The Problem of the Misleading Headline

Yet another way news media promote anti-Israel bias

By Hendrik van der Breggen Published on May 22, 2024

For many in today’s TikTok world, awareness of news is limited to mere headlines. Instead of carefully reading reports, screen-fatigued people tend merely to scroll from one headline to the next. I’m guilty of that. Probably you are, too.

Enter: The problem of the misleading headline.

This is a mistake (or is it?) whereby a news headline doesn’t convey the truth (or full truth) contained in the story. Those who’ve been made stupid by their smartphones are especially susceptible to this issue.

Sadly, misleading headlines can create or reinforce propaganda and distort public opinion about any number of issues. But for our purposes, let’s focus on the anti-Israel protests in major cities and university campuses. (For my assessment of anti-Israel propaganda, such as the idea that Israel is committing genocide, apartheid, and oppression, see my recent Stream article “Untangling Anti-Israel Propaganda for Today’s College Students.”)

Let’s analyze three recent headlines.

Misleading CNN Headline

“Nearly half of the Israeli munitions dropped on Gaza are imprecise ‘dumb bombs,’ US intelligence assessment finds.”

This headline gives the impression that Israel is bombing Gaza indiscriminately (because “dumb bombs” are not guided). Such bombing is a concern because it violates the just war principle of distinction. In war, combatants should distinguish between civilians and enemy soldiers, and aim only to destroy enemy soldiers. Israel claims to be targeting Hamas terrorists, not Gazan civilians, so this headline suggests Israelis are liars — and war criminals.

Heavy bombers attacking ground targets

But if we read only the headline, we would be misled. Deep in the article we read the following:

“A US official told CNN that the US believes that the Israeli military is using the dumb bombs in conjunction with a tactic called ‘dive bombing,’ or dropping a bomb while diving steeply in a fighter jet, which the official said makes the bombs more precise because it gets it closer to its target. The official said the US believes that an unguided munition dropped via dive-bombing is similarly precise to a guided munition.”

Even deeper in the article we read that: “the US also provides Israel with systems that can transform those dumb bombs into ‘smart’ ones….”

Clearly, a headline that’s less biased against Israel would go something like this:

“US assessment: Israel uses precision to strike Gaza — even with ‘dumb bombs.’”

(Acknowledgment: I learned about this CNN example from former Israel spokesperson Eylon Levy in his excellent interview with military reporter and defense analyst Yaakov Katz on Israel: State of a Nation with Eylon Levy.)

Misleading Headlines from Various News Sources

“Palestinian death toll in Gaza climbs to 34,844.”

This is another headline that can shape public opinion against Israel in its war with Hamas, and may even encourage allies to withhold military aid. Even President Joe Biden used the headline’s casualty number in a speech. This headline and slight variations of it have been often presented in recent news reports around the world. See links above and see Google.

That is a large number of casualties, for sure. The impression the headline leaves is that Israel is simply doling out a whole lot of death!

But we should think for a minute. Yes, that’s a lot of ended human lives. And, yes, we should mourn such a terrible loss.

It turns out, however, that the number comes from Gaza’s Ministry of Health — run by Hamas — so it’s dubious at best. Reminder: Hamas is the terrorist group that murdered 1200+ Israelis, injured many more, and took 240 hostages on October 7.

Reminder: Hamas lied about the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, saying it was destroyed by an Israeli bomb that allegedly killed nearly 500 civilians when in fact, the bomb was a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket (Islamic Jihad is a Gazan ally of Hamas) that landed in the hospital’s parking lot, killing, according to US intelligence, about 100 to 300 people.

Surely, numbers provided by known murderers and liars lack credibility.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say the number of almost 35,000 is accurate. (Keep in mind that more recent news tells us Gaza’s Ministry of Health cannot verify about 10,000 of the alleged casualties, which makes it reasonable to suspect the actual number is considerably lower.)

But even if we say 35,000 Gazans have been killed in the war so far, we should realize that this number (and the new, perhaps lower number) fails to indicate that a large portion are Hamas fighters, not just Gazan civilians.

