'A scandal': Study shows BBC 'bias' in reporting on Palestinian and Israeli deaths

The BBC's reporting on Palestinian and Israel deaths shows clear 'bias', a study has found <i>(Image: PA)</i>
The BBC's reporting on Palestinian and Israel deaths shows clear 'bias', a study has found (Image: PA)

THE BBC’s “bias” in reporting on the Gaza conflict has been highlighted by the results of a study into its news output.

Researchers looked at thousands of online articles and posts from the broadcaster between October 7, the date of the Hamas attacks on Israel, and December 2.

They found a “systematic disparity in how Palestinian and Israeli deaths are treated” by the BBC, with words such as murder, massacre, and slaughter almost exclusively being linked to Israeli deaths.

The study, conducted by data scientists Dana Najjar and Jan Lietava, also found words like mother, grandmother, daughter, granddaughter, father, grandfather, son, and grandson were much more likely to be linked to Israeli people over Palestinian.

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The words "killed" and "died" were more likely to be linked to Palestinian people. The study provided examples of sentences where both of those words were used, and found the BBC was more likely to link the active “killed” to Israeli deaths in that context.

Examples included:

  • "About 700 people have been killed in Israel since Hamas launched its attack on Saturday, with a further 500 having died in Gaza in retaliatory air strikes."

  • "Some 1200 people have been killed in Israel, while more than 1000 have died in retaliatory air strikes on Gaza."

  • "More than 700 people have been killed in Israel since Saturday and over 500 people have died in Gaza."

Researchers said: "This work aims to shed light on bias in BBC reporting on Palestine in a way that is both transparent and reproducible."

The National: BBC News Arabic has launched an emergency radio service for the Gaza Strip in response to the conflict in the region (Ian West/PA)
The National: BBC News Arabic has launched an emergency radio service for the Gaza Strip in response to the conflict in the region (Ian West/PA)

The analysis follows a separate study from openDemocracy which looked at BBC One news broadcasts from October 7 to November 4 and found very similar results.

Reflecting the study into online output, the openDemocracy analysis found that the phrases “murder”, “murderous”, “mass murder”, “brutal murder” and “merciless murder” were used a total of 52 times by journalists to refer to Israeli deaths – but never in relation to Palestinian deaths.

The latest study’s results were first reported by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Mona Chalabi, who created graphics to highlight the data.

Chalabi, who won the prestigious US journalism prize for her illustrated reporting in 2023, wrote: “While Israeli victims are documented as people who were loved, Palestinians are uprooted, even in death. They’re not described as fathers or mothers, daughters or sons – they’re simply dead bodies.

“This summary doesn’t fully capture all the dehumanisation that is often present in the language of journalism. For example, Palestinian deaths are often mentioned in the context of vengeance (‘retaliation’/’retaliatory’/’retaliated’ appear 190 times in this dataset) and, unlike Israeli deaths/hostages, these victims are rarely mentioned by name.”

Najjar and Lietava’s study also found that mentions of Israeli and Palestinian deaths in BBC News coverage did not reflect the true number of deaths on the ground.

As the number of Palestinian deaths has continued to climb since October 7, now reportedly topping 23,000, the broadcaster’s mentions of Israeli and Palestinian deaths has remained more equal.

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Chalabi reported: “[The BBC’s] coverage has consistently shown a disproportionate bias towards Israeli deaths rather than Palestinian ones.”

The study was also highlighted in a video from National contributor Owen Jones. He wrote: “This should be a national scandal.

“A study has revealed an undeniable fact – that BBC coverage treats Palestinian life as having much, much less worth than Israeli life.

“The results speak for themselves, and there is no plausible rebuttal to them.”

Broadcaster India Willoughby added: "How do you explain this different use of language when covering the deaths of Palestinians and Israelis @BBCNews?

"Sympathetic and humanising for Israelis. Cold and emotionless for Palestinians."

Najjar and Lietava said their study had analysed 672 BBC articles and 4404 individual posts from 29 livefeeds. They said this represented more than 90% of the BBC’s online news output on Israel and Palestine from October 7 and December 2, 2023.

You can find the full data sets and methodology for Najjar and Lietava’s study here.

A BBC spokesperson said: “Throughout our reporting on the conflict the BBC has made clear the devastating human cost to civilians living in Gaza and Israel. We will continue to give careful thought in how we do this. We welcome scrutiny and reflect on all feedback.

“The BBC is one of the few news organisations to have journalists inside Gaza, and they have provided on the ground reporting at considerable personal risk, including first-hand testimony and descriptions of what is happening. Our coverage of the conflict across all our platforms – TV and radio as well as online – has included stories of Palestinian victims and testimony from civilians, doctors and aid workers.

“The algorithm does not provide insight into the context of the usage of particular words, either in relation to the attacks of October 7 or the Israeli offensive in Gaza. We do not think coverage can be assessed solely by counting particular words used and do not believe this analysis demonstrates bias.”