Media Comment: God in the newsroom
There still remain too many impediments for an ethical and fair representation of religious issues in the media.
Man reads newspapers in Jerusalem. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post
One of the most contentious issues in Israel’s public arena, perhaps one of the
most divisive as well, is the role religion plays in the country’s political,
social, cultural and economic life. The methods the media acts as an agent for
news about people who are religiously observant, who are adamantly secular or
who find personal comfort in a relaxed middle-of-the-way reality are
The most important positive development in this sphere has been
the increasing presence of religiously observant journalists in the mainstream
media outlets with the parallel increase of the willingness of central media
icons to acknowledge the value of religious social, economic and political
On the downside, there still remain too many impediments
for an ethical and fair representation of religious issues. A major stumbling
block is that secularists view religious people not only as a simple “other” but
as a personal and collective threat to their way of life. In stark contrast,
starving or “below-the-poverty-line” children, Holocaust survivors’ economic
plight or health-related themes are dealt with factually since they usually
don’t personally affect the media personnel.
It is true that former icons
of secularism including performers, singers and just plain sons and daughters of
famous secularists, for example Didi Manusi’s son or Channel 2’s Noa
Yaron-Dayan, who have become “returnees” to Judaism are relatively tolerated and
even admired. However, this is not true regarding religion itself. Nor in regard
to religious parties or religious deferments from military service. Breslav is
the preferred hassidic sect, not Chabad. And Shas is the media-advantaged
religious party, not United Torah Judaism.
A recently published academic
book takes on the task of investigating, researching and discussing this topic.
Dr. Yoel Cohen, a faculty member and former chair of the Communications
Department at Ariel University Center and previously of the Lipschitz and
Netanya Academic Colleges, comes well prepared to dissect this crucial media
issue. He has previously published Media Diplomacy – The Foreign Office in the
Mass Communications Age as well as Whistle-blowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel
and Nuclear Secrecy. His new book, Routledge’s God, Jews and the Media: Religion
and Israel’s Media, deals with many of the topics that cause trepidation and
anxiety in the media world.
The book deals with some heavy questions: Is
there a different set of media values for religious issues? How much ideology
and personal prejudice is permitted in the news room and editorial offices? Does
covering religious news demand expertise in the subject matter? The deep
ignorance displayed by major news purveyors is exemplified by something noticed
by Gonen Ginat, currently at Israel HaYom and formerly the editor of HaTzofe and
a Ma’ariv news editor. In a lecture on the media’s difficulty in dealing with
religious news, he retells the story of how one year Yediot Aharonot, on the eve
of the first day of Succot, ran a large picture of Bnei Brak residents walking
through the streets carrying their lulavs and etrogs. It just so happened that
that year the first day of Succot was on Shabbat, when the waving of the lulav
is prohibited. Evidently, the photo editor had used a picture from the previous
year to illustrate the story without paying any attention. Close, but no cigar,
one could say.
Cohen does not shy away from themes of kosher advertising,
the marketing of the rabbi and the news-based dependency between Israel and the
Diaspora. He describes the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) struggles with the Internet
and modern digital technologies. The separation of the ultra-Orthodox community
from wider society is also reflected in its own media. Notably, the media
presence of women is at best constrained, or more likely not there at
In this column, we have highlighted the special instance of a
state-sponsored radio station, Kol B’Rama, which, for example, did broadcast
cooking recipes, but denied women the right to be interviewed even on the
subjects for which they were the news.
In haredi newspapers and
magazines, women can be Photoshopped out of pictures, such as happened to
Hillary Clinton. Female editorial staff will only have the first letter of their
Cohen, an observant Jew, notes that communication is a
central aspect of Judaism. God talking, announcing, instructing whether in his
own voice or through prophets (the ancient form of the broadcaster, perhaps)
runs throughout the Bible.
The prohibition of libel or, more properly,
scandal-mongering, literally “evil speech,” is well treated in rabbinic
literature. Theoretically, there exists an ethics code for Jewish media, but has
the religious leadership succeeded in adapting those paradigms to modern needs?
Even more pertinent, and even disappointing, are the less-than-ethical media
wars within the religious camps, from the pashkevilim, or wall posters, to
pamphlets and newspapers.
ONE THEME which we found to be lacking in his
treatise is reference to religious media review organizations that provide an
address for complaints or review of media ethical failures. For example, the
Manof group was formed and acted successfully for quite some years in its
campaigns to decry the blatant and often cruel discrimination against the haredi
population. Unfortunately, it is no longer active.
The Tadmit Center for
Strengthening Democracy in the Israeli Media also is a significant
religiously-oriented critic, whose work is well worth analyzing. The Arutz 7
news organization is a very successful religious media-oriented group which has
played a significant role in establishing the media’s attitude toward the
Senior members of Israel’s Media Watch have
broadcasted a weekly media critique program for over six years at the
The University of Colorado’s Center for Media, Religion and
Culture notes that “Religion is a dominant force in the 21st century. It is no
longer only a private matter, or only about institutions and doctrines. It is
changing in ways that have implications for politics, the economy, and for
social and cultural life, nationally and globally. Understanding of
religion among various ‘publics’ has lagged behind.”
Just over a decade
ago a volume of essays by such influential thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc
Nancy, Talal Asad and James Siegel addressed the complex relationship between
religion and media. It included case studies on Indonesia, India, Japan, South
Africa, Venezuela, Iran, Poland, Turkey, Germany, and Australia, but not Israel.
Cohen’s book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the subject in
our own country.
The authors are respectively vice-chairman and chairman
of Israel’s media Watch (www.imw.org.il).