The Israel Defense Forces estimate they have killed 14,000 Hamas fighters (if we take a terrorist’s number seriously we should at least take a democratic state’s number seriously). Now, let’s do the math.

The number of Hamas fighters killed is about 40% of the total casualties in Gaza. This means that for every combatant killed, 1.5 civilians are killed.

Of course, each civilian death is tragic. But the combatant-civilian death ratio shows how careful and precise Israel actually is when compared to other instances of recent urban warfare.

For example, in Mosul, Iraq, US-backed forces killed 4,000 Islamic State terrorists and 10,000 civilians. This means that, for every combatant killed, 2.5 civilians were killed. And, in the fight against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, for every combatant killed, five civilians were killed.

Keep in mind, too, that in Gaza many civilians are killed by misfired rockets launched by Hamas and its Islamic jihadist friends. Since October 7, 2023, Hamas has fired well over 10,000 rockets into Israel. And it’s estimated that between 10% and 20% of those rockets (1,000 to 2,000 rockets) misfired and landed in Gaza. That’s a lot of Hamas’s rockets landing in Gaza — which is populated densely with Gazan civilians.

There’s no doubt, then, that many Gazan civilians are killed by Hamas, not the IDF. Clearly, this reduces the IDF’s combatant-civilian death ratio even more.

Moreover, keep in mind that Hamas — unlike ISIS in Iraq and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan — has had nearly 20 years to embed itself in the Gazan population, where it routinely uses civilians as human shields, and to build hundreds of kilometers of attack tunnels under Gazan homes, hospitals, schools, and mosques. This has made it all the more difficult for the IDF to target Hamas and minimize civilian deaths.

Clearly, in view of these difficult circumstances of war, the above combatant-civilian death ratios demonstrate that Israel has minimized civilian deaths in a way that will no doubt be hailed by Western democracies which value human life as the gold standard in urban warfare.

All this to say: Without further details, the headline “Palestinian death toll in Gaza climbs to 34,844” makes Israel look bad — but misleadingly and unjustly so.

Misleading Headline from Reuters

“Satellite images show 35% of Gaza’s building destroyed, UN says.”

Wow. That is a lot of destroyed buildings! If you scroll on without reading the article (or without reading it carefully), you can’t help but think: Those darn Israelis.

But wait. The article tells a significantly different story.

Consider this (from the article): “In its assessment, the United Nations Satellite Centre, UNOSAT, used high-resolution satellite images … [and] found that 35% of all buildings in the Gaza Strip—88,868 structures—had been damaged or destroyed.”

Put on your thinking caps.

First, notice that to say 35% of all buildings are damaged or destroyed (according to the article’s text) is not the same as saying 35% of all buildings are destroyed (according to the article’s headline). Logic (and common sense) tells us that something can be damaged but not destroyed.

So the headline misleads us by telling us that 35% of the buildings are destroyed, while neglecting to tell us that the 35% includes buildings that were merely damaged. That is an important difference.

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Second, and more significantly, notice that the article goes on to say: “Among these [the 88,868 damaged or destroyed buildings], [UNOSAT] identified 31,198 structures as destroyed, 16,908 as severely damaged, and 40,762 as moderately damaged.”

That means of the 88,868 damaged structures 35% were destroyed, 19% severely damaged, and 46% moderately damaged.

Here’s the rub: The headline makes it seem that 35% of all of Gaza’s buildings were destroyed, when in fact only 35% of the damaged structures were destroyed.

That’s a huge difference in meaning. And terribly misleading.

Don’t be bamboozled by misleading headlines, especially if you are interested in truth about the Israel-Hamas war and wish to avoid anti-Israel bias.

Read more — and read more carefully.


Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor (formerly at Providence University College, Manitoba, Canada) and author of the recent book Untangling Popular Anti-Israel Arguments: Critical Thinking about the Israel-Hamas War. A PDF is available for free at Hendrik’s blog APOLOGIA or the paperback can be purchased at Amazon.

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