In the 1980s, psychologists at Stanford University studying student reaction to television stories on the 1983 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon discovered a curious phenomenon.
The killings were done by a Maronite Christian militia allied with Israel, which was then occupying the country. The six TV stories noted that there was some question as to how much Israeli troops empowered or allowed the slaughter.
At Stanford, the researchers found that among the 144 students they questioned, members of pro-Israeli student groups roundly condemned the stories for being pro-Palestinian. Students in pro-Arab groups were equally convinced that the stories were pro-Israeli. Both sides appeared to be genuine in their feelings, as they remembered words and images that they believed buttressed their opponent's case, while forgetting words and images favorable to their own.
A control group of neutral students, meanwhile, didn't see the fuss. They came away from watching the news videos feeling that the stories didn't favor either side. (A subsequent Israeli investigation concluded that local Israeli troops did indeed know of the massacre taking place and stood by, and it faulted senior military officials for not taking steps to prevent the killings.)
This so-called "hostile media phenomenon" among partisans has since been confirmed many times by other researchers looking at news coverage of other highly charged issues, such as political debates or even articles on Macs versus PCs. After seeing, reading or hearing news stories on polarizing issues in which we have strong opinions, we tend to remember the reported arguments and facts that seem to favor the other side more than those favoring our own. We — all of us, me included — thus honestly believe that the news outlet is biased against our viewpoint.
Sometimes, of course, it is. But I am reminded of this research as I read the many complaints about a Feb. 20 report on All Things Considered by correspondent Larry Abramson on Emad Burnat, the Palestinian director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras. (He lost.) The film chronicles life in the Palestinian village of Bil'in near an Israeli settlement on the West Bank. The story chronicles the danger in filming.
Abramson explained that Burnat became "a target for attacks from settlers and soldiers" while he was making the documentary. The reporter noted that a close friend of Burnat's was killed during the filming, and that an amateur documentarian in the village was hit by gunfire — we don't know from whom — and then imprisoned by the Israelis for 11 months.
Filmmaking on the West Bank, in other words, can be perilous. Abramson ends his nearly six-minute piece by saying:
ABRAMSON: It's a complaint that Emad Burnat's wife also makes during "5 Broken Cameras" as she questions the price her family must pay for his project. In this lasting conflict, cameras are an important witness to suffering, but they also may be the cause of some of it.
I often get complaints from highly organized, strongly pro-Israel supporters about Palestinian-related stories, but this time the complaints came from apparent sympathizers to the Palestinian side. Micah Uetricht from Chicago, Ill., wrote:
I couldn't believe you ended your story on the new documentary "Five Broken Cameras" by saying that documenting Israeli settlers' incursions into Bil'in could be partially causing the violence faced by Burnat and his family. This is victim-blaming, pure and simple. Someone documenting the abuse he or she faces is not responsible in any way for that abuse—those carrying out the abuse are.
Thomas Antenucci from Abingdon, Va., wrote:
Do we hear the Syrians blamed for photographing the brutality of the Assad regime? Only with Israel does NPR blame the victims for daring to witness their oppression as the settlements steadily expand and grab more land. The filmmaker is shot, beaten and imprisoned. His mother wails in fear. And Larry Abramson says his camera "caused" this suffering?
I understand the concern behind the complaints, but was Abramson really "blaming the victims"? Remember, his last line was: "In this lasting conflict, cameras are an important witness to suffering, but they also may be the cause of some of it."
I asked Abramson what he thought he was saying.
My wording was not intended to question these people's right to take pictures or record video. I was reflecting on the fact that, in some cases, the act of filming can get people into trouble. In the case of the young man I included, his mother was upset that his commitment to video journalism may have led into a perilous situation, and he eventually spent nearly a year in prison, was injured, and now has a police record. I have also seen many videos illustrating that the mere presence of a camera can help provoke a violent confrontation, because people are so afraid of being photographed in such a context. I myself have been verbally abused and even detained by police for taking pictures I thought to be quite innocent. In the Middle East, the act of taking photos is often viewed is invasive and even provocative, either for cultural reasons, or because people fear the picture taker may be working for the "other side." In that context, I observed that "cameras are an important witness to suffering, but they also may be the cause of some of it."
Almost every photographer or videographer I have worked with in conflict zones will tell you the same thing. My own experience with a camera has been similar. What I hear in the story is Abramson's sympathy for Burnat, and not a blaming of Burnat or his subjects.
What I also hear in the story is that Abramson bent over backwards to be fair towards the settlers. "'5 Broken Cameras' is unabashedly pro-Palestinian, an indictment of Israel's settlement policy that never examines the settlers' claims or the security force's point of view," Abramson says on-air. "Settlers groups often complain they are the victims of misinformation from both Israeli and foreign left-wing groups which have trained a battalion of Palestinians in how to document alleged abuse. After years of bad press, settlers are getting organized."
But you may hear something different from what I hear and are invited to disagree.
The film, by the way, was also the subject of an earlier interview with Burnat and his co-director Guy Davidi (an Israeli) on Talk of the Nation.
Intern Kiran Alvi contributed to this post.