be able to attract higher readership—clicks. The goal is to have the largest audience possible so that you can sell those numbers to advertisers.
Then there’s public journalism, which is generally either funded by the government entirely, or a combination of government and donations, like PBS and NPR. Those sources also must be taken with extreme caution. The model has changed over the years, and you’re seeing a lot more corporate donations. Even the BBC, in the UK, has been infiltrated by advertising [from] corporate interests.
True and independent journalism is very rare, actually. Perhaps the type of reporting that is subscriber-based, genuinely funded by its own audience, is truly independent. We’re seeing really interesting models of hyper-local news organizations that are keeping communities—like smaller communities and neighborhoods—informed, and everyone is chipping in.
I would also argue that journalism, much like law and medicine, should governed by ethics that we all agree on. We do have the Society for Professional Journalists and other organizations that put the rules of ethics in place. But there’s no board [or] governing body that’s going to take away a license from a journalist for doing a horrible job [like] lying or presenting misinformation deliberately. There are no consequences.
You’ve researched news coverage of the Middle East. Could you talk about that research and how it applies today?
It’s about the geopolitics of the region. It’s difficult to remove journalism from some type of interest. It’s a challenge for the public to be able to seek out and receive and receive unfiltered facts.
Let’s take the example of 9/11. This was a catastrophic event. When I analyzed national news, as defined by ABC, CBS and NBC Evening News, at the time—which, by the way, is a very shitty medium to get your news—I concluded that whatever the State Department and the White House said was being echoed by the networks.
The whole framing of “you’re with us or you’re against us” was implemented in visuals and in words. American foreign policy dictates that Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are friends and allies. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And we had journalism that supported going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, years later, where has that gotten us? It was a knee-jerk reaction. The country was hurting. The reaction was We must go to war. If you were to speak out and say, “I don’t think this is a good idea. There are better ways that we can handle terrorism and attacks against our country and community than going to war,” you were branded immediately as unpatriotic, as against us, as with the terrorists, [that] you must support 9/11.
The moral implication is that if you speak your mind, you are branded as evil. It’s good vs. evil, [like] the classic Hollywood narrative.
How does media framing intersect with bias and bigotry?
Conflict with Muslims and Islam is often portrayed in this frame of good vs. evil. Any person can analyze news and come to that conclusion. That’s where Islamophobia [comes from]. A small segment of Muslims globally are radical, and they are fucking insane psychopaths. But the rest of the population suffers from being branded in the same way.
When we look at school shootings or white supremacy movements in the United States that have perpetuated anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attacks, are we in a situation to blame the entire segment of white people, or northern European people? Are we going to blow up the hometown of every school shooter? It’s very disturbing when the acts of radical segments negatively impact the entire segment. That is not justice.
What we’re seeing is reactivity. The news is reacting to horrific acts of violence and highlighting them, as opposed to providing context—which, frankly, is boring. Nobody wants a history lesson. Journalism in general should be doing a better job of providing context. It’s much easier to react to horrifying images and death counts. I would love to see more solution-oriented reporting that provides alternatives to war and perpetuating hate.
A newer part of the equation is social media. What are your thoughts on that?
My opinion is that social media is pure crap and an institutional waste of time.
In the beginning, I was excited about its potential for journalism. This idea of having unfiltered information coming directly from citizens their own voices—I remember when social media was a tool for mobilizing.
But in terms of getting information, it’s become so much worse. It is governed by algorithms that give you your own feed, customized to the sources that you want to hear. The whole thing is just an echo chamber.
If social media is being used to directly go to sources, without things being filtered, that makes sense. In general, it’s only going to perpetuate our own points of view. And that’s not even getting into the deep fakes. With the limited time we have, I do think that we should be very discerning on how we choose to get our information. Social media is engineered for ease of perpetuating misinformation.
Do you have any final thoughts? Is there anything else you think needs to be said?
It should be shared that there’s a lot of self-censorship. It needs to be said that in the current, very volatile situation, people—including myself—are very cautious about what they say, because emotions are so inflamed right now. Almost anything you say is going to hurt someone’s feelings.
As a Muslim who has Jewish family members, it’s a very difficult situation. I am opposed to violence. I’m opposed to war. I want it to stop.
A lot of people are feeling that whatever we say publicly [may] ultimately end up hurting our families. People are facing consequences, very serious ones, for taking a side or stating an opinion that may not be popular, or may be perceived as morally outrageous. People are afraid of being misunderstood, or being persecuted or vilified for their views.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.