Free media in a democratic society allows people to evaluate and challenge, to scrutinize honestly and debate accurately. But what happens when mainstream media unknowingly fails the public? Marda Dunsky argues that, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a decade-old conflict at the center of U.S. interests in the Middle East, the American mainstream media has failed the public and even perpetuated violence.

In Pens and Swords, Dunsky analyzes more than two dozen major news and print outlets to reveal a clear pattern in how American mainstream media reports the conflict. Beginning with the failed Camp David summit of 2000 to the second Palestinian uprising of 2004, she finds that the mainstream media continuously rids the conflict of historical or political context, giving the impression of an unstoppable, unexplainable, and senseless spiral.

While repeatedly producing dramatic yet superficial glimpses of reality, the media has omitted two key aspects of the conflict:

  1. 1. How American policy, diplomatic support, and economic and military aid to Israel influences the trajectory of the conflict.
  2. 2. The manner in which international law and consensus have addressed the issues of Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements and annexation policies.

Questions at the root of the conflict are left unasked, unanswered, and essentially dismissed from public and policy discourse. Pens and Swords illustrates how reports of the conflict rarely, if ever, challenge American policy. The result is a polarized and dulled American public opinion with limited potential to constructively affect U.S. Mideast policy.

Dunsky boldly challenges journalists to do better and offers a new approach for reporting the conflict, which includes the following components:

  1. 1. Reframe the frame of the conflict by addressing and evaluating the role U.S. policy.
  2. 2. Broaden the parameters of media discourse through a wide range of sources, dedicating time to test the legitimacy of historical claims and interpretations, and serve the public’s right to understand issues more broadly.
  3. 3. Reconsider audience reaction. Journalists must rely on their own sense of ethos and ethics instead of potential audience response.
  4. 4. Rethink journalistic “objectivity” to pursue a deeper understanding of the truth.

Behind the artfully crafted stories and vivid imagery remains one difficult, but vital question: Why is this so? To investigate this would be to fulfill the promise of journalism, to provide truth and clarity, in a conflict rendered hopeless far too long.

For Scholars

Dunsky’s analysis includes approximately 350 media reports and transcripts from nearly 30 major American print and broadcast outlets supplemented with reports from the Israeli press. The book features a chapter of interviews with 15 journalists who reported from Jerusalem for major American news organizations. The final chapter explores how journalists can change their approach to covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and international reporting as a whole.

The amount and diversity of coverage analyzed by Dunsky revealed telling patterns of reporting. The book offers rare qualitative analysis of mainstream news coverage during a four-year period of intense violence and diplomatic involvement. Pens and Swords adds important insight into how media’s reporting affects the public’s and policymaker’s understanding of the ongoing conflict at the heart of U.S. Middle East relations.

Primary Research Applications

Mass Communication and Media Studies
Peace and Conflict Studies
International Politics of the Middle East
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Further Reading in the Oman Library (among other texts):

Palestine in the Egyptian Press: From Al-Ahram to Al-Ahali by Ghada Hashem Talhami, 2007
The Making of Arab News by Noha Mellor, 2005
Journalism Under Occupation Israel’s Regulation of the Palestinian Press by Committee to Protect Journalists; Article 19, 1988
Al Jazeera English: Global News in a Changing World by Philip M. Seib, 2012