week, Melissa Harris-Perry had to apologize for her MSNBC show which included a
comic “year in review” program. In one segment, a photo displayed Governor Mitt
Romney’s grandchildren, including his adopted grandson, who is African-American.
Some of the captions of the photos were nasty.
She admitted that ground
rules were broken and then declared, “We’re generally appreciative of everyone
who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that
our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”
Here in Israel,
not only are critics of the media not appreciated by the media, in most cases
they are ignored, too often becoming objects of ridicule. At best, the response
most often heard by those criticized is usually, “Since we’re criticized both
from the Left and the Right, we must be doing something right.” Of course, the
possibility theoretically exists that they may be doing everything
Nevertheless, it is legitimate to ask if the media really is
biased and/or unethical or is the problem with the perceptions of biased viewers
and listeners? Is bias just a matter of a chronic sloppiness, or is there
something more intrinsic? What can we in Israel learn from media ethics studies
from abroad? Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University point to
a major development, whereby journalism has turned itself into a news manager
and a political power player. Their article in January 2014’s Journalism labels
as “contextual journalism” the new style in reporting.
used to be, at least theoretically, all about facts, it has metamorphosized into
What today’s journalists do is provide meaning and
narrative, while facts are left far behind.
Ala Fink and Schudson, there
are four categories of reporting: (a) straightforward conventional reporting;
(b) contextual reporting, which includes a considerable analysis component; (c)
watchdog reporting, usually involving government or big business; and (d) social
empathy reporting, usually dealing with the lives of people with whom the
readers are unfamiliar.
Their findings are that the frequency of classic
“straight” news items has fallen, and contextual journalism has increased to
nearly half of all articles they reviewed. They quote Stephen Hess, who called
this type of writing “social science journalism,” which has “a clear intention
of focusing on causes, not on events as such.”
An obvious problematic
outgrowth of these tendencies is that the professional value of “objectivity” is
becoming virtually non-existent. Objectivity, which means “truth-seeking,
neutrality, ethics and credibility,” as Noel Sheppard, associate editor of
NewsBusters, writes, becomes a very different thing “when the journalist’s job
moves from describing events to creating interpretations.”
potent element discovered by polls and academic studies, consistently over a
long period of time, is liberal bias in the media. A 2005 UCLA study, led by Tim
Groseclose, termed it a “systematic tendency...
[of] media outlets to
slant the news to the Left.”
This is reflected in negative vs. positive
content coverage, as well as the framing of developments.
itself in two major ways: structural (bias in individual stories that favors one
side in a conflict) and partisan (aggregate news coverage that systematically
favors the liberal or conservative side in a political conflict).
there perceived bias? One explanation offered by a 1999 study by Watts et al.
attributes it to “media self-coverage and elite cue-taking.” Citizens might
perceive the media as liberally biased because conservative political elites
often focus their media relationship on these allegations.
example is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s famous (or infamous) May 1999
remark about the media: “They are afraid, a-f-r-a-i-d.” That speech provided his
critics within the media milieu with much ammunition.
On December 28,
2012, Anat Balint, writing in Haaretz, recalled his words and asserted that
“Netanyahu is one of the most hostile prime ministers to a free press that
Israel has ever known... [his is] a silent yet consistent policy that can only
be understood as intended to strip Israel’s media outlets of any significant
power to stand up to the government and its current elected leader.”
time we turned a page, scrolled a screen or turned on the television or radio,
it was our distinct impression that all is well with our media’s
The power it has in dictating the agenda and framing stories has
not diminished appreciatively, if at all.
Some would think it has only
increased. In contrast to Balint, we believe that the real problem with our
media is its bias, not its freedom.
Social empathy reporting is big in
Israel. Consider the continuing campaign on behalf of persons, mainly from
Africa, who entered Israel illegally. The reporters sent to cover the stories
are usually, if not exclusively, those whose beat is termed “social welfare.”
Their language and concepts pass on a highly politicized point of view. One may
only wonder what the response of the “human rights” groups in Israel would be
if, instead of using such terms as “refugees,” “asylum- seekers,” or even “work
migrants,” the migrants were to be referred to as “illegal settlers attempting
to occupy another people’s territory.”
The very use of concepts such as
“rights” is a matter of context rather than truth and reflects media bias, for
do not Israelis suffering from the presence of these migrants also have rights?
It would not be too difficult to guess that if legal affairs reporters or
security or police correspondents were sent to cover the events, the reporting
would at least sound different. The editors are here at fault perhaps even more
than the journalists, limiting the coverage to one area of what is news but
ignoring its other aspects. Since the editors adopt the line of interpretation
that this story is already an internal one rather than an external threat, that
these infiltrators are somehow already “Israeli,” half the struggle of those
groups promoting this issue has already been won.
An example of
contextual bias in Israel was when a certain newspaper persisted in interviewing
for background and commentary only those legal experts whose opinion was that
Avigdor Liberman would be found guilty. They were quite surprised to find out
how wrong they were when Liberman was declared innocent.
In the same
context, consider some of our media’s reaction to Liberman’s suggestion that
while no Arab need be removed from his home, Israel’s border could be redrawn so
that Umm el-Fahm residents would be in the new State of Palestine. We’ll ignore
some of the more extreme responses suggesting that he is preparing the ground
for a “new Nakba,” but if the context is a citizenship issue, is any reporter
dealing with the fact that in 1949, none of the Arabs in Israel were asked if
they wished to be Israeli or not, and that perhaps this is also part of the
current issue? Media surrounds us. It is in our homes and cars. More often than
not, the television is on in our homes for hours. Many news websites are free.
The media, more often than not, is providing us with context, sometimes at the
expense of facts. This makes it all the more difficult for the public to decide
what is important and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, what is
acceptable social behavior and what is not. The result is a muddled society,
whose trust in the media is low.
Media context harms the media itself but
also our democratic society, which desperately needs a context- free media to
The writers are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of
Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).